More evidence that near death experiences are related to brain activity, not the supernatural

It’s long been suspected that what we describe as near death experiences (NDEs) may be related to processes in the brain that create a flurry of activity to produce the strange sensations. Those that survive the beginning of the shutdown process may tell about it as a religious or spiritual experience. Well, it’s certainly strange. New research supports the idea that it may be physiological, not supernatural.

Near-Death Experiences May Be Explained By Heart-Brain Connection.

The many experiences described by survivors of cardiac arrest — people revived even after their hearts stopped beating, sometimes for many minutes — include moving through a tunnel toward a white light, greeting relatives no longer alive, and overhearing conversations between family members in another room. A new study from the University of Michigan Medical School shows how the brain sends signals to the heart in the moments before death. It is this flurry of mental activity that is key to cardiac demise, the researchers say, and quite probably the foundation of near-death experiences as well.

Including prior research, Dr. Jimo Borjigin explains that the reduction of oxygen during cardiac arrest can stimulate brain activity that may be interpreted as what we call an NDE.

The paper is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week: Asphyxia-activated corticocardiac signaling accelerates onset of cardiac arrest.

The mechanism by which the healthy heart and brain die rapidly in the absence of oxygen is not well understood. We performed continuous electrocardiography and electroencephalography in rats undergoing experimental asphyxia and analyzed cortical release of core neurotransmitters, changes in brain and heart electrical activity, and brain-heart connectivity. Asphyxia stimulates a robust and sustained increase of functional and effective cortical connectivity, an immediate increase in cortical release of a large set of neurotransmitters, and a delayed activation of corticocardiac functional and effective connectivity that persists until the onset of ventricular fibrillation. Blocking the brain’s autonomic outflow significantly delayed terminal ventricular fibrillation and lengthened the duration of detectable cortical activities despite the continued absence of oxygen. These results demonstrate that asphyxia activates a brainstorm, which accelerates premature death of the heart and the brain.

The study was done in mice where they measured brain activity that turned out to be very active during the early stages of death. Scientists suspect that the same thing might happen in humans. The activity can create perceptions of a heightened state of consciousness. But, such a study on humans would be near impossible to do. It may be possible however to use this knowledge of the heart-brain connection in reverse and develop drugs that prevent full cardiac arrest.

  15 comments for “More evidence that near death experiences are related to brain activity, not the supernatural

  1. Chakool
    April 10, 2015 at 3:00 PM

    What I’ve believed for the past 25 years! It’s nice when science demystifies old beliefs and superstition and gives us a new and more rational perspective. Science is the future!

  2. Lukas
    April 11, 2015 at 6:51 AM

    There was already done a similar research on humans by Dr. Chawla who was observing dying patients. Cannot find the original paper but here is a small article about it:

    “A new study on the effects of death on the brain has provided further evidence only physical explanations are at work here. Dr. Lakhmir Chawla monitored the brain activity of terminally-ill patients and found that shortly before death, the brain had a huge cascade of activity, lasting from 30 seconds to almost 3 minutes.

    Dr. Chawla believes this may account for the vivid experiences people often describe during NDE’s, but the problem with this study is since all the patients died, it wasn’t possible to actually interview them. Still, since the activity in the brain is so similar to that of vivid dreaming, why do we continually refuse to abandon the unsupported belief something supernatural was happening.”


  3. Bonnie
    April 11, 2015 at 11:37 AM

    Many years ago I came very close to dying. I hadn’t heard of NDE at that time, but when I did, I realized what had happened. Except that I didn’t see a light or feel good. Instead, I was totally, absolutely alone. It was terrifying. For years I thought I had experienced hell. It was a relief to find out it’s just what the brain does, rather like vivid dreams.

    And oddly enough, now that I’m older, I really like being alone! 🙂

  4. Hunter Rose
    April 12, 2015 at 2:28 PM

    Good study.
    The only problem I have with it is that it only covers a very brief period of time during the onset of death. It really seems to be reaching for an explanation and, given the reports of NDEs, falls just short.

    I’m perfectly willing to believe that we go out like a light when we die. Oblivion. What’s to be afraid of if you’re not even aware of what happened to you? BUT, verified accounts of OBEs and stunningly accurate past life recollection in children defy this attempt at explanation. Mostly, it is the duration of many of the OBEs LONG after the small ‘pre-death’ window that this study was based on. Beyond that, the fact that many little children ‘remember’ stunningly accurate details of being someone else ‘before they were born’ suggests that the brain is not the sole repository of information. It would seem that all life is part of an ‘information matrix’ that is somehow built into the universe.
    These are not fly by night, unverified accounts either. In the case of the children, Dr. Ian Stevenson was highly regarded as an impeccable researcher. Even his most ardent skeptics, when faced with the data he collected, had to admit that fraud was unlikely.

    From a skeptic I know personally:

    Fascinating stuff, really. Afterlife? Reincarnation? Having seen and done some very interesting things myself, including bi-location and mutual and confirmed ‘shared dreaming’, I am in no position to discount them. The fact is: ‘We don’t know’.

  5. Adriana
    April 12, 2015 at 3:02 PM

    Great post, very interesting study. One little correction: the study is in rats, not mice. Not the same beastie.

  6. Roberta
    April 12, 2015 at 3:05 PM

    About time, this is finally recognized. Religious/superstitious people never asked themselves in their whole life what the origins of the brain are, and they never quite understood that it will never be capable by natural means to “live” forever outside its connectome, and what purpose would actually have floating in space with your mind alone until the end of time, for the ones who believe in “life” after death…

  7. RandyRandy
    April 12, 2015 at 9:06 PM

    Perhaps this surge of end-of-life brain activity is merely the pineal gland de-calcifying from a lifetime of toxic fluoride ingestion. Perhaps the brain is shaking off evil Thetans and finally going Clear. Perhaps it’s stored DMT being released into the brain for that final trip (a la 2001: A Space Odyssey). Perhaps it’s our final ascension to our heavenly reward. Perhaps none of the above.
    With endless imagination and a propensity to fabricate fantasy, people can interpret this final brain flurry as anything they wish. Especially if such claims sell NDE books or fill up churches with believers.
    But science consistently shows no evidence for an afterlife or soul living on, other than unreliable anecdotes, hallucinations and wishful thinking. And no logical purpose is indicated for the continued survival of the mind after physical death.
    I tend to think this brain flurry occurs at the end of our lives to alter, anesthetize or purge the brain in preparation for full shutdown of bodily functions. Maybe it’s nature’s way of shielding us from the harsh physical/emotional/mental trauma of death.
    To wit:
    “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
    (Woody Allen)

  8. rob
    April 13, 2015 at 5:23 AM

    I think that both low levels of oxygen and sugar in the brain would be a more likely cause of NDE’s. The only way we have sensation and perception is through the firing of neurons…so I would imagine that anything that interferes with this process is the culprit

  9. George
    April 14, 2015 at 1:35 PM

    “We don’t know.” True, but we can very probably, absolutely almost for certain, rule out any of the current non-scientific explanations bouncing around out there. That “we don’t know” doesn’t mean any of the hair-brained, crazy stuff people have concocted to explain the unexplained have to, by any kind of default, be correct.

    Just because I can’t explain what’s happening when a dying child says they “remember” another life, doesn’t make the default position one of having to believe in it. It’s nonsense. What is happening, I don’t know. But the kid’s not recalling her life as Genghis Khan, no matter what she sees.

  10. Mark
    April 15, 2015 at 3:28 PM

    “Dr. Ian Stevenson was highly regarded as an impeccable researcher. Even his most ardent skeptics, when faced with the data he collected, had to admit that fraud was unlikely.”

    I am sorry but this statement is false. Look on the Wikipedia entry for Ian Stevenson (which is well sourced), most researchers considered Stevenson gullible, and cryptomnesia and fraud was likely for every single reincarnation story he promoted as genuine. Paul Edwards covers Stevenson in depth in his book Reincarnation: A Critical Examination and found a naturalistic explanation for all his main ‘cases’. There really is nothing paranormal here. The problem is that paranormal believers never choose to read the skeptical literature.

  11. Susan C Schwartz
    April 15, 2015 at 10:47 PM

    Well, actually many religious people have asked themselves what the origins of the brain are. Fundamental to many religious people is the recognition that they will not be able by natural means to live forever. Fundamental. Fundamental. And many religious traditions do not teach floating around in psace alone. Nope.

  12. Julius
    April 18, 2015 at 12:00 PM

    Well, then what purpose does have a religion which doesn’t teach how to pursue immortality (I know that it’s an imaginary afterlife, but I’m just following the thread)? In the end it all comes down to dominate one’s subconscious, it’s even more nonsensical, if possible. Just say that religion is for people who want to feel good and purposeful because they cannot stand the feeling of being alone and useless.

  13. Hunter Rose
    April 18, 2015 at 4:09 PM

    You seem to have misinterpreted and conflated information a bit incorrectly.

    The children were not ‘dying’. They remember a past life while still very little and relate the memories as soon as they are able to communicate. Dr. Stevenson’s research, while it certainly doesn’t ‘prove’ anything, is actually quite compelling. Dismissing it as ‘nonsense’ without even understanding it or reading the research first isn’t a ‘scientific conclusion’ either.
    It’s fairly obvious, given your comments, that you haven’t tried to understand what you’re commenting on.

  14. Hunter Rose
    April 18, 2015 at 4:25 PM

    Dismissiveness is easy. Paul Edwards *didn’t include* a great deal of Stevenson’s methodology. Claiming that the 1200 cases (out of nearly 3000) where Stevenson verified significant aspects of each ‘remembered’ life are all some great conspiracy is about the same as claiming the world’s climatologists are ‘making up’ the climate change scare.

    Is it possible that fraud was perpetrated on him? Sure. But the likelihood is slim, and anyone who’s actually read his research (instead of ONLY reading his detractors) knows that fraud would defy probability.

  15. Phil
    April 20, 2015 at 4:01 AM

    Isn’t this sort of tautological since supernatural means it’s outside the realm of science and humans would therefore be unable to find out about it using science?

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