What are near-death experiences?

What are near-death experiences?

Near-death experiences (NDEs) are far from a modern phenomenon and the first recorded instances of them are as long ago as the 4th century – but what are they?

Improvements in healthcare, specifically, cardiac resuscitation techniques, have led to a sharp rise in the number of reported NDEs in recent years but as they are impossible to prove there are plenty of sceptics still out there.

For those who have experienced an NDE they are absolutely real. But what are they?

What is an NDE?

The simplest way to describe an NDE is that it is a memorable, lifelike and clear vision experienced by a person who is close to death. 

Near-death episodes may come when a person slips into a coma, for instance after they have been in a car accident. In many cases, the person is clinically dead at the time of the NDE as they have stopped breathing and they have also lost consciousness.

Awareness is typically heightened during the experience and those who have been through it report hearing a type of buzzing, whirring or whistling sound, which is followed by a click.

Each NDE tends to be unique, but research shows there are a lot of similarities between them. Many people who experience an NDE have an out-of-body event as part of it, where they feel themselves floating out of their body and looking down on themselves.

A common part of an NDE is the classic description of a piercing, bright, white light, while a lot of NDEs also feature a garden.

Typically, a person who has an NDE then loses any fear of dying following the experience. However, many people who have experienced an NDE insist that it did not feel as though they were near death, but that they were actually in death. 

The term NDE was first coined in the 1975 book Life After Life by Dr Raymond Moody and most NDEs can be described as pleasurable although a small percentage have been reported to be distressing for the participant.

Bodies such as the International Association for Near Death Studies have been formed to study the phenomenon and the organisation says between 12 per cent and 50 per cent of people who have had a near-death episode have experienced an NDE.

What does the science say?

There isn't an awful lot of research out there about the NDE phenomenon, but what studies have been carried out have come up with many of the same findings.

One study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that NDEs may be explained by a surge in electrical activity in the brain.

Dr Jimo Borjigin, of the University of Michigan, the lead author of the report, stated that research shows the brain is "much more active" during the dying process than even the waking state, which is contrary to what was previously believed.

He said: "A lot of people thought that the brain after clinical death was inactive or hypoactive, with less activity than the waking state, and we show that is definitely not the case."

As it is almost impossible to study NDEs in humans, the study focused on the experiences of nine rats was they were dying. The research found that during the dying process there was a sharp increase in high-frequency brainwaves called gamma oscillations. These are believed to be linked directly to consciousness. 

Although the study only looked at rats, Dr Borjigin stated that it is possible the same could happen in the human brain. He added: "This can give us a framework to begin to explain these. The fact they see light perhaps indicates the visual cortex in the brain is highly activated – and we have evidence to suggest this might be the case, because we have seen increased gamma in area of the brain that is right on top of the visual cortex."

Dr Jason Braithwaite, of the University of Birmingham, suggested that the spike in high-frequency brainwaves could be the equivalent of the brain's "last hurrah".

He said: "This is a very neat demonstration of an idea that's been around for a long time: that under certain unfamiliar and confusing circumstances – like near-death – the brain becomes overstimulated and hyperexcited."

Other theories

To date, science has not been able to either prove or disprove the existence of NDEs. 

One common theory is that the features of NDEs are caused by the brain being starved of oxygen, but anyone who has experienced an NDE will insist that it felt completely real.

Others have suggested that NDEs are a hallucination caused by treatment, but research has shown not all people who have experienced NDEs were being given any drugs at the time.

Perhaps the best person to explain NDEs is Marie-Claire Hubert, a nurse who experienced an NDE while she was hospitalised with meningitis.

In an interview conducted for the book The Wisdom Of Near-Death Experiences by Dr Penny Sartori, Ms Hubert says: "I know for certain we do meet our loved ones eventually. It’s made me a better person and I try to do at least five kind things a day for other people."

Some people who have experienced NDEs have also developed psychic abilities afterwards. 

Whether or not NDEs can be proved to have been real or not, they tend to provide a great deal of comfort for those who have experienced them. Talking NDEs through with a medium at PsychicsOnline can also be beneficial.

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