The Science & Spirituality of Near-Death Experiences

What really happens in a near-death experience? We asked the experts.

What happens when we die? The answer is elusive. And a near-death experience is probably not something you want to run out to experience firsthand (unless you’re a Flatliner).

The term “near-death experience” was coined by Dr. Raymond Moody to indicate a harrowing encounter with death. Although more than 40 years have passed since he first used the term in 1975, interest in near-dear experiences shows no signs of waning.

Near-Death Experiences

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Dr. Moody brought near-death experiences into the public eye in 1975 when he released his groundbreaking book Life After Life. Featuring stories from 100 individuals declared clinically dead and brought back to life, it introduced the public to phenomena that are now synonymous with near-death experiences, at least in pop culture: a bright light, a tunnel, loved ones waiting “on the other side.”

One excerpt from Moody’s book describes an individual’s sensory perceptions during a near-death experience: “I knew I was dying and that there was nothing I could do about it, because no one could hear me…. I was out of my body, there’s no doubt about it, because I could see my own body there on the operation room table. My soul was out! All this made me feel very bad at first, but then, this really bright light came. It did seem that it was a little dim at first, but then it was this huge beam. It was just a tremendous amount of light, nothing like a big bright flashlight, it was just too much light. And it gave off heat to me; I felt a warm sensation…. At first, when the light came, I wasn’t sure what was happening, but then, it asked, it kind of asked me if I was ready to die. It was like talking to a person, but a person wasn’t there. The light’s what was talking to me, but in a voice.”

This “Being of Light,” as Moody calls it, is one of the nine elements that he believes most commonly occur in near-death experiences, which he names as follows: (1) A Strange Sound, (2) Peace and Painlessness, (3) Out-of-Body Experience, (4) The Tunnel Experience, (5) Rising Rapidly into the Heavens, (6) People of Light, (7) The Being of Light, (8) The Life Review, (9) Reluctance to Return.

So what really happens when you’re very close to death — or when you think you are? Two women shared with Crixeo the experiences they were sure would be their last.

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“I’ve never been so absolutely positive I was going to die, and so surprised when I didn’t.”

Eliza lay on the floor of a friend’s bar, incapacitated from alcohol poisoning, listening to the voices of her concerned friends.

“I was baffled at how I could hear them and why they were talking to me…because I seriously was unable to move my body.”

She described her Life Review experience as more of a self-imposed introspective journey, rather than a Being of Light prompting her to reflect on her life.

“I had this fleeting thought of ‘Maybe this is actually what that whole ‘final judgment’ is that religion talks about.’ Like I review my life and pass judgment on myself — not some supreme being.”

How did the experience change her? She said, “I’m constantly evaluating and reevaluating relationships and connections in my life: If I were literally to drop dead today, am I happy with the status of the connections and relationships I have with people?”

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“It doesn’t make the 38 minutes any less real.”

Victoria froze when she got the alert on her phone on January 13, 2018: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

An employee of Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency had dispatched a real emergency alert during a drill in Hawaii, sending Hawaii residents into full-blown panic for nearly 40 minutes.

Learning it wasn’t a legitimate near-death experience did little to ease Victoria’s mind. “Mentally, it was a traumatic experience.” She described how her sense of security was completely gone not only during those tense minutes but long after the alert was recalled. “I had to opt out of our emergency alerts after that. Every time we’d get a flood or thunderstorm warning, it would trigger a panic attack.”

If you thought near-death experiences were supposed to be something akin to a flatline, “heart stopping on the operating table only to be brought back to life” experience, well, your confusion would be valid. Dr. Michael Kinsella, a religious studies PhD who studies the near-death and shared crossing phenomena, says the term “near-death experience” has now been adopted by a broader audience describing incidents that, if using Moody’s criteria, don’t actually constitute a near-death experience. The inclusivity of the “near-death experience” phrase in today’s society proves problematic for academics and researchers interested in studying the phenomenon.

The Science & Spirituality of Near-Death Experiences

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University of Michigan researchers George Mashour, MD, PhD, and Jimo Borjigin, PhD

“Does the human personality survive bodily death?”

Academic and scientific research tends to follow on the heels of the public’s interest, and near-death experiences are a popular area of public curiosity. The result? There’s been a huge emergence of different scientific and scholarly inquiries that target various aspects of near-death experiences.

Why are so many people interested? “It’s the idea that we can get evidence from non-normal means,” says Dr. Kinsella. Whether that’s information about what it’s like on the ‘other side’ or premonitions to know what’s going to happen in the future. The more paranormal, the more exciting, at least from the public’s perspective.

Dr. Kinsella says it speaks to our issue of trying to merge issues of science and spirituality. Regardless of which side of the spectrum you’re on, he says, it opens up a series of conversations about the mystery of life and living.

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Dr. Jimo Borjigin, an associate professor in both the Department of Neurology and the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology at the University of Michigan Medical School, is making exciting moves to illuminate the scientific side of NDEs, and she’s hoping it will change the way we view and respond to sudden cardiac arrests (SCA).

Jimo thinks an increase in gamma waves in the brain during asphyxiation could explain some of the experiences individuals report in NDEs. In her experiments with rats, Dr. Borjigin noticed that gamma activity in the brain increased in rats experiencing asphyxia. This gamma wave activity could explain the conscious processing individual’s experience when near death, she says. Further, the feelings of indescribable bliss and compassion could be explained by the electrical communication happening between the cortex and the heart. This communication is normally undetectable, she says, but it surges to tremendous levels during asphyxia.

People think the brain is the victim, but it’s the opposite.

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Dr. Borjigin says near-death experiences are commonly associated with heart failure from a traumatic event like car accident, a drowning, or physiological issues like an ischemic stroke or SCA. She says most people focus on the heart, but really they should be looking at the brain.

“Imagine yourself suddenly losing your income. You have to reprioritize your needs, calculate how much money you have, what lifestyle you can afford, sell your stuff if you have to. The goal in that stage is survival. What happens to the brain is what happens to us losing all our income. The brain realizes oxygen is not coming or that blood is not flowing, as in an ischemic stroke. The brain has to say, ‘OK, of all the functions I’ve been supporting this person to do — walking, talking, laughing, smiling, etc. — what is the most essential?’ You don’t need to be able to walk in order to survive. These become discretionary functions for the brain.”

Usually the heart doesn’t stop immediately, but the brain begins to detect decreases in your oxygen supply. The brain just needs your lungs and heart to function to get oxygen to the brain. The brain goes into overdrive, releases a huge amount of neurochemicals, goes overboard and kills the heart.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon isn’t widely understood or appropriately addressed by medical practitioners. The solution? We need to switch our mode of thinking to view brain activation in these events as a harmful thing and work to alleviate its adverse signaling to the heart and tissues. She elaborates on this brain-heart communication in her 2018 research article published in Frontiers in Physiology. With more than 300,000 individuals experiencing sudden cardiac arrest annually, Dr. Borjigin’s work has the potential to radically improve the way we treat SCAs.

This research illuminates the biological aspects of near-death experiences, which are intriguing when studied alongside the spiritual aspects described by survivors. All this may leave you with more questions than answers, but that’s the beauty of examining a complex, evolving phenomenon. If you want to learn more about NDEs, check out the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS), and follow Dr. Michael Kinsella and Dr. Jimo Borjigin’s research. end


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