What We Know About Near-Death Experiences

A Closer Look at the Research

Near-death experiences are a topic of growing interest and popularity, especially on the heels of popular movies and books that recount out-of-body experiences and other sensations that people experience during life-threatening situations. Of particular interest are two books written by doctors about near-death experiences.

For instance, in "Proof of Heaven," Dr. Eben Alexander recounts what he experienced while in a week-long coma brought on by meningitis. Meanwhile, in "To Heaven and Back," Mary C. Neal discusses her near-death experience while submerged in a river after a kayaking accident. Both books spent a considerable amount of time on the New York Times Bestseller List demonstrating that this is a topic that has not only captivated the interest of the country but demands additional research by the medical community.

After his near-death experience, Dr. Alexander studied his own medical charts and came to the conclusion that he was in such a deep coma that his brain was completely shut down. He believes the only way to explain what he experienced is to accept that his soul detached from his body and journeyed to another world.

What Is a Near-Death Experience?

From bright lights and warmth to a detachment from the body, flashbacks, and encounters with angels and other beings, these are things that people who have had near-death experiences recount experiencing. What's more, people who have had these experiences report that their experience was not dreamlike nor was it a hallucination, but instead more real than real life itself.

While these near-death experiences are widely-recognized phenomena, there are plenty of people who question the validity of near-death experiences. To critics, the stories about near-death experiences, or out-of-body experiences as they are sometimes called, ranks right up there with stories about psychic powers, poltergeists, alien abductions, and other tales.

To many people, near-death experiences are just hard to believe. Yet, these experiences are too numerous and well-documented to be completely fabricated.

Popular Theories

The brain is both sophisticated and delicate. For instance, if oxygen is reduced by even a small amount, the brain will react almost immediately. As a result, many scientists suggest that near-death experiences are the result of physical changes in the brain, like the lack of oxygen, that takes place when the brain is stressed or dying.

Loss of Oxygen

They theorize that these experiences are brought on by a loss of oxygen, troubles with anesthesia, and the body's neurochemical responses to trauma. But people who say they have had a near-death experience say these explanations are inadequate and do not explain or even come close to acknowledging what they experienced.

Clearly, near-death experiences are interesting as well as scientifically intriguing. Plus, with advances in medical skills and technologies, doctors are now able to bring people back from the brink of death even more frequently. So, it seems plausible that there would be a rise in accounts of near-death experiences.

Surviving Against the Odds

For instance, there are reports of people making a full recovery after spending hours with no breath or pulse, buried in snow, or submerged in very cold water. In fact, surgeons even create these conditions intentionally. Not only will they chill a patient's body or stop their heart to perform a dangerous operation, but they also have started trying these techniques on severely-injured trauma patients. They keep them between life and death until their wounds are adequately repaired.

Anesthesia Awareness

Consequently, people often have a story to tell about their experience. Many times, doctors often attribute these out-of-body experiences to "anesthesia awareness," which they say impacts about one patient per 1,000 patients. Anesthesia awareness occurs when patients are under anesthesia but can still hear snatches of conversation or hear music playing in the operating room.

What the Research Says

The first written accounts of near-death experiences date back to at least the Middle Ages, while some researchers insist they can even be traced to ancient times. In fact, the medical journal Resuscitation published a brief account of the oldest known medical description of a near-death experience written by an 18th-century French military doctor. However, most modern research into near-death experiences is said to have started in 1975.

Researchers at the University of Southampton

Although very few objective studies about near-death experiences exist, there are several that have provided some initial insight into these experiences. For instance, researchers from the University of Southampton conducted a four-year international study on more than 2,000 cardiac-arrest patients. Their results and initial conclusions were published in Resuscitation.

During the study, which was referred to as AWARE (awareness during resuscitation), the researchers studied a broad range of awareness and mental experiences associated with cardiac arrest. Of the 2,060 patients enrolled in the study, 330 survived and 140 we able to complete structured interviews about their memories of the event.

Awareness vs. Memories

What the researchers discovered is that nearly 40 percent of these individuals described some awareness of the time prior to resuscitation, or when their hearts stopped beating. The majority of these patients did not have any specific memories of the event though. What this suggests is that many people do have mental activity during cardiac arrest, but often lose their memories of that activity after recovery. According to the doctors conducting the study, this could be due to brain injury or sedative-like drugs.

For example, ketamine, a drug often used for sedation and general anesthesia has been known to make people feel a strong sense of detachment from their bodies as well as a sense of peace or joy. In fact, the state of tranquility that they experience from using ketamine is often very similar to near-death experiences.

Interestingly, the study also found that 46 percent of people experienced recollections in relation to death that were not compatible with how people describe near-death experiences. In fact, some reported being fearful or feeling like they were being dragged through deep water. Only 9 percent of people had experiences that were similar to near-death experiences and 2 percent had an out-of-body experience including hearing and seeing events.

Experiences of Patients

In one patient's case, there was a consciousness and awareness that seemed to occur during a three-minute period when there was no heartbeat. The researchers found this discovery paradoxical because the brain typically stops functioning within 20 to 30 seconds after the heart stops and doesn't seem to resume again until the heart has been restarted. So, the fact that there might have been some brain activity suggests that something is taking place.

Overall, researchers were unable to disclaim that near-death experiences occur with absolute certainty. Likewise, there was such a small group that reported having experiences that they were unable to determine the reality or the meaning of the patients' experiences.

The patients suggested that terms like near-death and out-of-body experiences may not be sufficient enough to describe the actual experience of death and what is taking place in the brain.

Finally, they suggest that future studies should focus on cardiac arrest, which is biologically synonymous with death rather than medical states sometimes referred to as "near-death."

Research at George Washington University

Meanwhile, another study examined the brain activity of seven critically ill patients removed from life support. Using an EEG to record neural electrical activity, researchers found a spike in neural activity at or near the time of death even though just prior to the spike there was a loss of blood pressure and a drop in brain activity.

According to the researchers, these spikes occur at a time when we most would expect the brain to die because of a lack of blood flow. Soon after the brain activity stopped, the patients were pronounced dead.

Researchers speculate that as blood flow slows down and oxygen runs out, the cells are no longer able to maintain their charge. What happens next is a cascade of activity that ripples through the brain. If these "seizures" happen in the memory areas of a person's brain, this could explain the vivid memories that people report when they are resuscitated.

A Word From Verywell

Tales of near-death and out-of-body experiences have captivated people around the country for years. In fact, people love to hear what others have witnessed while so close to the brink of death. However, there is still so much about near-death experiences that is neither understood nor can be explained. Clearly, there is a need for additional, genuine research surrounding the phenomenon of near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences. Until then, many people simply take solace in knowing that these experiences are a part of life itself.

Was this page helpful?