Science Lifts a Corner of the Veil on Near-Death Experiences

November 05, 2023

Scientists from Michigan, in the United States, have tried to offer an explanation of near-death experiences and their similarities.

It was in the mid-1970s that the notion of near-death experience (NDE) burst upon the general public, with the publishing success of Raymond Moody's work, Life After Life. The author brought together a number of disturbing stories based on his meetings with people who emerged from a coma after being considered clinically dead.

The descriptions that are often confusing to the point suggesting a sort of mimicry. At the beginning of the 2000s, 16 criteria were developed to establish an NDE, among them: an irradiating light, passing through a tunnel, the feeling of leaving one's body, the abolition of time, approaching a point of no return, and a sense of peace. The question remains: could the patients who experienced this really have experienced death? 

In May 2023, researchers from the University of Michigan analyzed the electroencephalograms of four end-of-life patients, before and after removal of the artificial respiration system. The observation is identical each time: following deprivation, rapid gamma-type waves are recorded, testifying to an unprecedented burst of cerebral activity preceding death.

More precisely, scientists observed, shortly before the last breath, an acceleration in the heart rate and a peak in gamma waves emitted from a posterior area of the brain. This area is the one associated with consciousness, dreams, meditation, and memory recovery.

“If this part of the brain is stimulated, it means the patient is seeing something, can hear something, and potentially feels sensations outside his body,” explained Jimo Borjigin, the lead author of the study, adding that this part seemed like it was “on fire.”

“It’s like a storm of electrical activity just before the flat encephalogram,” explains Steven Laureys. For this researcher who directs the Brain Center at the University of Liège, this cerebral burst is “of an unsuspected intensity, but this seems to be confirmed.”

“This had already been observed in rats by the same team and a Chinese team had also reported a case in humans last year. We are also conducting our own study on this transition of the dying brain and we had seen this type of rapid activity without daring to talk about it too much.”

What science is still trying to determine are the neurophysiological mechanisms that trigger this intense cerebral activity. Could this be the ultimate attempt to “reset” human mechanics as it reaches the end of its earthly existence? Or could this increase in gamma waves be caused by the terminal relaxation of the brain which signals the sudden disinhibition of all its connections?

We can in any case put forward the hypothesis concerning patients who “returned” from an NDE: It would not be so much an experience of death in the strict sense , but rather an experience of the imminence of or the proximity of death from which they were ultimately spared. Whatever the case, these reflections are also an opportunity, during this month of November, to pray for the souls of the deceased.