Technology explains the Near Death Experience and After Life Phenomenon
'Near-death' survivors show brain-wave abnormality, study finds.
Many people who have undergone near-death experiences - a profoundly affecting glimpse of a loving afterlife - have abnormal brain waves, a University of Arizona study has found.
This is the first scientific confirmation that something extremely unusual is going on in the brains of people who briefly died, reported leaving their bodies and moving toward a loving, peaceful light or presence, then were resuscitated and returned to life.
The finding does not prove or disprove that near-death experiences are actual encounters with a heavenly afterlife, but it may help explain why lives and attitudes are often dramatically changed by such experiences.
"This is the first study ever to find neurophysiologic differences in people who have had these experiences," said Willoughby B. Britton, the UA researcher who led the study, published last month in the journal Psychological Science.
"They have to some extent an abnormal brain. But even after going through a life-threatening trauma, they are absolutely psychologically healthy, with no post-traumatic stress, no fear response.
"This gets to the question of how the brain and consciousness and reality interact. Everyone wants to know how the spiritual and the physical meet."
Throughout human history, people who have suffered traumatic events that nearly killed them - cardiac arrest, drownings, violent accidents, medical complications, allergic reactions, even suicide attempts - have reported eerily similar transcendental scenarios.
They almost always involve a sense of leaving the body or viewing it from a distance, transcending time and space, entering a dark void or "tunnel," encountering and being strongly attracted to a bright light or sometimes a religious figure, with an all-encompassing feeling of peace, warmth, unconditional love and welcome.
In some cases, the "dead" undergo a "life review" - a rapid unfolding of life events, with an understanding of how their actions affected others.
However, this is not the typical response to life-threatening trauma. Most people react with intense fear, anxiety, sometimes lasting for months or years, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder marked by nightmares and chronic distress.
Only about 10 percent to 18 percent of people instead have these extremely positive "near-death experiences" that leave them with little or no fear of death or danger, an optimistic outlook on life, increased spirituality, and often major lifestyle improvements.
"They can't wait to have it happen again, they have no fear whatsoever. You have to ask, are these people completely crazy?" said Britton, who specializes in studying the neurologic effect of traumatic events.
"It is a moving experience to be around them. They are different. You can almost sense it."
The results of her study prove they are. During a night of sleep, Britton recorded the brain waves of 23 people who had near-death experiences, comparing them with the brain patterns of 23 who had not.
An unexpectedly high number - 22 percent - of the near-death experiencers showed a rare brain-wave pattern known as "synchronized brain activity" in the left temporal lobe. That is a simultaneous firing of neurons - sometimes described as "an electrical storm" - in that part of the brain. It is the kind of abnormal pattern seen in people who suffer epileptic seizures in the temporal lobe.
By contrast, normal brain waves are described as de-synchronized, with neurons firing at different times. Only one of the non-near-death group showed an abnormal, synchronized pattern, which occurs in only 1 percent of the general population.
If the study had continued on multiple nights, more of the near-death experience group would have shown the abnormal pattern, Britton predicted.
"But even on a one-night study, the rate was 22 times higher in the NDE group than would have been expected. That is a very, very high rate," she said.
The near-death-experience group also showed unusual sleep patterns. Most took an unusually long time to reach the REM stage of sleep - the stage of rapid eye movement, known as the dream stage.
"This may explain the change in temperament people have," said Britton. "REM latency is a marker for mental health. A long REM latency is an emotional bias toward the positive. People who take only a short time to get to REM sleep are at high risk for depression."
But what the study does not reveal is whether the near-death-experience people had abnormal brain activity and unusual sleep patterns prior to their mystical experiences, or whether the experience caused the unusual brain and sleep patterns.
"If these patterns existed before the NDE, it may mean they are predisposed to a positive response to stress - that is, to having a pleasant near-death experience rather than post-traumatic stress," Britton said.
But it is more likely the near-death experience caused the brain changes, said Tucson neurosurgeon Dr. Philip Carter.
"From my own personal knowledge, I would predict that the abnormal EEG (brain wave recordings) correlated with the hypoxia - the lack of oxygen to the brain - during the traumatic event," he said.
He pointed out that epilepsy in that part of the brain - which shows the same kind of abnormal pattern - is usually caused by a hypoxic event, such as when a fetus is deprived of oxygen during a stressful birth.
In fact, it is well known that temporal lobe epileptics also experience spiritual near-death-experience-type episodes during seizures and are profoundly affected and changed by them in the same ways near-death experiences are.
"When the heart stops, when the brain shuts down, during the traumatic event, we do know there is a lot of discharge of brain activity," said Carter. "The brain is the ultimate computer. When it shuts down and reboots, it comes back with a lot of activity that can cause changes.
"So I think most of this can be explained on a physiological basis. I certainly don't want to say there isn't an afterlife, but I don't think these experiences are the evidence for it. They can be explained."
What Carter does think is possible is that the actual process of death may be pleasant, rather than painful and frightening, based on the testimony of a physician friend of his who was resuscitated after his heart stopped during a heart attack.
"He talked of being warm all over, he saw a shining light, he had the feeling that death wasn't so bad. The actual process of death was a good experience, a good feeling," he said.
But most near-death experiencers, by far, are absolutely convinced they have seen the true afterlife and felt the infinite love of God. All the scientific discussion is just the chitchat of those who haven't been there and done that.
"There really is no such thing as death. We go from here up into the light. We change form and go on," said Susan Dayton, 58, who underwent a near-death experience 30 years ago, when she suffered a blood clot to the brain.
"It was the most intense, warm, loving, beautiful experience I've ever had. I can't even describe it. I was surrounded by light and love. It was like going home," said Dayton, who participated in Britton's study.
Noting that prior to that she had a drinking problem, smoked two to three packs of cigarettes a day, and "got married too often," Dayton said her life has changed "dramatically."
"I simply quit all that. I've been sober for 20 years. I have a heart now, a sense of compassion for others, and absolutely no fear of death.
"Believe me, this is not just the brain misfiring. There definitely is a God."
But for Tucson attorney Dan Dudley, who also entered the tunnel, and saw and felt the intensely loving light 13 years ago - when he nearly died from flesh-eating strep A - the experience has dimmed somewhat over the years.
"Certainly it changed me," he said. "I just don't have any great concern or anxiety about dying, and I deeply believe in the power of prayer."
For a while after, his priorities did change. Making money was no longer his main goal.
"But when reality sets back in, that feeling fades somewhat," he said.
He is well aware of the debate raging over what a near-death experience really is.
"Does the act of dying cause the brain to download all its neurons, or is it a genuine spiritual experience?
"All I can say is it was a wonderfully peaceful, loving, warm place to be, an overwhelming sensation. I choose to think it was a genuine spiritual experience."