Facing death can seem terrifying. But people who have had a near-death experience usually report feeling calm and comfortable during the experience. Maybe this phenomenon is the brain’s way of coping with its own death. Maybe something more complicated is happening.
Scientists have proposed several theories, such as physiological changes in the brain or death of brain cells, to explain some of the surprising feelings associated with near-death experiences. Dr. Bruce Grayson, a professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia and one of the founders of the International Association for the Study of Near-Death Experiences, said there are many unknowns about near-death experiences, in part because they are impossible to study in real time. Researchers must rely on anecdotal reports, people’s recollections, and in some cases animal studies to understand what changes in the brain during these experiences.
What does a near-death experience feel like?
When it comes to describing near-death experiences, there are two sides to the coin: what happens to you physically, versus what you perceive on a psychological level. Physically, these experiences are usually associated with very painful events such as head trauma, heart attack or respiratory arrest. But psychologically, the brain tends to suppress the feeling of pain or at least the memory of it.
For example, Julia Nicholson, a former CEO, executive leadership expert, and business consultant, said that during a near-fatal car accident in 1980, the faces of her loved ones flashed vividly before her eyes. “I don’t remember feeling any pain until I got to the hospital,” he recently told Newsweek.
Seeing loved ones (dead or alive) as well as seeing a bright light at the end of the tunnel are common in NDEs. Some people have also reported more physical sensations such as leaving the body, floating above it, being pulled into a tunnel with light at the end, or spiritual encounters with a higher being, aliens, or lost loved ones. During these experiences, people rarely reported feeling pain or fear, and their experiences were usually accompanied by feelings of peace and love.
Some of these phenomena related to near-death experiences cannot be explained with the help of science, at least not yet. But in 2022, the near-death experience research community obtained something it had never seen before: a brain scan of a dying man. Scans of the man’s brain revealed secrets that scientists could only speculate about until then.
Brain scan of a dying man
In 2016, a man who was 87 years old at the time was connected to an electroencephalography machine when he suddenly had a heart attack and died. The researchers later published the results of their investigation in the journal Frontiers of Aging Neuroscience.
An EEG records the electrical signals that the brain produces to help diagnose or investigate certain neurological problems, such as seizures or memory loss. The doctors were monitoring the sick man because of his recent seizures, when suddenly his heart stopped working.
In their paper, the researchers reported that during the 15 seconds leading up to the man’s heart attack, his brain scan showed high-frequency brain waves called gamma oscillations. Gamma waves are thought to play a role in creating and retrieving memories. Dr. Ajmal Zamar, the author of the study, in a conversation with the news website Business Insider “It’s hard to make a case-by-case claim, but what we can claim is that right before death and right after the heart stops we have signals that are similar to what happens in healthy people when they’re dreaming,” he said. They meditate or remember their memories.
Of course, the scans studied are from a few seconds before death and are not exactly equivalent to a near-death experience in which the person survives. Although, Grayson says, such activity may help explain why people see familiar faces during NDEs. In addition, EEG scans of people trying to recall their near-death experiences also provide more clues about what these experiences do to the human brain.