Whether or not there is life after death is one of the age-old questions known to humans. Perhaps we will never know the true answer to this question, or perhaps science will one day unveil the secrets of another life. Studying reports of near-death experiences is the closest we have come to understanding what happens after death. Near-death experiences have been reported in a variety of ages and professions. Children, adults, priests, and atheists, from all over the world have been known to re-tell their story of a near death experience. Of course, every experience is different, but there are some consistent factors spanning the world. Commonly observed characteristics include a perception of seeing/hearing separate to the human body, moving through a tunnel, meeting a mysterious light, intense emotions, meeting people who have passed and a choice of whether or not to return to earthly life.

Evidence leading towards the reality of near-death experiences

The very nature of a near-death experience (NDE) relies on the person being physically compromised – with them typically being unconscious, comatose, or clinically dead. When looking at NDEs from a medical viewpoint, they should not be possible. Logically, unconscious people should not be able to give reports of detailed lucid experiences which are structures and clear, however, they have. A survey asked 1,122 patients who had a NDE “How did your highest level of consciousness compare to your normal, everyday consciousness and alertness?” Of the 1,122 people in the survey, 835 claimed to have experienced increased consciousness and alertness. These reports of increased consciousness are not rare, with stories being collaborated by other patients who have all experienced a similar thing. Often NDEs occur alongside a cardiac arrest. It had been shown that for 10-20 seconds after a person goes into cardiac arrest, there are no significant measurements of brain cortical activity. Therefore, a detailed lucid experience after a cardiac arrest should be impossible, so why do they happen?

Additionally, there have been reports of NDEs from patients who were under anaesthesia. Under general anaesthesia, it should not be possible to form organized memory. Studies using an EEG and brain imagine techniques looking at patients under anaesthesia have collaborated that the brain should be unable to create lucid memories. Yet, patients are still reporting NDEs after coming around from general anaesthesia. When a survey was conducted and people who had had a NDE under general anaesthesia were asked, “How did your highest level of consciousness and alertness during the experience compare to your everyday consciousness and alertness?” 83% claimed to have more consciousness. This suggests that the altered consciousness under general anaesthesia is comparable to that of a NDE experienced not under anaesthesia.

Medical viewpoint

It is known that death often follows an acute situation in which brain function is altered. When imaging studies have been conducted on cardiac patients who survive NDEs, there is damage to both grey and white matter shown. Imaging studies and other studies show common areas associated with NDE. Some of these areas include the occipital cortex, frontal lobes, basal ganglia, and the hippocampus. It has been suggested that when the brain experiences a shortage of oxygen, it may react in a way that generates NDEs. Interestingly, different experiences with NDEs are associated with different areas of the brain. For example, memory flashbacks are associated with the temporal lobe and out-of-body experiences are mainly linked to the right posterior lobe region and the parietal region.

To conclude

NDEs are poorly understood phenomena into which much more research is required. Clearly, the experiences are extraordinary, but it is very scientifically challenging to determine whether or not these experiences are perceptions of what awaits after death. To gain a better understanding of the significance of NDEs, research must continue, combining first-hand accounts with scientific imaging techniques and analysis. Perhaps NDEs are an opening, providing a window to understanding a consciousness that is free from time and space, and perhaps one day we will have a better insight into their importance.