The Science of Near-Death Experiences
Out-of-body levitation, feelings of serenity and unconditional love, the presence of deceased loved ones or angels, a light at the end of a tunnel: such are the images and sensations that frequently crop up in accounts of near-death experiences, or, as they’re commonly referred to, NDEs. From accident survivors to resuscitated heart attack victims, approximately three percent of Americans report having had an NDE at some point in their lives. Many emerge from the experience with a renewed appreciation for the complexity of the human mind. Some claim to have achieved enlightenment, or some other kind of spiritual transformation, as a result. And then there are those who are moved to share their stories, often with the hope that their glimpse of a benign afterlife will help to quell others' fear of death.
Tales of near-death experiences date back to antiquity, with the "Myth of Er" in Plato's "Republic" among the earliest. In recent decades, numerous personal accounts and investigations have sparked widespread interest in the phenomenon. Dr. George Ritchie's "Return from Tomorrow" and Betty J. Eadie's "Embraced by the Light," both classics of NDE literature, provide detailed accounts of mental journeys made during brief, Lazarus-like experiences. Psychologist Raymond Moody's "Life After Life," inspired by George Ritchie's story, and amassing interviews with 150 people who have had NDEs, remains a seminal investigation of the phenomenon.
More recently, Anita Moorjani's "Dying to Be Me," and "Heaven is For Real," by Todd Burpo, have joined the ranks, championing near-death experiences as both transformative spiritual events and possible proof of the afterlife.
Despite their ubiquity and the fascination they elicit, though, near-death experiences have struggled to gain credence in the scientific community, with researchers offering physiological explanations for a number of the strange feelings and perceptions common to NDEs. But three outspoken scientists are saying that near-death experiences are in fact very real. Furthermore, they're arguing that NDEs have important lessons to teach us—not just about the mind or spirituality, but about how we can make the most our time on Earth and live to our fullest potential as humans. These scientists came to their conclusions not by studying the brain or researching NDE case histories, but by having near-death experiences themselves.
If you had asked Eben Alexander his opinion of NDEs before his own spiritual scrape with death, he would have taken up same line of reasoning endorsed by much of the scientific community: near-death experiences, while vivid and perhaps even meaningful, are nothing more than tricks played by minds in states of impaired cognition. Then, in 2008, a rare form of bacterial meningitis seized Alexander's brain and put him into a coma. When he regained consciousness seven days later—a feat that his team of doctors deemed a medical miracle—he reported having spent the duration of his coma in a space of complete serenity, amidst pink clouds, angels, pretty peasant girls and what he refers to as the "divine source of the universe." Prior to the coma, Alexander had never been able to reconcile his scientific understanding of the world with religious belief, but his near-death experience led to him to embrace a steadfast faith in God, heaven and the human soul. Further, the experience informed his scientific view of the brain: Because the coma shut down the regions in control of thought and emotion, he argues, his visions and perceptions of the afterlife could not have come as a result of ordinary physiological processes, leading him to the conclusion that consciousness exists separately from the brain.
Watch Alexander discuss his near-death experience and what it taught him about the "divine spark within each and every one of us."
While kayaking with her husband and children in southern Chile in 1999, orthopedic surgeon Mary C. Neal became pinned at the base of waterfall and drowned. In the time between her clinical death and revival, Neal—a religious skeptic for much of her life—entered what she calls "eternal life," a place of limitless joy populated by angelic spirits. To her great sadness, the angels told Neal that it wasn't her time yet, that she had to work left do in her human life and that she would have to leave heaven and return to her body on earth. In "To Heaven and Back," Neal tells readers how the experience brought her closer to her family, reignited her faith in God and motivated her to tell others about the unconditional love that she believes awaits all in the afterlife. She suggests that she may have been chosen to have this experience because her career in medicine lends her credibility.
Jill Bolte Taylor was a Harvard neuroanatomist at the top of her field when, in 1996 at the age of 37, she suffered a major hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain that rendered her "an infant in a woman's body." In "My Stroke of Insight," Bolte describes the morning of her stroke in painstaking detail, as her consciousness of her surroundings, her physical pain and her position in space all deteriorated, and were replaced by a sense of peacefulness and a newfound attunement to her own body. "For the first time," she writes, "I felt truly at one with my body as a complex construction of living, thriving organisms. I was proud to see that I was this swarming conglomeration of cellular life that had stemmed from the intelligence of a single molecular genius."
When Bolte recovered from the stroke years later, she was able to articulate her experience in the context of neuroanatomy. The shutting down of her brain's left hemisphere, she argues, eliminated any computational and egocentric thinking, leaving only the consciousness of her brain's right hemisphere (home to feelings of peace and unity with the world) to flourish. Bolte has compared her insight about the value of right-brain thinking to the Buddhist concept of nirvana and in "My Stroke of Insight," she urges readers to tune in to the circuitry of their peace-loving right brains and give less credit to isolationist left-brain thinking.
Watch Bolte's famed TED talk about her experience.