The science of near-death experiences

Some recent research is confirming what a lot of us have probably long suspected—there's a pretty reasonable scientific explanation for near-death experiences.

Recently, a host of studies has revealed potential underpinnings for all the elements of such experiences.

For instance, the feeling of being dead is not limited to near-death experiences—patients with Cotard or "walking corpse" syndrome hold the delusional belief that they are deceased. This disorder has occurred following trauma, such as during advanced stages of typhoid and multiple sclerosis, and has been linked with brain regions such as the parietal cortex and the prefrontal cortex—"the parietal cortex is typically involved in attentional processes, and the prefrontal cortex is involved in delusions observed in psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia," Mobbs explains. Although the mechanism behind the syndrome remains unknown, one possible explanation is that patients are trying to make sense of the strange experiences they are having.

This story, by Charles Q. Choi, breaks down several common elements of near-death experiences the same way. But the fact that I found most interesting relates to who has "near-death" experiences. Turns out, it's not limited to people who are actually near death. Choi reports that a study of 58 patients who had had near-death experiences found that 30 of them weren't actually in danger of dying. They just thought they were.


  1. I heard that the pilots of early super-sonic aircraft had out-of-body experiences.  They didn’t have the proper equipment to deal with the pressure and resultant oxygen deprivation. Though to be fair, those guys had a good reason to believe they were about to die, too.


    1. I’m with you’re second thought.  I think this is just a cover story for zombies.

      “Did I say I thought I was dead?  How foolish of me, I feel fine.  Here, to prove it, let me gnaw on you just a little.”

    2. Yeah, studies I’ve read about in the past have indicated that the (vast) majority of people who had “near death” experiences not only were in no danger of dying of their injuries/illnesses, but some were people who had simply fainted.  It seems the cause of “NDE” has been narrowed down not only to oxygen deprivation, but a certain degree of oxygen deprivation under a particular sets of circumstances.

        1. Here is an interview with Pim Van Lommel where he gives a bit of an overview of his work, it’s worth sticking with for at least ten minutes:

  2. For people who are interested in this topic, I can’t enough recommend Connie Willis’ novel Passages. I don’t know if it should be called sci-fi or what, but it’s incredibly well-written, fascinating, and satisfying to read.

  3. We all like to think we know everything, and we all like to believe
    there is a sound, scientific explanation for everything in our world,
    but nothing in this article refutes the work that Dr Pim Van Lommel has
    done.  This article is basically a wrap up of the obvious to try and
    prove a point.  Alzheimer patients have hallucinations?  What a
    breakthrough!  Tunnel vision can occur when the oxygen supply to the eye
    is depleted?  Incredible news!  What next?  Alcohol can impair one’s ability to drive an automobile?

    1. OK, for those of us who tuned in late, what *exactly* has the esteemed Dr Van Lommel discovered that is *not* suitably explained via the effects of hypoxia, sleep paralysis, and so on?  In science, it’s perfectly OK to say “but there’s just this one little detail that I wasn’t able to explain” – but you do need to have an actual unexplained detail to point at.

  4.  “And when it comes to the common experience of reliving moments from one’s life, one culprit might be the locus coeruleus, a midbrain region that releases noradrenaline, a stress hormone one would expect to be released in high levels during trauma.”
    I’m sorry, but this isn’t evidence, this is conjecture. Basically the entire “scientific” argument is that an experience that people believe to be mystical is similar to an experience that involves brain damage, disease or trauma. But just because two experiences appear to be similar that doesn’t make them the same experience.

  5. “Turns out, it’s not limited to people who are actually near death. Choi reports that a study of 58 patients who had had near-death experiences found that 30 of them weren’t actually in danger of dying. They just thought they were.”

    Actually, the abstract, and the SciAm article both explain that “most” patients who weren’t in danger of dying thought they were. So, apparently, some percentage of people have NDEs without being or believing that they are near death.

    I’m not sure what exactly is proved by confirming that NDEs coincide with changes in the brain; my reading this article has changed my brain and caused high activity in certain regions of it. But do we go around saying “Brain studies are confirming what a lot of us have probably long suspected – there is a pretty reasonable scientific explanation for BoingBoing articles”?

  6. I’ve been fortunate (?) enough to witness hundreds of these experiences (mostly of the type described in the article’s 6th p, “reliving moments of one’s life”) during the 20 years or so that I was a whitewater guide.Anecdotally, I can completely vouch for the “not in danger of dying” part of the equation. In almost every case, I was not able to convince my guests of this fact, despite their trust in my knowledge of every other part of their experience on the river. Like the old saying goes, Locus coeruleus is stranger than fiction.

  7. In the same way that ‘past-life’ devotees are always the reincarnation of Cleopatra, Napoleon or some other famous historical figure, doesn’t it strike anyone else as peculiar that none of the NDEs have reported the smell of burning sulphur and the wailing of damned souls as they begin their descent into Hell (TM)?  Just wondering.

        1. Not sure why xtropian needs to give citations for correcting your original statement, which was offered without citations.

          But seeing as you asked: see “Distressing Western Near-Death Experiences: Finding a Way through the abyss”, by Nancy Evans Bush, for a good overview that will point you to a number of original sources.

          A sampling:

          * On Lindley, Bryan and Conley’s “Evergreen Study”

          “…the researchers defined ‘negative’ experiences as containing extreme fear, panic, or anger, possibly with visions of threatening or taunting demonic creatures.

          * George Gallup’s 1982 poll on NDEs

          “the Gallup survey found both classic accounts and ‘featureless, sometimes forbidding faces; beings who are often merely present but aren’t at all comforting…1 percent of the NDEs included “a sense of hell or torment.”

          * Bush’s own account of the NDE of a kingergartener who nearly drowned:

          “…then God pulled his hand back. He didn’t want me to stay. On the way back, I saw the devil. He said if I did what he wanted, I could have anything I want”

          * Margot Grey’s 1985 study “Return from Death”, and its coverage of distressing NDEs:

          “…a great sense of desolation…the brink of a pit…the edge of an abyss… The hell-like experience…includes all [thos] elements…often a definite sense of being dragged down by some evil force…visions of wrathful or demonic creatures…or unseen beings or figures which are often faceless or hooded…intensely cold or unbearably hot…sounds that resemble the wailing of ‘souls’ in torment…”

          That should be enough to get you started…

          1. Thanks. I just realized I had gotten a response to my comment and was going to reply.  I originally read about it in “What Happens When We Die” by Sam Parnia, but I don’t have the book with me to quote from. But a search on Google or Yahoo brings up a lot, too.

  8. Mobbs and Watt’s paper is titled “There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences”, and yet…

    (a) Choi himself makes clear that “the mechanism behind the syndrome remains unknown”.
    (b) Mobbs and Watt do not reference any of the evidence that is cited for something paranormal happening in NDEs (e.g. Peak in Darien experiences, veridical OBEs, crossovers with mediumship testimony).

    I find it odd that they would title their paper in such a definitive way when all it does is goes over a number of psychological and physiological elements that *could* explain certain aspects of the NDE.

    Also, Choi is able to reference a paper from the University of Virginia research team from the 1990s about NDEs occurring under non-life-threatening situations, but he (nor Mobbs and Watt) seem to have heard of Greyson, Kelly and Kelly’s  paper from a few years ago, “Explanatory Models for Near-Death Experiences”, which pre-empts this new paper by addressing most of the same elements and their weakness in isolation as an explanation of the phenomenon:

    “Despite shaky foundations for assertions that NDEs are
    similar to experiences associated with abnormal temporal lobe activity,
    anoxia, ketamine, or endorphins, several multifactorial theories, based
    on these foundations, combine these putative causes at will to account
    for whatever constellation of features is observed in any given NDE…Although physiological, psychological, and sociocultural factors may
    indeed interact in complicated ways in conjunction with NDEs, theories
    proposed thus far consist largely of unsupported speculations about what
    might be happening during an NDE. None of the proposed neurophysiological mechanisms have been shown to occur in NDEs.”

    Really surprised that this paper is being cited as offering any new insights, and also surprised to see Caroline Watt put her name to a paper which claims as much in its title.

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