What happens in your brain during a near-death experience?

man having near death experience

Near-death experiences – they make great fodder for movie makers (think Flatliners, either the 1990 or the 2017 version, depending on your age) and have been the subject of many deep and meaningful discussions.

The well-known term, ‘near-death experience’ (NDE), refers to the recollections of those who have come close to death but survived. Revived heart attack victims are a classic example.

If you are lucky (or unlucky) enough to have had one, you might have a very interesting story to tell of your ‘memories’ of the event.

Many people report having similar experiences, such as heading towards a strong light, or floating away from their own bodies and looking down on themselves from above.

But hat exactly is going on in our brains when we’re on the precipice of losing our lives?

It’s a question many have asked but few have attempted to answer. Dr Sam Parnia is one of the few.

In the mid-1990s, when he was completing his medical degree at the University of London, Dr Sarnia watched while doctors attempted to revive a man who had gone into cardiac arrest.

Read: Heart attack warning signs that could save your life

He found himself wondering if the patient could hear the medical staff as they worked to revive him.

Dr Parnia resolved then and there to try and answer that question.

A quarter of a century on, he’s still working on it.

“Here we are 25 years later, and I’m still doing it,” he says of his research.

Looking at patients undergoing CPR, Dr Parnia’s research team found the brain’s electrical markers of lucid consciousness are appearing in those whose brains had apparently shut down.

How did the researchers manage to measure this activity?

When the team attends a heart attack, they bring along a portable electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor electrical activity in different parts of the brain, and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) to measure oxygen saturation in the superficial brain cortex regions.

Read: Podcast: Demystifying the defib

They also clamp a tablet computer above the patient’s head, with the tablet then connected to headphones, placed on the patient’s ears.

The tablet projects one of 10 stored images onto the screen. After five minutes, the computer played a recorded voice saying a series of words including ‘apple’, ‘pear’ and ‘banana’ every minute.

A total of 567 patients were subjected to this research collection, but of those only 53 survived. Those 53 had interpretable EEG data from which researchers were able to map spikes of brain activity.

Of the surviving group, 28 were well enough to undergo follow-up interviews. Provided with 10 photos to examine, not one of the participants identified the displayed image, and only one of the 28 participants could correctly identify the words used in the recording while they received CPR.

Despite this lack of awareness of what was going on around them, 11 of the 28 reported having memories of the experience, with six of them remembering the experience of dying.

Read: Understanding cardiovascular disease

Self-reported experiences of death included a perception of heading to a destination, undergoing a life evaluation, returning to a place described as home, and frightening memories.

Dr. Parnia believes these were likely misinterpretations of actual medical events.

So what can we learn from Dr. Parnia’s findings?

Emergency care physicians Dr Lance Becker and Dr Tom Aufderheide believe the study may change how medical staff deal with patients who have survived cardiac arrest.

“There needs to be a wider recognition of patient cognitive experiences during cardiac arrest among treating physicians and healthcare providers with incorporation of this reality into the compassionate care of our patients,” says Dr Aufderheide.

While science may not yet have a full answer to the question of the level of awareness patients have while undergoing CPR, there certainly appears to be some.

Most of us would prefer to never find out, it’s probably better than the alternative if we find ourselves in need of resuscitation.

Do you know someone who has experienced CPR? Have they shared any memories of the event? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

Written by Andrew Gigacz

Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.

2 Comments

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  1. I was 11, had tonsils out, remember clearly there was haemorrhage and people flipping out , saw them operating on me from above, I think I did see ‘light’ but not 100% about that now! It was eons ago!

  2. Here is a link to a discussion with Associate Professor Sam Parnia on “Closer To Truth”, titled “What Do Near Death Experiences Mean?” Hosted by Robert Lawrence Kuhn on November 2, 2022. Link: https://youtu.be/j-Boi6rzQms

    Professor Parnia poses a question towards the end of the interview.

    “Does consciousness die with the brain, or does it continue?”

    Then he further states; “Many scientists such as myself (we) are brought up to believe that consciousness and the brain are the same thing. However, when you examine the results of studies of people who have gone through clinical death with cardiac arrest, for these extended periods of time, we see there are clear cases of people where consciousness has continued. But the brain has flatlined and therefore that puts a doubt on that hypothesis. And it suggests that we could have been wrong. Maybe, consciousness is a separate entity to the brain, but it uses the brain like electromagnetic waves need a TV set to show sound and picture”.

    On a personal note, my partner had a Near Death Experience (NDE) which occurred during severe complications following triple by-pass coronary surgery on August 1, 2005. During the procedure he experienced cardiac arrest, which required multiple attempts to resuscitate him with a defibrillator, leaving severe bruising. The phenomenology (in part), of his NDE was as follows (which was published);

    “My finite ego-consciousness felt connected to a rapturously beautiful Light, a loving Presence and a Source of wisdom which seemed to be cosmic, infinite, numinous, timeless and eternal, not spatiotemporally bound and without any apparent beginning or end. The light seemed to be far brighter than the external sun, boundless and all enveloping. I experienced what seemed to be augmented wisdom in fields of knowledge beyond what I had formally studied and a sense of numinous becoming in which I was participating…………..I was filled with a profound sense of tasks yet to be fulfilled and contributions to be made to science, and humanity; work which might further the work of those who had come before me, especially in depth psychology, psychoanalysis and religion, and an inward vision of participating in a Copernican revolution in science and a mystical theology which would replace archaic doctrines and an interventionist God external to the cosmos. The numinous experience was of a cosmic and radiantly beautiful Presence though not anthropomorphic in form. The experience was formless except for that of the rapturously beautiful enveloping Light and sense of Presence”.

    My partner passed away on September 23, 2020. I was with him for the five weeks in hospital and helping with his care, which the nursing staff appreciated. He lost consciousness in the last few hours, and I was gently stroking his face, thanking him for our beautiful journey together and saying that I loved him, and encouraging him to move towards the Light. He opened his eyes and said clearly ‘I love you Greg”.

    As soon as he said these words his breathing changed dramatically, gradually becoming shallow with pauses in between. His breath became shorter and shorter with gaps between each breath, the gaps getting longer, until finally he drew his last breath at 7.05 PM.

    I do believe, and I think the evidence supports the hypothesis that Consciousness continues beyond our death!

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