Brain and Body

The Surprising Ways Near-Death Experiences Affect the Brain

September 15, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Photo credit:

Near-death experiences have a profound effect on the brain, deceiving and altering it in different ways.

The feeling that people endure throughout a near-death experience is incomprehensible. Unless you’ve been on the brink of death, it’s probably something that your mind can’t even grasp. Recent research on near-death survivors has shown that these experiences actually alter the brain and can play a few surprising tricks on us.

A study, published in the journal Clinical Psychology Science, looked at the brains of eight passengers who were on the Air Transat Flight 236 from Toronto to Lisbon. On August 24, 2001, the plane ran out of fuel over the ocean, and for 30 minutes, the passengers and cabin crew lived with the traumatizing realization that their plane could go down into the water at any minute.

Luckily, the plane crash-landed in the Azores and everyone survived, but the trauma from the experience became ingrained in the survivors’ brains. Nine years later, brain imaging of the eight passengers revealed the memories of the horrifying event remained “crystal clear” and lit up the distinct brain areas related to memory, emotion, and visual processing. Although it happened almost a decade prior to the time of the scans, the near-death experience still haunts the passengers — even those that did not acquire PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Brian Levine, senior author of the paper, said in a press release, “Thanks to the passengers who volunteered, we were able to examine the human brain’s response to traumatic memory at a degree of vividness that is generally impossible to attain.”

In the second phase of the study, the eight survivors were placed inside an MRI scanner and asked to watch video clips related to the 9/11 attacks— an event that occurred just three weeks after the Air Transat incident but one that would be much less personal to them. Nonetheless, the scanner showed that the same areas of the brain associated with the emotional memory of their own traumatic experience lit up as if they’d been there. The results suggest that survivors of near-death experiences react more strongly to events than people who hadn’t gone through personal trauma.

It’s also no secret that people claim to encounter many different types of unusual sensations or phenomena during near-death experiences: moving toward the light at the end of the tunnel, the sensation of floating or feeling lightweight, feelings of peace and enlightenment, and profoundly spiritual encounters, like having a conversation with God.

However, scientific evidence suggests that the experience is, in fact, not spiritual or metaphysical, but chemical. These moments are actually a function of anoxia, or oxygen deprivation in the brain.

Another recent study (published April 6) determined that the brain is more active during the dying process than in the waking state. Researchers observed that, in the 30-second period after lab mice’s hearts stopped beating, there was an immediate release of more than a dozen neurochemicals, triggering a connection between the brain and the heart.

Caroline Watt of the University of Edinburgh says that, “contrary to popular belief, research suggests that there is nothing paranormal about these experiences. Instead, near-death experiences are the manifestation of normal brain function gone awry, during a traumatic, and sometimes harmless, event.”

Not only do near-death experiences permanently alter the brain, but they also trick the brain into thinking metaphysical or spiritual experiences occurred. Within the people who survive these unusual events, the effects will deeply resonate. Whether physically or psychologically, their brains will be profoundly changed.

Hot Topics

Facebook comments