Walk into the Light – Science and the Near-Death Experience

The tunnel of light is the most common association with those who experience near-death

The question of what happens to us when we die has spawned books, songs, plays, and of course, religions. Our mortality has been a central concern of our daily existence throughout the history of human civilization. We understand that it is an end of sorts, but what kind of end? And what happens afterwards? There is no direct proof of anyone returning from the dead (Jesus’ death and resurrection rests on the gospels) and reporting to us what is on the other side. But we do have many instances of what is known as Near-Death Experience (NDE).

First popularized by Raymond Moody in his 1975 book Life After Life, NDE refers to both the physical and spiritual effects of impending death. The most common experiences include feelings of tranquility, warmth, and the presence of the proverbial “tunnel of light”. Some go as far as to suggest that they are drawn into the tunnel of light. These sensations are taken by many as proof of an afterlife.

Science is now trying to figure out what causes these feelings and what they really are and why so many people (at one count 8 million alone in the USA) experience NDE. One study group has launched AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) to look at patients who suffer cardiac arrest.

“Contrary to popular perception, death is not a specific moment,” said leader of the study Dr. Sam Parnia of the University of Southampton in the U.K. “It is a process that begins when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working and the brain ceases functioning — a medical condition termed cardiac arrest, which from a biological viewpoint is synonymous with clinical death.”

Previous research suggests about 10 to 20 percent of people who live through cardiac arrest report lucid, well-structured thought processes, reasoning, memories and sometimes detailed recall of events during their encounter with death.

One study found that people who reported peaceful feelings, bright light and out-of-body experiences during a brush with death are more likely to have had difficulty separating sleep from wakefulness in their everyday lives. Both before and after their near-death experiences, these people often have symptoms of the rapid-eye movement (REM) state of sleep while awake.

The AWARE researchers want to find out what happens to the brain when a person’s body has started to shut down, whether it is possible for people to see and hear during cardiac arrest, and what’s going on during out of body experiences.

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