A Last-Second Surge of Brain Activity Could Explain Near-Death Experiences

A sense of peace, tranquility, perhaps even euphoria. A powerful feeling of being disconnected from one’s own body. A sensation of floating upward, through a tunnel, perhaps towards a bright light.

Over the past few decades, as our ability to resuscitate patients suffering from cardiac arrest has improved, thousands of people worldwide have reported these experiences in the moments just after their heart stopped pumping blood—a condition formally known as clinical death—and before they were fully resuscitated. Many take these near-death experiences to be evidence of the afterlife, a tantalizing window into the journey that our souls might undergo after our time on Earth is over.

Proving the existence of the afterlife is, of course, beyond the scope of science. But something physical might be able to explain the phenomena of near death experiences, according to a new finding by a team of neuroscientists from the University of Michigan. They observed, at least in the brains of rats, a sudden surge of electrical activity that continues for roughly 30 seconds after clinical death. This activity, they write in a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “demonstrate that the mammalian brain can, albeit paradoxically, generate neural correlates of heightened conscious processing at near-death.”

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