Scientists have witnessed brain patterns in dying patients that may correlate to commonly reported “near-death” experiences (NDEs) such as lucid visions, out-of-body sensations, a review of one’s own life, and other “dimensions of reality,” reports a new study. These results provide the first evidence of the universality of NDEs.
During an expansive multi-year study led by Sam Parnia, an intensive care doctor and an associate professor in the department of medicine at NYU Langone Health, researchers observed 567 patients in 25 hospitals around the world as they underwent cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) after suffering heart attacks, most of which were fatal.
Electroencephalogram (EEG) brain signals captured from dozens of the patients revealed that episodes of heightened consciousness occurred up to an hour after cardiac arrest. Though most of the patients in the study were sadly not resuscitated by CPR, 53 patients were brought back to life. Of the survivors, 11 patients reported a sense of awareness during CPR and six reported a near-death experience.
Parnia and his colleagues suggest that the transition from life to death can trigger a state of disinhibition in the brain that “appears to facilitate lucid understanding of new dimensions of reality–including people’s deeper consciousness–all memories, thoughts, intentions and actions towards others from a moral and ethical perspective,” a finding with profound implications for CPR research, end-of-life care, and consciousness, among other fields, according to a new study published in Resuscitation.
Patients who survive cardiac arrest “have consistently reported that even though from the perspective of doctors like myself–who try to revive them when they appear to be in a coma and totally unresponsive, teetering between life and death–from their own inner perspective, they find that they’re fully conscious,” Parnia said in a call with Motherboard. “They have an inner experience and their consciousness is not only there but it’s heightened to a level that they’ve never experienced before. Their thoughts become sharper than usual, and clearer than usual.”
“Importantly, this experience also involves a purposeful, meaningful reevaluation of their entire life,” he continued. “Not just random moments, but the entirety of their life. It’s been a mystery, and it’s not one or two anecdotes. There have been a number of studies that have suggested maybe up to 10 percent of the adult population is living with one of these experiences, which if you do the math probably works out to 400 or 500 million people in the world.”
Given the sheer ubiquity and common themes of these NDEs, Parnia and his colleagues set out to search for specific brain waves in dying people that might be linked to the experiences that are so often reported by survivors of close calls with death. Between 2017 and 2020, the team studied hundreds of comatose patients who were undergoing CPR at hospitals in the United Kingdom and the United States. Getting EEG readings in such an intense environment is understandably challenging, and researchers had to record brain activity in the brief breaks between chest compressions. They were able to capture transient biomarkers for lucidity in patients even after the initial cardiac arrest.
“One of the things that was unique about this project is that this was the first time ever where scientists had put together a method to examine for signs of lucidity and consciousness in people as they’re being revived by looking for brain markers, or brain signatures of consciousness, using an EEG device as well as a brain oxygen monitor,” Parnia explained.
“Most doctors are taught and believe that the brain dies after about five or 10 minutes of oxygen deprivation,” Parnia said. This study has shown that this is not the case. The brain doesn’t die if it flatlines within seconds after heart stoppage. The brain is just sleeping. What we were able to show is that actually, the brain can respond and restore function again, even after an hour later, which opens up a whole window of opportunity for doctors to start new treatments.”
Indeed, the study reports that “near-normal/physiological EEG activity (delta, theta, alpha, beta rhythms) consistent with consciousness and a possible resumption of a network-level of cognitive and neuronal activity emerged up to 35-60 minutes into CPR. This is the first report of biomarkers of consciousness during CA/CPR.”
These findings are in line with a wave of recent studies focused on the experiences of dying people, which includes reports of surges of brain activity during death, evidence of a gradual shift to death (as opposed to a sudden event), and common themes in near-death experiences.
Parnia and his colleagues also interviewed 28 survivors of heart attacks about their brushes with death. The team note that the vivid experiences that patients report on the border of life and death are highly distinct from dreams and hallucinations that might occur during the days or weeks of recovery from their cardiac arrest.
Indeed, people from all different backgrounds and cultures tend to report near-death experiences with similar elements, such as an out-of-body journey back to a comforting place like a childhood home, where the person’s life is reviewed in detail through a moral lens, followed by an intuition to return back to the body. This team suggests that the disinhibition of the brain during death is responsible for these experiences. These include new dimensions to reality and glimpses into the future.
“When examining the memories of the death experience, which were shared by a large population around the world, Parnia found that the same themes emerged. “Our conclusion is that this is a real experience that emerges only with death. As we transition from life to death, somehow, this experience occurs.”
“We’re discovering essentially what happens to us all when we go through death; what happens to our consciousness,” he concluded. “Our plans are to do more comprehensive methods of analyzing what’s happening in the brain second-by-second, to essentially map out the neurophysiology of life and death in people as they go through it.”
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