Near-Death Experiences Likely Caused by Lack of Oxygen

More support for a psychological basis of near-death experiences comes from a new study involving cardiac arrest in rats. Continue reading →

Near-death experiences, in which people claim to encounter a variety of unusual phenomena, including moving through a tunnel toward light, feeling lightweight, feeling peace and joy, and profoundly spiritual moments, have often been classified by scientific researchers as a function of anoxia, or oxygen deprivation in the brain.

For many people, and the religious in particular, the phenomenon of near-death experience - assuming it's real and not simply a result of a dying brain's hallucinatory interpretation of a flood of brain chemicals - validates their belief in the afterlife and heaven. Many books have been written by people who claim to have come back from the brink of death and seen God and heaven (though earlier this year the best-selling memoir "The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven" was admitted by its author to have been faked).

Scientific evidence, however, suggests that the experience is not a spiritual or metaphysical one, but instead a chemical one.

A new study in which researchers induced anoxia in rats offers more support for near-death experiences (NDEs) as happening inside the dying brain and being interpreted as an out-of-body or spiritual experience.

The researchers examined neurotransmitters, changes in brain and heart electrical activity and brain-heart connectivity. They concluded, "Asphyxia stimulates a robust and sustained increase of functional and effective cortical connectivity, an immediate increase in cortical release of a large set of neurotransmitters... . These results demonstrate that asphyxia activates a brainstorm, which accelerates premature death of the heart and the brain."

According to an article at, the researchers found that "the brain is much more active during the dying process than in the waking state... In the 30-second period after the animal's hearts stopped beating, the researchers observed an immediate release of more than a dozen neurochemicals, while high-frequency brainwaves called gamma oscillations increased.

"This activity seemed to trigger a connection between the brain and the heart... . [Lead author Jimo] Borjigin believes a similar, elevated level of brain activity may also happen during the human experience of ‘near death' and it is this that gives rise to a heightened state of consciousness, including the visions experienced by survivors of cardiac arrest."

This "brainstorm," or cascade of neurotransmitter chemicals, can cause benign hallucinations such as those reported in NDEs. This new study joins several others implicating anoxia as a contributing (if not causative) factor to near-death experiences. Researcher Borjigin had conducted previous research with similar findings in 2013, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Causes of Near-Death Experiences When examining near-death experiences, it's important to understand that no one has survived true clinical death (which is why the experiences are called "near-death").

Many people have been revived after their heart stopped beating for short periods of time - around 20 minutes or more - but no one has actually come back from the dead. Anyone revived from true brain death would be permanently and irreparably brain damaged and unable to report their experiences.

Researcher Susan Blackmore, author of "Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences" (Prometheus Books, 1993), notes that many NDEs (such as euphoria and the feeling of moving toward a tunnel of white light) are common symptoms of oxygen deprivation in the brain.

A 2001 article published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences by neuroscientist Dean Mobbs, of the University of Cambridge's Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, and Caroline Watt, of the University of Edinburgh, found 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."

In fact, the researchers noted that many classic NDE symptoms are reported by people who were never actually in danger of dying and thus are not necessarily correlated with near-fatal trauma.

A 2010 study in the journal Critical Care found that of 52 heart attack patients, 11 reported having NDEs. Between one in four and one in ten heart attack survivors report some form of near-death experience.

Surprisingly, only a minority of people who are actually near death report near-death experiences; they are the exception, not the rule. This may be because not all circumstances that may bring a person near death necessarily involve conditions under which anoxia would be expected. A near-drowning victim, for example, would be more likely to experience an NDE than someone whose lung functions were normal but whose injury or condition involved the brain or another major organ.

Additional evidence for an earthly explanation for near-death experiences can be found in the fact that the phenomena can be chemically induced. The drug ketamine, for example, sometimes used in anesthesia, is similar to PCP and can create visual and auditory hallucinations such as those reported in NDEs.

The new study, "Asphyxia-activated corticocardiac signaling accelerates onset of cardiac arrest," was conducted by the University of Michigan Medical School and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Benito Mussolini

The death of infamous and controversial world leaders doesn't usually make for a pretty picture. But the moment is historic nonetheless and has been captured on film for nearly a century. The White House announced it won't be releasing images of Osama bin Laden's slain body. But take a look back at past death shots of other infamous and controversial leaders. Here, Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, hang on display after being executed by firing squad on April 29, 1945.

Vladimir Lenin

In this photograph, Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Communist Party, lies in state. Lenin suffered several strokes before his death on Jan. 21, 1924, at the age of 53. His body is still on display in Moscow.

Adolf Hitler

One of the most hated men in history is supposedly shown here, dead, after taking his own life to prevent capture in 1945. Although not officially confirmed to be Hitler's death photo, the image was widely circulated and is believed to be the dictator.

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin took control of Communist Russia after Lenin's death and ruled throughout WWII. Stalin died on March 5, 1953, at the age of 74 and was laid to rest next to Lenin in Lenin's mausoleum. His body was later removed from the mausoleum and buried next to the Kremlin.

Che Guevara

Bolivian soldiers stand beside the corpse of Argentinian Marxist leader Che Guevara after he was executed on Oct. 10, 1967.

Francisco Franco

Infamous Spanish military leader General Francisco Franco lies in state on Nov. 23, 1975. He died from health problems at the age of 82.

Mao Zedong

Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong is credited with holding authoritarian control of China for nearly three decades. After his death from various medical complications on Sept. 9, 1976, his body was placed on display in a glass coffin in Tienanmen Square, where it remains to this day.

Saddam Hussein

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was hanged on Dec. 30, 2006, after being found guilty of crimes against humanity. The Iraqi government videotaped the execution and released it to the public. The above photograph is a video grab from the Russian NTV television channel.

Follow our comprehensive coverage of the killing of bin Laden HERE.