Here's another nail in the near-death experience (NDE) coffin for those who believe that NDE's point to some sort of supernatural, non-physical, soulful, heaven'ish aspect of reality.
The brains of dying rats show signs not of a lack of brain activity, but of hyperactivity. A last neurological gasp, so to speak.
A burst of brain activity just after the heart stops may be the cause of so-called near-death experiences, scientists say.
The insight comes from research involving nine lab rats whose brains were analyzed as they were being euthanized. Researchers discovered what appears to be a momentary increase in electrical activity in the brain associated with consciousness.
This goes a long way toward disproving the notion that when people have a near-death experience, the brain isn't functioning. Or at least, barely is.
Quite the contrary, according to the rat experiment (rats are notoriously physiologically similar to humans in many ways).
Borjigin wanted to find out if there was something happening in the brains of these people who had close calls with death that could help explain these experiences.
"If the near-death experience comes from the brain, there's got to be signs — some measurable activities of the brain — at the moment of cardiac arrest," she says.
But it's really hard to study this in people. So Borjigin and her colleagues decided to study rats. They implanted six electrodes into the brains of nine rats, gave the animals lethal injections and collected detailed measurements of brain activity as they died.
"We were just so astonished," Borjigan tells Shots.
Just after the rats' hearts stopped, there was a burst of brain activity. Their brain suddenly seemed to go into overdrive, showing all the hallmarks not only of consciousness but a kind of hyperconsciousness.
"We found continued and heightened activity," Borjigan says. "Measurable conscious activity is much, much higher after the heart stops — within the first 30 seconds."
Borjigin and her colleagues think they essentially discovered the neurological basis for near-death experiences. "That really just, just really blew our mind. ... That really is consistent with what patients report," she says.
Patients report that what they experienced felt more real than reality — so intense that it's often described as life-altering.
But Borjigan thinks the phenomenon is really just the brain going on hyperalert to survive while at the same time trying to make sense of all those neurons firing. It's sort of like a more intense version of dreaming.
"The near-death experience is perhaps is really the byproduct of the brain's attempt to save itself," she says.
This is a great example of how the scientific method can cast light on quasi-religious beliefs. Eben Alexander claimed that he almost died and went to heaven. That claim deserves extreme skepticism, for reasons described here.
Rats aren't people, obviously.
But this study will stimulate research on what happens to human brains when death approaches. It is likely that rats and people are much alike. Which means that glimpses of "heaven" really are akin to dreams: creations of the brain, not a manifestation of supernatural reality.
It’s called a near-death experience, but the emphasis is on “near.” The heart stops, you feel yourself float up and out of your body. You glide toward the entrance of a tunnel, and a searing bright light envelops your field of vision.
It could be the afterlife, as many people who have come close to dying have asserted. But a new study says it might well be a show created by the brain, which is still very much alive. When the heart stops, neurons in the brain appeared to communicate at an even higher level than normal, perhaps setting off the last picture show, packed with special effects.
“A lot of people believed that what they saw was heaven,” said lead researcher and neurologist Jimo Borjigin. “Science hadn’t given them a convincing alternative.”