Near Death Experiences: A View of the Other Side or a Neuropsychiatric Event?

20 Aug

You’ve heard the stories countless times. Someone has a brush with death but survives and later reports some very odd happenings. A bright light that pulls them forward, or pushes them away. A floating sensation where they hover near the ceiling and look down on their own rescue or surgical procedure. They might report seeing images from their past or people they’ve known who have passed on, beckoning them to join them in heaven.

Is this what is happening? Are these events a glimpse at what lies beyond the curtain that separates life and death? Or is there a physiological explanation for these phenomena?

In an excellent article that appeared in a recent issue of New Scientist, this phenomenon was discussed by neurologist Dr. Kevin Nelson. He points out that we basically have three states of consciousness: Awake, Non-REM Sleep, and REM Sleep. He emphasizes that these three stages are not distinctly separate but rather overlap one another. And it is in these gaps that near-death experiences live.

Such experiences are most often reported by those who suffer cardiac arrest. A cardiac arrest occurs when the heart ceases to function, either because its electrical activity has stopped or it has become extremely chaotic usually in deadly rapid rhythms that we call ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation. In either case, the heart is no longer and effective pump and blood circulation ceases. The brain requires a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients. If this is interrupted it begins to malfunction and if severely interrupted, as with a stoppage of the heart, brain death begins almost immediately.


So how does this relate to a near-death experience?

One of the areas of the brain that will begin to malfunction early are the eyes and the visual cortex near the back of the brain. As vision begins to fail it does so in an out to in manner. That is, from the periphery to the center. This results in a tunneling of the vision so that it appears as though you’re looking down a gun barrel or a hallway or perhaps a pathway to heaven. What is left of the vision is typically a vague light that is enhanced by all the adrenaline running around in the brain as it fights to survive. This might make the light appear much brighter and this will enhance the victim’s tunnel-like vision and create the bright-light image.

Other areas of the brain are concerned with body position and location in space and when these malfunction the perception of where you are can be altered. This leads to a feeling of floating and in some people their brain constructs the image of their surroundings as if they were looking down on everything, including themselves. Interestingly, PCP (phencyclidine or Angel Dust) can cause a similar reaction, as part of a Depersonalization Syndrome.

This level of consciousness is similar to what psychiatrists and neurologists have called Lucid Dreams. These are dreams that occur in that zone between wakefulness and sleep. They are often extremely real and when someone awakens from them they’re not sure if the events really happened or not. The brain is capable of constructing all types of images and scenarios. Some of these may indeed be the faces and forms of past love ones and when coupled with a loss of spatial orientation and tunnel vision, it can look as though they are ghostly apparitions from heaven.

Near-death experiences are not common but they are often dramatic. In my nearly 40 years of practicing cardiology I have seen this phenomenon many times.


20 responses to “Near Death Experiences: A View of the Other Side or a Neuropsychiatric Event?

  1. Sheila Lowe

    August 20, 2011 at 9:18 am

    I recently heard about an experiment (and I’m sorry I don’t have a specific reference at this moment) where a certain image on a computer was placed near the ceiling (I think in the operating theatre) so the patient could not see it. In numerous NDE reports the patient described the image. I think Shakespeared had it right: There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” : )


    • EEG

      August 21, 2011 at 7:40 am

      I couldn’t find the report either (I’ll ask my boss tomorrow), but what she’d told me was that a very rich donor paid a lot of money to hospitals to do research in this field. The hospitals didn’t know exactly what to do with the money, so they installed TV screens to the ceiling in a way that nobody in the OR could see them and the only way to see the images would be through an out-of-the-body floating experience. If I find out more, I’ll post again, but at the time my boss told me this story, there had not been any reports on people describing the pictures on the ceiling.


      • EEG

        August 21, 2011 at 7:52 am

        I found it! We were talking about Mary Roach’s book “Spook,” which I haven’t read, but my boss did, and that’s where she learned of these experiments. There’s a nice interview on NPR, though it’s from 2006:
        I’d be interested to hear if anybody has heard of updates on that experiment. Apparently it’s (or was) at the University of Virginia, where they clinically stop the heart in certain surgeries.


  2. Laura Rift

    August 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Hi Sheila, by the way. I think Shakespeare DID have it right, but still not sold on the heaven idea. I wish I could believe in…something, but not able to, at least yet.


    • Carola Dunn

      August 21, 2011 at 11:48 am

      I’d prefer to believe in reincarnation. It would be nice to think everyone had a chance to go back and do things better next time.


  3. Elaine Abramson

    August 20, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Hi Doug, I had several near death experiences in 1992. They occurred after having an operation for a deviated septim. In mine, a black hooded creature with a powerful arm tried to pull me into a long tunnel. Each time the episode ended when my husband rolled over in bed and put his arms around me. My doctors said I had had a true near death experience but attributed it to the fact that I was not getting enough oxygen. They said when my breathing became normal the episodes would end and they did. Read about them in Daughter of Spies.

    Elaine Sandra Abramson
    Thursday’s Child, Another Thursday’s Child
    Daughter of Spies
    Deadly Mystery series.



    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 21, 2011 at 6:22 am

      Your situation sounds more like a dream state since a true near death experience happens in near death situations such as during a cardiac arrest. Breathing troubles that cause an obstruction of the air passages and result in a lowering of blood oxygen levels can indeed trigger some odd dreams but that’s different from a true near death experience. Still scary.


  4. David Brollier

    August 20, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    I know of people who have clinically died. One was dead for I believe 45 minutes, and while he didn’t say much about a tunnel, he did talk about light. He also describe, in painfully inadequate fashion, some of what he saw in Heaven. I don’t think all near death experiences can be limited to our natural explanations. There is a whole spiritual world out there that we are part of, but most of us refuse to acknowledge. That doesn’t me it isn’t there. I just means many chose not to see it. I think some people who have near death experiences get a glimpse of this spiritual world.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 21, 2011 at 6:19 am

      That’s what makes this so intriguing—no one knows for sure. Which of course is true for almost everything.


  5. Carly Carson

    August 21, 2011 at 5:37 am

    Facts can be so ugly. I really wanted to believe those near-death experiences were a clue to an after-life. But thanks for the info. (Not that everything has been explained yet by science.)


  6. M.E. Anders

    August 21, 2011 at 7:14 am

    This is by far the best explanation (in layman’s terms) I have yet read about NDEs. When I was a fundamentalist Christian, I recall using NDEs as proof of the afterlife. From my enlightened (no pun intended) vantage point, I view this phenomenon through the eyes of science.


  7. Jenny Milchman

    August 21, 2011 at 9:30 am

    I’m interested in David’s comment about most people refusing to acknowledge the spiritual dimension. I have the opposite experience, whereby from what I see people do believe, some very strongly, in this realm.

    Given how wondrous it would be for there to be an afterlife, beyond the neurological explanation, there’s certainly a motivation to see things this way, especially at a moment of bodily and psychic overwhelm.

    Or hey, maybe it’s up there, and everyone already partaking are laughing as we continue to debate.

    Thanks for the post. This site is a fount of information.


    • Carola Dunn

      August 21, 2011 at 11:50 am

      To me, the oddest thing is how the people who believe most strongly in an afterlife are those who cling to life most strongly and are most afraid of death–the people who thank god for an escape from an accidental death, for instance, when dying would presumably have sent them to their heaven.


    • David Brollier

      August 21, 2011 at 12:35 pm

      In a sense you are correct about my position, but I’m limited by space. There are those who believe in a spiritual realm, and those who do not (such as M.E. Anders who has traded God in for science). The fact is there is only One Truth, one right spiritual realm. People love to wander around in some “other” spiritual realm so long as they aren’t held accountable to God. Psychics are interesting people. Wrong, but interesting. I know I speak authoritatively, but why shouldn’t I. See, my “eternal life” began when I was seven, and I’ve found no one who has been successful in challenging my God. In their minds perhaps, but it never works out logically.

      My whole argument on this is based upon one thing, when you limit opinions and then conclusions, to what we know physically we are really out of our depth. Like the person who says, “God can’t do such and such because it would violate the laws of science.” Ah, where do you think the laws of science come from? And are you absolutely sure we have them all and understand them all. Isn’t it quite possible that the Lawmaker knows a few laws we haven’t even discovered yet?


  8. Sheila Lowe

    August 21, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Thanks @EEG. It was just last Sunday that a psychotherapist friend of mine told me that she heard or read (memory fails me) an interview that there were indeed responses in that experiment, that numerous patients did report what was on that screen. I’ll ask her if she remembers.


  9. Elizabeth Zelvin

    August 21, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Like most of us, I’m scared of dying. The thing that’s always struck me the most about these near death experiences is that everyone that’s had them describes an absence of fear, a feeling of peace. This emotional state may have a neurological explanation too, but hey, I’ll take it.


  10. Ray Cole

    August 21, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Dr. Nelson’s hypothesis about the visual cortex’s periphery-to-central diminishing supply of oxygen, and its resultant illusion of a tunnel is very logical, and therefore, somewhat convincing, but it doesn’t explain a whole lot of other phenomena that are associated with the classical near-death experience. Of course, many of these phenomena are anecdotal and cannot be replicated at will in a laboratory, so they are viewed by the scientific community with skepticism, if not outright disdain. However, keep in mind that the inability to reproduce something does not mean that it is not true. If you don’t believe such a statement, then try to convince me or anyone else that gravity is not true. You can’t reproduce it at will, yet it is undeniably real. Is it the result of warped spacetime, as Einstein held? Is it the result of “gravitons” (particles, such as all the others in the “particle zoo)? Is it the result of “gravity waves?” And the same can be said of life, itself, as well as many other things. I’m sure everyone would agree that life is undeniably real, but no one has yet been able to reproduce it.

    When mentioning phenomena associated with near death experiences, I am referring, of course, to such things as: feeling separated from the body and viewing events from a distance; being able to correctly describe what was said and done, even though having a brain with no blood flow, oxygenation, or measureable EEG activity; being able to accurately describe the experiencer’s surroundings, even though they had been blind from birth; being able to accurately recount what was occurring in adjoining rooms, hallways, at the time of the experience; etc. These things must either be brushed aside as being lies, hallucinatory, or else they must be explained in a logical way.

    And one of the most convincing things about these “NDE’s” is the resulting effects on the experiencer’s mindset/lifestyle. If the whole NDE phenomenon is the result of anesthetics, such as ketamine, or merely a lack of oxygen to the brain, then why do experiencers find that their entire outlooks change, afterwards? Anesthetics do not produce such effects. Thousands of people, every day, in countries all over the world, are given anesthetics, but when the anesthetics wear off, they are the same people as before being administered them. They go into the hospital, are given the anesthetic, have their surgery, come out of it, then continue on with life as usual, with no radical, fundamental change in their Weltanschauung. They don’t leave the hospital with a whole new perspective on life’s values. By contrast, those who experience an NDE commonly experience radical, life-altering changes in their values and associated lifestyles. I spoke with one such experiencer who had been an alcoholic for years, prior to being in a car wreck and undergoing an NDE. He told me that he had regularly beaten his wife and his children, before the experience, but afterwards, he never touched another drop of alcohol (not an easy thing for an inveterate alcoholic to do), and changed jobs, in order to do the only thing he had learned that matter in this life: to help and love others. Prior to the experience, he had his own small business, but afterwards, he sought employment in a nursing home, where he took a large reduction in pay, in order to help the elderly. This is a typical story, repeated by “NDE’ers,” regardless of their backgrounds or cultures. Anesthetics simply do not produce such results. They have only temporary physiological effects, but no lasting effects upon the mind or psyche. On the contrary, anesthetics typically produce distorted, unreal experiences–shadowy hallucinations that lack coherence, much as common dreams that lead from one bizarre, crazy scene to yet another, without any logical continuity–as opposed to the strikingly real, coherent experiences encountered during an NDE. Many “NDE’rs” commonly use phrases such as “more real than this reality,” or “more real than life,” when trying to express the clarity and coherence of their experience. There is nothing they forget about such experiences, even though they might have occurred decades earlier. When they recount the experience, the details remain the same. This is in sharp contrast to memories of dreams or even memories of normal life events, which can be retold differently, after many years.

    There are other inexplicable associated phenomena, as well, but I have already written too much, here, and have probably lost the interest of most readers, so I will quit.


  11. J.D.

    August 22, 2011 at 5:15 am

    Dr. Lyle, patients with migraines experience changes in their vision. They sometimes have numbness or weakness. Aren’t these symptoms caused by reduced blood flow to the brain? Are you familiar with any cases where migraines progressed to altered consciousness?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 22, 2011 at 7:11 pm

      Yes migraine syndrome is in the broader category of vascular headaches meaning the physiology behind them involves alterations in blood flow to the brain. This can produce a wide variety of symptoms–headaches of course but also visual, auditory, odorous, taste and tactile auras, seizures, loss of consciousness, visual and hearing disturbances, altered behavior, confusion, and a host of other things. It’s a strange and not well understood syndrome.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: