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When the brain dies – Near Death Experiences

 So what is the Near Death Experience (NDE) of Brain Death?

It’s an interesting syndrome, involving visual and auditory events, happening on clinical death of a brain. It’s neither uncommon, nor specific to the West. Indeed, it was reported in hundreds of cases all around the world.

OK, so what is the NDE? How can it be explained? Is it just a brain projection, or a supernatural experience of a superior power?

  • NDE occurs when you brain dies (clinical death), and you experience leaving your body, seeing and hearing different things, and you feel like going into another world
  • One scientific explanation could be that the brain simply projects this to you, as a result of sophisticated defence mechanism
  • The other theory is that the NDE is simply your soul leaving the body, and the God taking your consciousness away
  • The real cause of NDE is unknown, but this article discusses different aspects of both theories


Supernatural experience or simple physiology

People over the centuries have contemplated the meaning of death.

This irreversible experience is one of the most important problems of medicine and philosophy.

There is a variety of conditions, which may cause that our heart, the natural and regular rhythm of life, will stop. We call it the cardiac arrest or clinical death, which is more often used in anaesthesiology and intensive care. During clinical death,


A bit of a history

In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross crossed the border of medical taboo. She interviewed a number of patients in terminal stadium of life. Kübler-Ross was the first contemporary scientist, who classified five stages of dying, and described the NDE. It was the impulse to investigate that phenomenon further.

In his book “Life after death” (1975), Raymond A. Moody published a classification of NDE syndromes. All of these were surprisingly common in patient relations, let’s explore some of them:

  • Feeling of exteriorization, a projection of tunnel and bright light on the end,
  • Presence of peaceful, blissful and loveable atmosphere,
  • Sensation of going into another reality,

Another breakthrough moment happened in 2001, when Pim van Lommel, a Dutch cardiologist confirmed in his clinical studies that consciousness may be present during flat-lined brain activity. This means that consciousness can continue, even though your brain is essentially… dead.

The latest input came from Sam Parnia, the coordinator of the AWARE project, who was first to perform scientific qualitative analysis of the NDE phenomenon.

Yet still, the NDE experience is not completely understood. Let’s find out what we know.


Neuropathology of dying

Death is a particularly stressful situation for our brain. It will trigger a lot of defensive mechanisms to protect itself from damage.

Terminal stadiums see the stimulation of locus coeruleus, a brain structure, which is responsible for releasing of catecholamines (type of neurotransmitters & communicators). Pathways connected with locus coeruleus lead to amygdala, hippocampus and the cortex.

In a nutshell, the brain will start shooting signalling to various areas in the brain responsible for anxiety, fear, and visual or auditory hallucinations.

Death can also be imaginary. Patients with Cotard Syndrome, present awareness of being dead. It’s obviously a psychiatric condition, which arises due to degeneration of fusiform gyrus (face recognition area), and amygdala, which connects faces with suitable emotions. So, as we can see death can be also imaginary.


Can a soul leave your body?

Everyone heard the story of NDE patient feeling they have left their body, could see the operation theatre, or even look in the eye of St. Peter’s. They say they could feel it quite vividly, touching equipment, hearing conversations, watching other people. Could this be explained scientifically?

Olaf Blanke and colleagues induced feeling of exteriorization (i.e. feeling of leaving your body) by stimulating of temporoparietal junction. Their experiment shown that being out of body can also take place in vitro. What about tactile, auditory and visual hallucinations? It’s common during administering drugs and psychotropic substances, such LSD and psylocybine ( stimulation of serotoninergic nucleus raphe medialis- MRN in mesencephalic reticular system).

Tunnel of light? It seems simple, when we know that retina is very sensible for hypoxia… So the NDE is simply a bunch of physiologically explainable symptoms, from peripheral retinal cells to medial degeneration?

It’s possible.


The Lord has changed my mind

Although scientific explanation seems perfectly plausible, all these explanations are still insufficient for patients, who experienced near death phenomenon. NDE is very often a trigger for changing of morality and lifestyle into more religious, and value-driven one.

Let’s assume that the supernatural explanation is right. There are some valid arguments to support it. You may say that it’s because the Christian culture implies some vision of death and going to heaven, hence the brain projections. However, NDE hallucinations all over the world are very, very similar. They happen to all people, regardless of their religion, gender, nationality of culture.

The consciousness per se cannot be explained by any medical or physiological theory; despite hundreds of years of research, we are still not able to say how the brain cells, tiny things exchanging chemicals, can actually generate the most human-defining phenomenon.

Literally, we don’t know how ‘us’ is… us.

Could it be possible that the consciousness is a mere signal, projected upon our bodies by supernatural creature, which then leaves the body once it’s no longer capable of sustaining life, or maybe even at the shake of head of that creature. Could this be what many people call soul?

After all, NDE is a combination of various neurophysiological phenomena. Obviously, there’s a chance that they will all occur at the same time, but when you consider that they will have to happen ALL at ONCE, EVERY time, in EVERY case all over the world.

I very much doubt so.

We have two conflicting theories — NDE is a combination of scientifically explainable phenomena or it’s one of the best scientifically-described supernatural occurrences in modern medicine.


Exit science enter philosophy

Let me ask you one question, just entertain the possibility that these two worlds can come together, and somewhat intercalate in the NDE situation. What if all the symptoms are indeed a neuropathological mechanism, but are induced by a supernatural force? If we assume that such force could operate through our empirical forces and play our human rules, it could surely provide a third, equally valid explanation.

Please let me know what you think. Do you agree? What is your favourable theory? Do you know someone who experienced NDE and would like to share their experience? Let’s talk.

And, as always, Thanks for reading.

About the author

Przemyslaw Zakowicz

Przemyslaw Zakowicz

Przemyslaw is a sixth-year medical student at Poznan University of Medicine. He is particularly interested in neuropharmacology, anaesthesia, psychiatry and addictions. Privately, he is a thriving multi-instrumental musician and a poetry-empowered classicist. FNS since 2015.

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23 thoughts on “When the brain dies – Near Death Experiences

  1. I believe, Sir, that you are mistaken. The NDE experiences are truthful and ultimate evidence for the existence of God, our saviour. Are you scientists never satisfied with the evidence? I can’t understand why our Lord has to send you more and more, and you’ll always come up with some dodgy neuro stuff.

    1. Yes, I really agree with you. Scientists always want to find more and more answers. But isn’t it our role ? Thank you.

  2. I really feel this article is well thought! Nice conclusion though, I never would’ve thgought that you can connect the two world. One question, what does face recognition thing to do with this stuff, I got that lost.

    1. Thank you. Defects in self-recognition of face may result in depersonalisation; a person, who doesn’t identify his face with “ego”, can really imagine that he isn’t in his own body.

  3. I am not quite convinced by the notion of scientific explanation of the supernatural. This seems quite unrealistic to explain. God’s intervention is God’s intervention. That’s it, get over it. I’m glad you said that in your article. It’s really informative and simply written. Very good!

  4. I have read this article from desk to desk and I have to say I’m impressed. Good stuff, but still not quite answering the question??? Is it God or what?

  5. I believe this article is very informative and well-written. I applaud you Dr Zakowicz on that achievement. In the future, I want to see more of those.

  6. I have strong feeling that this discussion is not going in the right direction… should we be really disusing the God’s delusion in the realm of academia?

    1. Gratia supponit naturam. Everything is based on physiology and Natural laws, even God’s delusion, in my opinion 🙂

      1. So, you are thus implying that God doesn’t exist and it’s just a projection of human brain? Good to hear, as it wasn’t so obvious from the religious part of the article… Thanks for clarifying!!!

        1. No, Sir. I just wanted my article to be objective, so I presented neurological and religious explanation. Personally I think that the scientific and religious point of view can coexist.

      1. Our hearts are battered, but they will mend. The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end. And good will prevail as the One God of many names will prevail. Allah shall bestow death on those who sin again the Truth in wobbly scientific agenda.

  7. I have been looking for this info everywhere… finally someone can explain these things without the mysticism and church BS

  8. Moody’s book is “Life after Life”, but no matter. What do you think of neurologist Eben Alexander’s NDE? He argues his NDE was not hallucinatory on the basis of the non-functioning of the neocortex during coma. But he doesn’t account for REM intrusion to my knowledge.

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