Science knows what death feels like

Near Death - A Glimpse into the Hereafter?

"A place of pulsating, pounding darkness"

On November 10th, 2008 Eben Alexander woke up with an insane headache. He says goodbye to his son at school and then lies down. Two hours later his wife finds him lying on the bed, convulsing, eyes rolled back. He spends the next seven days in intensive care, closer to death than life.

The reason is an extremely rare form of meningitis, in which Alexander's brain functions gradually fail. "I was only present as a body to my family. My mind, my spirit ... had said goodbye," he writes in his book "Blick in die Ewigkeit". Before that, his life had been extremely successful: medical studies, doctorate from Duke University Medical School, own research and lecturer at Harvard.

While the doctors are still feverishly trying to find out what is missing in order to treat Alexander effectively, he has already passed into a different reality.

Alexander describes the beginning of his near-death experience as follows: "A place of pulsating, pounding darkness. Grotesque animal faces bubbled out of the mud, moaned or cawed and disappeared again. Whoever or whatever I was, I didn't belong here. I had to get out of here But where to? As I was asking this question, something appeared that wasn't cold or dead or dark, but the opposite of all of that. "

Encounter with an omniscient being

A "living sound", a vortex of light surrounds Alexander, through which he enters a fantastic dream world. He flies over an earth-like landscape with trees, meadows and rivers. He watches people sing and dance. In the middle of this world he meets an omniscient being, he calls it Om, the center of the universe. He feels loved and understood, knowing and happy.

His way back runs through the dark place that scared him so much at the beginning. Now he crosses it without fear, since he is now convinced that darkness also belongs to the light. The most important discovery of his journey was "the unconditional love and acceptance" that he had experienced, he said later.

Alexander was in a deep coma for a week, and the doctors were considering turning off the equipment. Before his near-death experience, he was "strictly a man of science" - which he now sees as the wrong path. Because of his near-death experience, he is convinced of a divine existence today.

Consciousness outside the body?

People of different cultures, religions, different ages and from all social classes experience similar things in their near-death experiences; even if those affected have never heard of the phenomenon of "near death" before.

As with Alexander, it often begins with an out-of-body experience. The person concerned has the feeling of leaving his body and floating.

However, the threat that Alexander faced is rather rare. Many people see their bodies from above in near-death experiences and no longer feel pain or fears. They observe the situation from a bird's eye view, and can sometimes tell you very concretely about conversations between doctors or small things in the operating room.

The Dutch cardiologist and near-death researcher Pim van Lommel reports on a patient in whom a nurse removed his teeth during resuscitation and forgot where he had put them. About a week later the patient saw the nurse again and said, "Oh, this nurse knows where my prosthesis is. He removed it and then put it on a cart with lots of drawers."

Whether this "impossible" knowledge is a sign of consciousness outside the body or can be explained purely medically, there is an intense debate among scientists.

Longing for happiness

Near-death experiences are not a new phenomenon: The oldest story in which near-death experiences are mentioned is the Gilgamesh epic, one of the oldest surviving poems from the second millennium BC.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead around 1600 BC, Homer's Odyssey around 700 BC, the Tibetan Book of the Dead around 800 AD and the apocalyptic pictures by the painter Hieronymus Bosch from the 15th century also contain depictions of near-death experiences.

One thing seems to be the same with all near-death experiences: They are associated with very strong, great emotions. Feelings of excitement, euphoria or the icy horror - the emotional depth of these experiences is unforgettable.

Many people with near-death experiences then become strongly believers, such as Eben Alexander. Many have the feeling that they still have an important task to fulfill in life and are enjoying life more intensely than before the near-death experience.

Just a delusion of the brain?

The majority of scientists try to explain near-death experiences in terms of brain activity. A recent study by the University of Michigan seems to confirm this. This shows that activity in the brain of rats increases sharply 30 seconds after cardiac death has occurred.

It is "like a fire that races through the brain". The brains are more active than with normal consciousness. If this were the same for humans, it would indicate that the dying brain once again brings us extraordinary experiences.

The Leipzig neurologist Birk Engmann has dealt critically with the reports of people with near-death experiences in his book "Mythos near-death experience". "All of these phenomena can also occur in patients with epilepsy or under the influence of drugs," says Engmann. With migraines, schizophrenia, meditation, or stress, some people also have an "out-of-body experience".

This is apparently due to an area of ​​the brain in the border area between the temporal and parietal lobes, as researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne have discovered. These brain regions are important for the self-experience of one's own body and its location in space. When this region is activated, an out-of-body experience can occur.

The flood of memories that many people report with near-death experiences could also be related to the impaired function of certain areas of the brain. Visions of light can arise in the occipital lobe that processes visual input even though there is no light at all.

Research at the limit

Both people who believe that near-death experiences provide a glimpse into the afterlife and critics were eagerly awaiting the publication of the AWARE study (Awareness during Resurrection). Doctors at 25 British and nine American clinics examined a total of 1,500 patients who could be resuscitated after their heart or brain had stopped and then reported near-death and out-of-body experiences.

The study found that around 46 percent reported memories from the time they were resuscitated. Two percent of those surveyed were apparently fully conscious during this period. Nevertheless, the informative value of the study is low because the number of respondents is relatively small compared to the total death rates.

In the face of death, can the human spirit really penetrate into spheres that cannot be scientifically explained? Or does our brain just give us hallucinations that feel absolutely real? Brain researchers see no evidence that near-death experiences could be psychic experiences. People who have experienced it themselves, on the other hand, are usually convinced that they were able to glimpse into life after death.