Unlocking the Mystery Behind Near-Death Experiences

Not everyone sees their life flash before their eyes, researchers say.

ByABC News
June 27, 2014, 1:53 PM

— -- What do you see before you die: a bright light, pearly gates, your life in a flash? One researcher is trying to figure it out.

Steven Laureys, director of the coma science group and the department of neurology at Liege University Hospital in Belgium, interviewed 190 people who claim to have vivid memories of near-death experiences.

“We found the near-death experiences were richer and more real than real than any other experience,” Laureys told ABC News, adding that the experience was generally “quite positive.” “It’s hard to explain how such a rich experience can happen in such a situation where we know the activity of the brain is very, very abnormal.”

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Laureys’ subjects had nearly died from a range of injuries, from near-drowning to cardiac arrest. But their memories of the space between life and death were surprisingly similar.

“Over 80 percent a report feeling of peacefulness,” he said.

Only two subjects reported negative experiences, according to Laureys’ study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

While peacefulness is the prevailing feeling from near-death experiences, a review of studies on the topic suggests out-of-body experiences, altered time perception, bright lights, speeded thoughts and “life review” are also common.

“I think first of all it’s a unique opportunity to better understand consciousness,” Laureys said of studying the phenomenon.

Laureys and his team used the Greyson Method, developed by a psychiatrist to measure the depth of a near-death experience, to establish that all 190 subjects were similarly close to death. They also used a special psychological checklist to ensure that they didn't have false memories from drugs or other injury-related hallucinations.

But the near-death memories were not fuzzy. Instead, the subjects reported vivid memories of their experiences, Laureys said.

Some researchers have hypothesized that oxygen deprivation could be triggering the experiences, but Laureys said that’s unlikely. He said people with injuries that would not immediately affect the flow of oxygen to the brain reported similar memories.

Laureys said he plans on conducting another study that would involve scanning the brains of people who have had near-death experiences to see if there’s any physical change. He’s adamant that more research needs to be done and is even asking the public to share their near-death experience.

If you want to join in on the research you can send your story to Laureys at coma@ulg.ac.be.

The one big question Laureys isn’t touching is whether there’s life after death.

“It’s something that intrigues us,” he said, but “I don’t think we have scientific proof of life after death except organ donation.”