Partial Breakthrough In Understanding Near Death Experiences

On August 13, 2013 by Tim Newman

Near Death Experience - peaceful science

Near Death Experiences (NDEs) have been reported across the world, by different cultures, and throughout history. Intense lights, life flashing past, and vivid emotions are commonly reported by those that have been on the brink of kicking the bucket.

NDEs are not an easy subject to research and, as big pharma companies won’t make any money and no lives will be saved, not that many scientists have run solid studies on them. A team from the University of Michigan, however, have recently published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that adds to the small collection of info we have gathered.

The team measured brain activity in nine rats as they died of cardiac arrest. It was the first study to systematically investigate brain activity after cardiac arrest. Most people had assumed that once the heart stopped, brain activity would either diminish or disappear completely, but they found that the reverse was true. The brain became overstimulated and hyper-excited.

In the 30 seconds following cardiac arrest, there was an upswell in gamma oscillations within the brain; in fact, they found more gamma activity than within a living brain.

What Are Gamma Oscillations?

Near Death Experience - science theory

These gamma waves clock in at about 40Hz and were the last of the brain waves to be characterised. So what’s the significance of gamma oscillations? They feature in another field of study which is impenetrable and super tricky – the study of consciousness.

Consciousness is an unwieldy jelly-like subject. It’s hard to even begin to explain what it is, let alone how or why it is. But, gamma oscillations often crop up. One of the big questions in consciousness is how the brain collates multiple sensory inputs and presents them to us as a clear, consecutive experience that we can understand. For instance, the parts of the brain that process vision, taste, smell and touch are spread throughout the brain, but when you pick up a cheese burger and take a bite, all of those elements seem to come together seamlessly and without any confusion. This problem is called the “binding problem” (click here for a good description of the binding problem).

Some theorists posit that gamma waves help the brain synchronise and makes sense of the world we parade around in. The theory goes that synchronized gamma oscillations flow from the thalamus and spread across the brain 40 times a second, bringing disparate regions of the brain into perfect sync, allowing us to bring whatever we are focusing on into the foreground of our consciousness.

Evidence is hard to come by for many reasons, but one experiment in 2004 gives an interesting insight into gamma waves. They took eight Tibetan monks and eight novice meditators and measured their brain waves whilst meditating. During normal meditation, there was no difference in brain pattern, but once they were asked to generate a feeling of compassion, the monk’s patterns changed significantly. Gamma oscillations were spontaneously generated at a level never seen in a healthy human before. I suppose it proves nothing about consciousness, but it might point to that often reported NDE factor — an incredibly calm sense of peace before the end.

So, this new NDE study theorizes, very tentatively, that an increase of gamma oscillation in a dying brain may bring together areas of the brain and try to make sense of the strange situation of dying. Throwing up images, smells, lights and whole gamut of emotions as a kind of last ‘Hurrah’ of the crumbling organ.

As I mentioned at the start of this piece, there’s not a lot of profit to be made from these sorts of studies (at least not yet), so it may well be a long while until we’re thrown any more information about near death experiences. So this will have to do for now.






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