About 10% of people have near-death experiences, according to a study

About 10% of people have near-death experiences, according to a study
About 10% of people have near-death experiences, according to a study. Photo: pexels

It’s a global occurrence: people of all ages, from different latitudes, have reported, in moments when their lives were in real danger, seeing an intense white light, feeling extreme calmness, and somehow hovering above their bodies.

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For neurologists, these so-called near-death experiences (NDEs) have a neural basis, which according to recent research, may be similar to what happens in the brain during certain sleep disorders.

The latest news in this field comes from neurologist Daniel Kondziella of the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), who on June 29, 2019, presented his studies at a meeting of the European Academy of Neurology in Oslo (Norway) according to the NBC News website.

According to him, about 10% of the people who participated in his research claimed to have had near-death experiences.

His and his team’s findings, not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, suggest that typical features of such episodes, such as the bright white light and a sense of tranquility, are likely the result of neural activity in the brain, similar to what is observed during a phenomenon called sleep paralysis.

“I think these experiences can be triggered in near-death situations,” Kondziella told NBC News. “But, upon perceiving these experiences, the brain networks are working to store them, to be revived, to recover these memories, and to tell us about them.”

“I believe that before they faint, (these people) have the near-death experience. When they are revived, the last thing they remember is this experience,” he said.

Broad Definition

Kondziella’s study was based on questionnaires sent anonymously to 1,034 people online. The questionnaires began with a single question: have you ever had a near-death experience?
The definition of such an experience was broad: “Any conscious perceptual experience, including emotional, self-related, spiritual and/or mystical experiences, occurring in a person close to death or in situations of intense physical or emotional danger.” As the answers came from anonymous individuals, it was impossible for researchers to confirm any of the answers.

Caveats aside, researchers found that 106 people, or about 10% of respondents, reported what was considered a “true” near-death experience. Of this total, 53% described the experience as pleasurable, and 14% as unpleasant.

These individuals were also more likely to have a history of extreme and vivid sleep disturbances, referred to as REM sleep intrusion (REM stands for rapid eye movement, the sleep stage in which dreams occur).

This finding, according to researchers, supports the theory that such experiences have a neural basis. During REM sleep, when a person is dreaming, most body muscles become paralyzed so that the actions depicted in dreams don’t manifest physically.

Strange Visions

Sleep paralysis was described by some of the respondents in Kondziella and his team’s study. “Sometimes I wake up at night and can’t move,” wrote one participant. “I see strange things, like spirits or demons at my door, and after a while, I see them coming to my side. I can’t move or speak, and they sit on my chest. It’s terrifying!”
A 2011 review estimated that nearly 8% of the world’s population had at least one episode of sleep paralysis in their lifetime, and not all experiences are as vivid or scary.

Kondziella suggests that the brain mechanisms responsible for these sleep disorders also allow people to visualize experiences when their lives are truly in danger, a hypothesis reinforced by the study’s finding that there is overlap between those who report both phenomena.

The neurologist advocates for what people experience as near-death episodes, often reported as life-changing and spiritually significant. “As a scientist, I think there’s a biological explanation,” he said. “But if there’s a deeper meaning to them, that’s a question for philosophers and religious leaders.”

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