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What Happens to the Brain During a Near-Death Experience

By Wesley Fenlon

Your heart may stop, but your brain keeps on going.

This is your brain on death: White light, peace, euphoria. The near-death experience, as described by some people who have been resuscitated after the clinical death of a stopped heart, points to an afterlife, or something profound happening in the space between life and death. Some scientists are trying to explain the phenomenon, and they may have found the cause. As Surprising Science writes, a surge of brain activity after death may explain the experience of going into the light.

Scientists have discovered that after the heart stops, which is considered clinical death, the brain keeps on ticking. Electrical signals surge for roughly 30 seconds after the heart stops, slowly declining, until they stop altogether. And these aren't the last lingering gasps of brain activity. The brain becomes more active.

Photo credit: Flickr user kaushiknarasimhan via Creative Commons

"At near-death, many known electrical signatures of consciousness exceeded levels found in the waking state, suggesting that the brain is capable of well-organized electrical activity during the early stage of clinical death," said George Mashour, a neurosurgery professor who worked on the study.

This is it then, right? The scientific explanation for the near-death experience? The measured, observable effect of heart failure on the brain? Well, yes--except the study was conducted with rats.

The scientists induced cardiac arrest in nine rats to observe what happened in their brains. An EEG machine measured brain activity and gave them their findings. To make sure it was clinical death, and not just the effects of a heart attack, that caused the burst of activity, they suffocated other rats and got the same results. Performing the same study with human patients would, obviously, be problematic.

Even if the human brain doesn't function exactly the same way, there could be a strong correlation between how the two operate in a near-death situation. Finding volunteers for the next phase of the research, however, may be a challenge.