Scientists Conclude All Those Near-Death Experiences Are Bullsh*t

...And there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Researchers say near-death experiences can be chalked up to an 'electrical surge in a dying brain.' Yes, my dreams are shattered.

Aug 13, 2013 at 7:00pm | Leave a comment

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I'm beginning to see the light...

I've always been fascinated by near-death experiences. Well, to be honest, I'm fascinated by anything anyone has ever claimed could conceivably possibly maybe happen after we leave Earth. Those dying accounts of people splitting from their bodies, or seeing a last-minute play-by-play of their life's highlight reel, or hovering near the ceiling looking down on themselves while surgeons ply a stray bullet from their gut in the E.R.? I eat that sh*t up. It's weirdly addictive, hence my embarrassing (but still small-ish! I swear!) collection of paranormal books, which I hide in a special spot underneath my bed (with my beloved true-crime collection, of course).

In any case, I'm far from alone in my intrigue -- according to one (old) Gallup poll, up to eight million (!) Americans may have had a near-death experience.

I wonder if all those people will also find this BBC News article ever so slightly depressing (I do). In it, writer Rebecca Morelle says scientists have determined that "a surge of electrical activity in the brain could be responsible for the vivid experiences described by near-death survivors." How'd they figure that out? By testing on rats, of course -- the researchers found high levels of brainwaves at the time of the creatures' death. What this means? As the website Bustle notes, "Their brains ... survive for a few moments after the heart stops, and moments before death, are flooded with electrical activity."

The primary author of the study, Dr. Jimo Borjigin of the University of Michigan, said: "A lot of people thought that the brain after clinical death was inactive or hypoactive, with less activity than the waking state... if anything, it is much more active during the dying process than even the waking state."

Hence, such an active brain could -- and, apparently, does -- produce bizarre, lovely, near-hallucinatory visions that look and feel like crossing over to "the other side," but in reality, are just ... routine last-minute scrambles of an organ desperately trying to process what's going on.

This makes me sad in the same way every piece of evidence pointing to the cold, final conclusion that death is the actual, for-real, forever-and-ever END makes me sad. It's kind of like how the concept of unicorns make me sad; I don't actually, honestly believe in them, but I so badly want them to exist!

I've been obsessed with this stuff since I was a kid -- I read this book called We Don't Die, and apparently it made quite an impression. In it, a medium talks to a bunch of dead people and shares their hopeful messages about going toward the light, and compassionate, god-like beings, and rosy, rainbows-and-marshmallow-fluff visions of heaven.

The problem? I don't believe in God and I don't believe in heaven, or hell, or god-like beings, or that goddamned tunnel of light. But, as with unicorns, that doesn't mean I don't WANT to believe. Nope, I've wanted to believe ever since I first vaguely grasped what death meant -- an end of consciousness, an end of existence, like, FOREVER. That's why I've sought out all these books and articles and asked literally everyone I know (uh, I've busted out the paranormal talk on first dates, which might not be the greatest strategy) whether they've ever had a supernatural experience.

I so badly want to have a weird ghostly experience of my own. I so badly want to know, once and for all, where my dad actually WENT when he died of cancer. I saw his body after he died; it was strikingly clear to me that he was no longer in there. But if he wasn't there, where'd he go? I still can't wrap my brain around it. The concept of the end of life being the absolute end of consciousness just seems so big, and loaded, and grim, and somehow complicated in its simplicity. It's just ... game over. But what does game over mean?

Anyway, yeah. I'm a nonbeliever who really wants to believe. Which is why articles like the BBC one make me a bit sad.

Still, it was a study done on rats, not humans. And as Dr. Chris Chambers of Cardiff University said, "This is an interesting and well-conducted piece of research ... [But] we should be extremely cautious before drawing any conclusions about human near-death experiences: it is one thing to measure brain activity in rats during cardiac arrest, and quite another to relate that to human experience." So maybe all hope isn't lost.

What do you think about studies like this one -- and what they show about what happens when we die?