Many scientists seem to always go down the path of reductionism, often to the point of absurdity. How their proposed explanations are any more coherent than an actual separation of consciousness from the confines of the body, I fail to fathom.
Near-death experiences are surprisingly common. In the latest study, researchers quizzed 710 kidney dialysis patients and found that, out of 70 patients who had suffered a life-threatening event, 45 had gone though a near-death experience. And research by Virginia University shows that 10 per cent of heart-arrest patients, and 1 per cent of other cardiac patients, had reported having a near-death experience.
Near-death experiences occur in both sexes, in every culture, and at all ages. Researchers at the University Hospital of Geneva recently reported what they describe as the first case in a child of 12 who had undergone elective, uncomplicated surgery that had run into difficulties. But, in spite of considerable differences in ages, cultures and diseases, many features of near-death experiences are remarkably similar.
The spiritual theorists have it that this is the immediate prelude to death itself, and that it establishes that there is life after death. These theories take what the individual sees, hears and feels as being a report of exactly what happened. One suggestion is that, at the time of death, the body and soul separate and near-death experiences are a glimpse of the first part of that process.
A range of psychological theories have been put forward to explain the phenomenon. One suggests that it is a defence mechanism in the face of impending death. Another floats the idea that the working of the brain is somehow altered by changes in chemicals that occur shortly before death. Other explanations include false memories, a reaction to acute stress, and anoxia, or lack of oxygen, resulting in sensory disturbances.
A newer theory suggests the arousal system is implicated, and that the near-death experience is triggered by the crisis. The idea is that rapid eye movement (or REM sleep, where most dreaming occurs, and where the sleeper is paralysed, with only the heart, diaphragm, eye muscles and the smooth muscles active) is involved. At the root of the theory is the notion that some people are more prone to a condition called REM intrusion, where sleep paralysis occurs when they are awake. It is found in people with narcolepsy, or excessive sleepiness, and it can be accompanied by hallucinations or delusional experiences that are unusually vivid and often frightening.
Research led by Dr Kevin Nelson, clinical neurophysiologist and Professor of Neurology at the University of Kentucky shows that, out of 55 people who have had near-death experiences, 60 per cent had at least one prior occasion where REM sleep state intruded into wakefulness, compared to only 24 per cent in a control group. "Instead of passing directly between the REM state and wakefulness, the brain switch in those with a near-death experience is more likely to blend the REM state and wakefulness into one another," he says.
More from the article:
Frequency of features experienced by people who have a near-death experience
Preternaturally vivid sensations 86.3%
Tunnel experience 5.9%
Feeling of joy 58.8%
Awareness of being dead 3.9%
Sense of sudden understanding 35.3%
Life review 19.6%
Sense of a mystical entity 33.3%
Feeling of peace 74.5%
Altered sense of time 41.2%
Out-of-body experience 51%