The “near-death experience” is one of the weirdest known human phenomena: people who are on the brink of death but survive often have extremely intense experiences. These sometimes involve seeing and moving toward a bright light, and even conversing with angels, dead relatives and pets. While the mystery remains, scientists have discovered that brain activity associated with conscious perception continues in rats even after the heart has stopped.
The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, states that under cardiac arrest, not only does brain activity do more than reduce generally, like a light dimmer being turned down, certain types of brain activity increases, which potentially provides a basis for the near-death experience:
“High-frequency neurophysiological activity in the near-death state exceeded levels found during the conscious waking state. These data demonstrate that the mammalian brain can, albeit paradoxically, generate neural correlates of heightened conscious processing at near-death.”
The lead author, Jimo Borjigin, Ph.D., associate professor of Molecular and Integrative Physiology and Neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School, sees the study as establishing a foundation for further research on consciousness and brain activity in near-death states.
"It will form the foundation for future human studies investigating mental experiences occurring in the dying brain, including seeing light during cardiac arrest," she says.
For now, all we can say is that there appears to be a neural correlate to the near-death experience. It is equally easy for skeptics to say that this how the brain “fakes” near-death experience as it is for believers to say that the brain activity is a result of actual perception in the near-death state. I am personally in the camp of “I don’t know, but I think this research is fascinating and I want it to continue.”