Dear Sasquatch: Are Near-Death Experiences Real?
My grandma had a heart attack last year, and she told me recently that she actually died for several minutes and floated above her body, watching the doctors try to bring her back. She even saw the light at the end of the tunnel and my grandpa there. (He died before I was born.) She said she wasn’t imagining it, because she was actually dead and could remember every detail of what the doctors were doing and saying. I don’t really know what to think. Is it possible that there really is some kind of life after death?
I’m sorry to hear about your grandma’s heart attack but glad she seems to be doing better. First, I think it’s important to recognize that these experiences are different from a dream, even a very real dream. It’s easy to compare the two when we haven’t experienced both, and then to think that we would never mistake a dream for reality.
Near-death experiences (NDEs), such as the tunnel or the feeling of floating above the body and watching everything going on, are not all in the imagination. Very real physiological processes are triggering these experiences, even if people’s interpretations of these physical symptoms at the time or later are not as solid.
When people say they died, they mean that their heart stopped. The brain doesn’t begin to die until usually around 6 minutes after the heart stops, and even then, it isn’t an instantaneous shut down. With the heart stopped, the brain is no longer getting oxygen, but different parts of it are affected at different rates. The brain stem is usually one of the last parts to starve from lack of oxygen. The stem is also the source of our consciousness.
Lack of oxygen also affects other parts of the body at the same time, such as in the eyes. What’s interesting about the eyes, though, is that more blood is supplied to the center, so our peripheral vision will go out before the center of our vision does. Oxygen starvation also causes the pupils to widen, letting in more light. You can probably see where I’m going with this. Brighter light at the center, with darkness along the periphery creates the light at the end of a tunnel effect. As the person is resuscitated, the darkness would recede, giving the illusion of moving toward that light. Possibly the not-yet-distinguishable people, such as the doctors and nurses in the person’s field of vision, could easily be interpreted as people waiting at the end of the tunnel.
Another interesting possible explanation for the sense of moving along the tunnel as well as for feeling as though you are floating or flying is that lack of oxygen also affects the sensory fibers in the muscles, which send signals to the brain about sensations of movement, weight, and position. When these fibers are impaired, they can transmit inaccurate signals.
Does any of this prove that near-death experiences aren’t real experiences with some kind of afterlife? No. These are examples of scientific explanations (that can be reproduced in experiments to create NDE symptoms), and these are actually only a few examples of explanations. What they really demonstrate is that as appealing as the supernatural explanation may be, there’s really no need to leap to it. I mean, I can’t prove that millions of invisible tiny people aren’t pushing the grass up out of the ground, but I can explain grass growing scientifically, so there really is no need for the invisible people theory. Which is good because the lawn-mowing bloodshed is too terrible to contemplate.
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