Personally, I try to think about my death and mortality as little as possible. I don’t know what that means for someone who is 38 years old, I just know that for my own piece of mind, the more contemplate life, death, and anything before or after, I get a little too angsty for my own good.
The thought of having a near-death experience seems like an absolutely horrific nightmare to someone like me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not grateful to the people who study them. I can see how even though I’m a majorly wimpy coward about them, near-death experiences and studying them could provide truly valuable insight into the entire life and death process.
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Sebastian Dieguez and Olaf Blanke are two neuroscientists who studied near-death experiences and have posited two “types” of them exist.
Type one, which is associated with the brain’s left hemisphere, features an altered sense of time and impressions of flying. Type two, involving the right hemisphere, is characterized by seeing or communicating with spirits, and hearing voices, sounds, and music. (Inverse)
Interestingly, studies have shown that where you grew up, what you were exposed to, and how old you are at the time that you have your near-death experience can greatly impact exactly what it is you’re going to see, hear, or feel. If you grow up in America, you might see God in a MAGA hat, but in Saudi Arabia maybe you’d see Allah instead.
Culture and age may also influence the kind of near-death experience people have. For example, many Indians report meeting the Hindu king of the dead, Yamraj, while Americans often claim to have met Jesus. Children typically describe encountering friends and teachers “in the light.”
Understanding just what causes us to have a near-death experience hasn’t been easy. Relying on accounts from people who go through them can be difficult, because what is reported can seem quite fantastical and even mythological in nature. Scientific studies of the brain have given us some clues, though. Unsurprisingly, the parts of our brains that process what our senses experience play a big part in near-death experiences.
The temporal lobes also play an important role in near-death experiences. This area of the brain is involved with processing sensory information and memory, so abnormal activity in these lobes can produce strange sensations and perceptions.
Some researchers believe that when we die, our brains basically overdose us on some of the chemicals they make during intense situations.
Some researchers claim that endorphins released during stressful events may produce something like a near-death experience, particularly by reducing pain and increasing pleasant sensations. Similarly, anesthetics such as ketamine can simulate near-death experience characteristics, such as out-of-body experiences.
Still others believe that the lack of oxygen in the brain during these events is what causes near-death experiences.
One researcher found air pilots who experienced unconsciousness during rapid acceleration described near-death experience-like features, such as tunnel vision. Lack of oxygen may also trigger temporal lobe seizures which causes hallucinations.
The prevailing theory at this time is called the “dying brain theory,” and it centers around what brain cells do as they start to die.
As these occur during times of crisis, this would explain the stories survivors recount.
Thus far, no study has been able to fully explain the phenomenon of near-death experiences. As more research has been done, however, theories have emerged. These theories are important for understanding the life cycle better, but many also report that near-death experiences help tame their own fears of dying.
I won’t be signing up for one any time soon, but it’s good to know if I have a near-death experience, I may gain some clarity of perspective I didn’t have before.
Cover image via Shutterstock
Writer/comedian James Schlarmann is the founder of The Political Garbage Chute and his work has been featured on The Huffington Post. You can follow James on Facebook and Instagram, but not Twitter because he has a potty mouth.