What Near Death Experiences Reveal About The Brain

What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about the Brain

The Fading Of The Light

Many neurologists have noted similarities between near death experiences and the effects of a class of epileptic events known as complex partial seizures. These fit partially impair consciousness and often are localized to specific brain regions in one hemisphere. They can be preceded by an aura, which is a specific experience unique to an individual patient that is predictive of an incipient attack.

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The seizure may be accompanied by changes in the perceived sizes of objects; unusual tastes, smells, or bodily feelings; déjà vu; depersonalization; or ecstatic feelings.

Episodes featuring the last items on this list are also clinically known as Dostoyevsky’s seizures, after the late 19th-century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who suffered from severe temporal lobe epilepsy. Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of his novel The Idiot, remembers:

During his epileptic fits, or rather immediately preceding them, he had always experienced a moment or two when his whole heart, and mind, and body seemed to wake up to vigor and light;

When he became filled with joy and hope, and all his anxieties seemed to be swept away forever; these moments were but presentiments, as it were, of the one final second (it was never more than a second) in which the fit came upon him.

That second, of course, was inexpressible. When his attack was over, and the prince reflected on his symptoms, he used to say to himself: … “What matter though it be only disease, an abnormal tension of the brain if when I recall and analyze the moment, it seems to have been one of harmony and beauty in the highest degree—an instant of deepest sensation, overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life? … I would give my whole life for this one instant.

More than 150 years later neurosurgeons are able to induce such ecstatic feelings by electrically stimulating part of the cortex called the insula in epileptic patients who have electrodes implanted in their brain. This procedure can help locate the origin of the seizures for possible surgical removal.

Patients report bliss, enhanced well-being, and heightened self-awareness or perception of the external world. Exciting the gray matter elsewhere can trigger out-of-body experiences or visual hallucinations.

This brute link between abnormal activity patterns—whether induced by the spontaneous disease process or controlled by a surgeon’s electrode—and subjective experience provides support for a biological, not spiritual, origin. The same is likely to be true for near death experiences.

Why the mind should experience the struggle to sustain its operations in the face of the loss of blood flow and oxygen as positive and blissful rather than as panic-inducing remains mysterious.

It is intriguing, though, that the outer limit of the spectrum of human experience encompasses other occasions in which reduced oxygen causes pleasurable feelings of jauntiness, light-headedness, and heightened arousal—deepwater diving, high-altitude climbing, flying, the choking or fainting game, and sexual asphyxiation.

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Perhaps such ecstatic experiences are common to many forms of death as long as the mind remains lucid and is not dulled by opiates or other drugs given to alleviate pain. The mind, chained to a dying body, visits its own private version of heaven or hell before entering Hamlet’s “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”


Written By: Christof Koch 
Originally Appeared On Scientific American 
Republished with permission
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Dr. Christof Koch

Christof Koch is a German-American neuroscientist best known for his studies and writings exploring the basis of consciousness. Trained as a physicist, Koch was for 27 years a professor of biology and engineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He is now Chief Scientist of the MindScope program at the Allen Institute in Seattle, leading a ten year, large-scale, high through-put effort to build brain observatories to map, analyze and understand the mouse and human cerebral cortex. On a quest to understand the physical roots of consciousness, he published his first paper on the neural correlates of consciousness with the molecular biologist Francis Crick thirty years ago. Christof is interested in mystical experiences and what they can tell us about the mind and the brain. Christof is a vegetarian who lives on San Juan Island in the Pacific North-West, loves big dogs, biking, climbing and rowing. His lastest popular book is The Feeling of Life Itself – Why Consciousness is Widespread but Can’t be Computed. For more information, see www.christofkoch.comView Author posts