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“Near-death experience” memories found to share qualities with true ones

March 28, 2013
Courtesy of the University of Liège
and World Science staff

Mem­o­ries of “near-death ex­pe­ri­ences”—such as as the pro­ver­bi­al light at the end of the tun­nel sensed dur­ing a brush with death—have qual­i­ties of true mem­o­ries, a study has found.

Re­search­ers said these un­usual mem­o­ries, of­ten de­scribed by peo­ple re­vived af­ter mor­tal situa­t­ions or close en­coun­ters with them, are even more de­tailed than nor­mal mem­o­ries for real events.

That does­n’t mean the near-death “events” really oc­curred, they added, but it does sug­gest there has been a “hal­lu­cina­t­ion” re­sem­bling the re­ported ex­pe­ri­ence. These mem­o­ries may al­so be ex­am­ples of “flash­bulb mem­o­ries,” they said—mem­o­ries formed when “a highly emo­tion­al, per­son­ally im­por­tant, and sur­pris­ing event” is seared in­to the brain in un­usu­ally de­tailed and lasting form.

Near-death ex­pe­ri­ences are a widely doc­u­mented phe­nom­e­non in which peo­ple re­port sensa­t­ions such as see­ing a bright light, go­ing through a tun­nel, end­ing up in an­oth­er “real­ity” or leav­ing their own body af­ter be­ing close to death. Of­ten these sensa­t­ions are de­scribed as deeply mean­ing­ful or mys­ti­cal.

The new find­ings, by sci­en­tists at the Uni­vers­ity of Liège in Bel­gium, were pub­lished on­line March 27 in the re­search jour­nal PLoS One.

Near-death ex­pe­ri­ences have gen­er­at­ed be­liefs and the­o­ries of eve­ry kind. They have been all the more dif­fi­cult to study be­cause the ex­pe­ri­ences arise dur­ing cha­ot­ic con­di­tions, which make in­ves­ti­gat­ing them in real time al­most im­pos­si­ble, the sci­en­tists not­ed. They, there­fore, tried an un­usu­al ap­proach.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors spe­cial­iz­ing in co­ma sci­ence and cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gy col­la­bo­rat­ed to look in­to the near-death ex­pe­ri­ence mem­o­ries with the no­tion that if the mem­o­ries of were pure prod­ucts of the ima­gina­t­ion, their char­ac­ter­is­tics should be clos­er to those of ima­gined mem­o­ries. But if the near-death pro­cess is ex­pe­ri­enced in a way si­m­i­lar to that of real­ity, their char­ac­ter­is­tics would be clos­er to the mem­o­ries of real events.

They com­pared the re­sponses pro­vid­ed by three groups of pa­tients, each of which had sur­vived a co­ma in a dif­fer­ent way, and a group of healthy vol­un­teers. They stud­ied the mem­o­ries of near-death ex­pe­ri­ences and the mem­o­ries of real events and ima­gined events with the help of a ques­tion­naire.

The brain is prey to cha­os dur­ing the near-death events, the sci­en­tists said. Phys­i­o­lo­gi­cal and phar­ma­co­log­ical mech­a­nisms go out of whack. Some sci­en­tists have pro­posed phys­i­o­logical ex­plana­t­ions for com­po­nents of the near-death ex­pe­ri­ences. For in­stance, “out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ences” have been at­trib­ut­ed to dys­func­tions in a brain ar­ea called the tem-p-oro-parietal lobe. The new study sug­gests these same mech­a­nisms could al­so could al­so cre­ate a per­cep­tion of “real­ity,” which would thus be pro­cessed as com­ing from the real world.


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Memories of “near-death experiences”—such as the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel sensed during a brush with death—have qualities of true memories, a study has found. Researchers said these memories, often described by people revived after mortal situations or close encounters with them, are even more detailed and specific than normal memories for things that actually have happened. That doesn’t mean the events really occurred, they added, but it does suggest there has been a “hallucination” resembling the reported experience. These memories may also be examples of “flashbulb memories,” they said—memories formed when “a highly emotional, personally important, and surprising event” is seared into the brain in unusually detailed and long-lasting form. Near-death experiences are a widely documented phenomenon in which people report sensations such as seeing a bright light, going through a tunnel, ending up in another “reality” or leaving their own body after being close to death. Often these sensations are described as deeply meaningful or mystical. The new findings, by scientists at the University of Liège in Belgium, were published online March 27 in the research journal PLoS One. Near-death experiences have generated beliefs and theories of every kind. They have been all the more difficult to study because the experiences arise during chaotic conditions, which make investigating them in real time almost impossible, the scientists noted. They, therefore, tried an unusual approach. Investigators specializing in coma science and cognitive psychology collaborated to look into the near-death experience memories with the notion that if the memories of were pure products of the imagination, their characteristics should be closer to those of imagined memories. But if the near-death process is experienced in a way similar to that of reality, their characteristics would be closer to the memories of real events. They compared the responses provided by three groups of patients, each of which had survived a coma in a different way, and a group of healthy volunteers. They studied the memories of near-death experiences and the memories of real events and imagined events with the help of a questionnaire. The brain is prey to chaos during the near-death events, the scientists said. Physiological and pharmacological mechanisms go out of whack. Some scientists have proposed physiological explanations for components of the near-death experiences. For instance, “out-of-body experiences” have been attributed to dysfunctions in a brain area called the temporo-parietal lobe. The new study suggests these same mechanisms could also could also create a perception of “reality,” which would thus be processed as coming from the real world.