Can Out-Of-Body Experiences Be Explained By Science?

Those who go through near death experiences usually re-enter consciousness with transcendentally happier outlooks on life — most seem to no longer fear death. While these mystical experiences are culturally interpreted as supernatural, neuroscientists believe that these near death experiences, or NDEs, have a physiological explanation and may be much more ordinary than we think.

There seem to be underlying themes behind most descriptions of NDEs — a bright light, the feeling of being passed through a tunnel, an out-of-body experience (OBE). People of all races, backgrounds, and faiths (or no faiths at all) are susceptible — NDEs do not discriminate. However, despite the fact that NDEs happen completely within our minds and should, for that reason, be completely individualized, the similarities shared by such a heterogeneous population bear enough scientific significance to catch the attention of neurologists.  

Belgian neurologist Dr. Steven Laureys and his team of six scientists are spearheading research on NDEs to try and pinpoint the origins of such experiences.

In a series of interviews with patients who had NDEs versus those who had not, Laureys and his team were able to gather an arsenal of surprising data. When asked to recall memories of NDEs (if they had them), memories of emotionally salient and real-life events like marriages or births, and memories of dreams or thoughts (that is, thoughts that did not occur in physical reality, similar to NDEs), the scientists found that memories for NDEs were richer and more detailed than any other kinds of memories.

The NDEs seemed more real than any other memories to patients. When asked about their level of certainty on whether these experiences were real or imagined, patients were extremely convinced that they were real, more so than memories of real-life events.

These experiences of the supposed afterlife usually become cornerstones of patients’ lives. However, NDEs’ saliencies, while inexplicable and incredible, also have negative impacts. Most NDE patients develop an acceptance of death — but they in turn develop fears of an everlasting consciousness. They fear that even after they die, their consciousnesses will linger, much like it did when they had their OBEs. Therefore, NDE patients are afraid to sign up as organ donors, fearing that they will have to watch them being extracted from their bodies.

Even before Laureys began his research, neuroscientists have been curious about the relationship between spiritual experiences and the brain. Individuals who have temporal lobe epilepsy — or seizures that occur in the brain region closest to the temple sides of the head — have recalled feelings of paranormal experience during their episodes. Some have gone so far as to want these seizures to occur, so they can experience these intensely spiritual releases.

This may be due to the responsibilities associated with temporal lobe. It is largely involved in sensory perception, emotion, and meaning derivation. Therefore, if there is an over-stimulation of this area from epileptic seizures, this could cause the characteristic bright lights and other such perceptual experiences that are so intense, they could only be interpreted as largely mystical and spiritual. 

Despite the shroud of mysticism surrounding NDEs, enough people purportedly experience them for scientists to believe that there may be a neurological basis behind it all.

But who knows? Maybe, instead of finding a physiological reasoning, neurologists may come to find that NDEs are nothing short of magical and spiritual. 

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Angel Au-Yeung

Angel Au-Yeung holds a B.S. in Cognitive Neuroscience from UC San Diego and is currently an Associate Editor for LinkedIn. Born in Hong Kong and raised in San Francisco, she is fascinated by the world and the people that make it. Her day-to-day goals include being her own think tank and making sure she has a great dinner.

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