The not very near death experience

I’ve just discovered this fantastic 1990 study from The Lancet that investigated near death experiences reported by patients. However, it did something quite different from most other studies – it actually checked to see whether the patients were actually near death or not – and many of them weren’t.

The study looked at the experiences of 58 people who believed they were about to die during a medical procedure and had subsequently reported a ‘near death experience‘ – often the classic ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ experience, the feeling of the consciousness had left the body like an outside observer, enhanced clarity of thought and the flashback of life’s memories.

The researchers then looked through the medical records of each person to see whether they had really been ‘near death’. Of the 58 in the study, 30 patients were never in danger of dying, despite their belief at the time.

The study then went on to compare whether certain experiences were more likely to appear in those patients who were genuinely near death.

The experiences were largely the same across both groups, but those who were really at risk of dying were more likely to experience an intense light and enhanced mental clarity.

The authors say they’re not sure why this might be. The explanation that is usually thrown around is that ‘restricted oxygen to the brain causes light sensations’ but I’ve no idea whether this is anything more than a convenient hypothesis and has any scientific data to back it up.

Link to study paper.
Link to PubMed entry.

10 thoughts on “The not very near death experience”

  1. Olaf Blanke is a cognitive neuroscientist interested in those neural mechanisms altered, that in turn, elicited the experiences or conditions such as OBE(out of body experiences) and even near deth experiences etc.
    The explanation ussually given to the reportings of a tunnel and a light at the end of the tunnel is due to a random activation of eye´s cells centered around the fovea.

  2. Heh … well, all due respect to Mr Blanke, but in the philosophy of science such convenient excuses are called “ad hoc” and are considered bad form and unsportsmanlike. True, Galileo’s famous ad-hoc excuse (“Then the stars MUST be farther away than we thought!”) turned out to be true, but it was a lucky guess, and lucky guesses are not science. Until such time as Blanke et all can induce a convincing Near Death (in the same way, for example, as Dr Spanos could induce convincing ufo abduction memories) their musings have zero street cred.

  3. This is interesting. I wonder how they would explain the mental clarity? Maybe DMT -is- released in the brain near death. Although then I suppose kaleidoscopic colors would been seen instead. Perhaps the released DMT is only very small.
    Assuming that DMT even is released, of course.
    Or perhaps the soul begins to speak in a way that we’re not accustomed to during near-death. maybe.

  4. Well, it¬¥s too risky to simulate a near-death experience, seems obvious, but OBE (out of body experiences) can be simulated (its neural basis is at the tmeporoparietal junction), and the explanations gived by cognitive neuroscientists to these plethora of unussual experiences if they seem ad hoc to you, but can be tested and confirmed, then could be the “right explanation”.

  5. There have been a long list of physiological and pharmaceutical explanations advanced o explain near-death experiences (NDEs). The best summaries of all of these – and why none of them offer adequate explanations ‚Äì can be found on a DVD at the website of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (, the most credible source for research about NDEs on the internet. The DVD is of a presentation last fall at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center by Dr. Bruce Greyson, psychiatrist at the University of Virginia Medical School and one of the world’s leading researchers into the NDE phenomenon. The DVD can be ordered at The cost is $25 but it is well worth the price if you are interested in seriously understanding this subject.
    In addition, you might want to go to a page on their website that lists various research papers, including one that directly addresses rapid eye movement (REM) and NDE, at In particular I would recommend the papers written by Dr. Peter Fenwick and Dr. Pim Van Lommel for good overviews of the field.
    I am a member of the above association because this is a fascinating topic. They keep you up-to-date with the latest NDE research along with e-mails of experiencer accounts every month (which are particularly intriguing).

  6. By the way, the Lancet article referred to above was published in 2001, not 1990. You can link to the original paper from the IANDS website I posted.

  7. I did almost die and I did not see any bright lights nor was I able to witness people working on me. I had a severe case of thyroid storm, the one where over 99% of the people who go through it die.

    I was in bad shape when I made it to the hospital and when I was in the emergency room they could not read my blood pressure or my pulse rate. It was either too high or going too fast. A nurse yelled in my ear “we have a priest here to give you your last rites”. This notified me that if something did not change soon I was not leaving of my own power. So a few minutes later I started moving or something and the priest was thrown out. I did hear him mumbling at my feet.

    It was strange but no bright lights or anything else. I could breath the entire time so I had enough oxygen, my heart was getting ready to explode. I survived because I was an extreme athlete even now at 54 my resting pulse rate is below 60.

    Near death experiences are very trying, I spent three days in the hospital and was just so tired and beat.


  8. Australian media mogul and all-round archvillain Kerry Packer once had a heart attack and was clinically dead for six minutes.

    He was revived and later said “I’ve been to the other side and let me tell you, son, there’s f****ng nothing there…there’s no one waiting there for you, there’s no one to judge you so you can do what you bloody well like”

    Then he bought defribrillators for all of the state’s ambulances, earning them the nickname “Packer Whackers”.

  9. Most people here seem to dismiss the metaphysical as ”phooey” – as not yet proven! Indeed! I, on the otherhand, wish to testify to the fact of the paranomal. I HAVE LEFT MY BODY! I did without thought – it was a spontanious ”THING” – yet it happened. I found myself looking down at ME from the height of my ceiling – at that time. That is why I do not fear death – it’s simply a passing over to go back home. THE HERE AND NOW is the problem. Handle as best as you can.

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