What’s it like to die? Study attempts to unravel the mystery

Death begins with you looking down at your own body and not feeling as if you live inside it anymore. Then peace washes over you and calms you before you see a bright light. Moving towards it, you meet spirits along the way — perhaps even some loved ones that passed too soon. You stop, and you realise you’re at the point of no return — before being drawn back into the body that looked so unfamiliar a few moments before.  

What's it like to die? Study attempts to unravel the mystery

This is what it feels like to go through a near death experience (NDE), or at least it was the most reported sequence in a new study that explored the sensations commonly felt during NDEs.

An out-of-body feeling, going down a tunnel, seeing a bright light and feeling peace are commonly felt sensations during NDEs, but the study found that every experience is different. People do report experiencing similar features, but ordered differently.

The most commonly reported sensation was a feeling of peace, and the least was pre-cognitive visions. The most common sequence of features was, consecutively, an out-of-body experience, going down a tunnel, seeing a bright light and ending with a feeling of peace.

The research is based on 154 free-written responses by people who experienced NDEs, which were collected by the International Association for Near-Death Studies and the Coma Science Group. Respondents ranked their experiences on the Greyson NDE Scale, a 16-item multiple choice tool that quantifies the participant’s NDE.

Two researchers then analysed the written responses and scored the described experiences on the  scale. They also put the sensations in chronological order.

The term “near death experience” wasn’t coined until 1975 by psychologist Randy Moody, but similar experiences have been reported since Plato’s time. Psychologist Bruce Greyson, the same mind behind the scale used in this study, officially defined the term in 2000 as “profound psychological events with transcendental and mystical elements typically occurring to individuals close to death or in situations of intense physical or emotional danger”. Death still interests modern-day scientists, one approach being virtual reality. The technology is being used to study and simulate out-of-body experiences to help reduce people’s fear of death.

The advancement of psychologists’ clinical understanding of the phenomena parallels the increase of people reporting NDEs. The percentage of people who report NDEs varies from 4 to 15%, depending on where you are in the world. Cardiac arrest survivors also appear to be more likely to go through a NDE — 12 to 18% of them report having one.

Other modern-day studies about NDE had similar findings to this study, with a feeling of peace reported as the most common sensation and pre-cognitive visions being the least common. Besides that, the studies’ results vary, reaffirming the idea that NDEs are not a universal experience.

More research needs to be done before this study’s results are applied to the general population, researchers said. All of the participants were French-speaking, so sampling across different cultural backgrounds could lead to different responses and help separate the effect neurology and culture have on a person’s NDE.

Researchers also said the intensity and order of NDEs are a reflection of a person’s life experiences and how they recall them — meaning understanding those who have come close to death could lead to a better understanding of how people approach life.

“In our opinion, the presented data emphasises and grants the uniqueness of NDErs’ experiences,” researchers said. “We think that NDEs, as a complex set of phenomena, remain of considerable interest to neurosciences for the current understanding of consciousness.”

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