Few neuroscientists can claim to have probed the outer limits of human consciousness to the same extent as Dr Eben Alexander. After contracting bacterial meningoencephalitis in 2008, the brain surgeon wrote a book describing his remarkable near-death experience (NDE) while in a coma. A decade later, he smoked the psychedelic venom of the Sonoran Desert toad, and has now provided a detailed comparison of the two life-changing events.
Introducing their interviewee, the authors of the new report explain that NDEs and psychedelic experiences often have “shared characteristics such as entering other worlds, meeting menacing or benevolent entities, experiencing synesthesia, perinatal regression, and lucid dreamlike properties.” However, they go on to say that no studies have ever compared the experience of dying with the effects of 5-MeO-DMT, the main psychoactive component in the secretions of certain hallucinogenic toads.
Finding a subject familiar with both experiences is no easy feat, and it’s unlikely there are many out there other than Alexander. Recording the neurosurgeon's testimony, therefore, provided the researchers with a rare opportunity to analyze the “high level of comparability” between NDEs and smoking 5-MeO-DMT.
In particular, the authors say that both experiences are characterized by a sense of “ego dissolution” as well as “transcendence of time and space.” Regarding the former, Alexander explains that during his NDE, he found himself “in a position similar to that of someone with partial but beneficial amnesia. That is, a person who has forgotten some key aspect about him or herself, but who benefits from having forgotten it.”
“What is articulated throughout here as 'partial but beneficial amnesia' is virtually identical to what is referred to in the psychedelic sphere as 'ego death.',” comment the study authors. “That is, the annihilation, though temporary, of the sense of one's individuated self and all of its concomitant autobiographical memories.”
Alexander also describes how, during his NDE, he experienced a feeling of love that was “somehow beyond… all the different types of love we have down on earth.” Similarly, while tripping on toad slime, he describes how he felt at one with a “love force.”
Despite these similarities, however, the researchers also identify numerous differences between the two experiences. For instance, Alexander’s NDE included aspects such as a life review, the crossing of a threshold, and encounters with “reptilian, wormlike creatures” - none of which occurred under the effects of 5-MeO-DMT.
These incongruences are significant as they contribute to the controversial debate over whether or not the human body produces its own psychedelic substances and whether these might be responsible for certain psychological phenomena such as NDEs. Tellingly, Alexander himself only rated the similarity between the two experiences as two out of ten, and said he didn’t think his NDE was triggered by the endogenous release of 5-MeO-DMT.
Long story short, then - we still don’t know what happens in the brain when we die.
The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.