The inevitability of death causes us mortals a great deal of anxiety, yet new research involving those who have come back from the brink reveals that the experience of passing away may be less distressing than many of us think. After interviewing patients who had undergone cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) following a cardiac arrest, researchers found that one in five had lucid experiences of death, despite being seemingly out for the count.
The study involved 567 people whose hearts had stopped beating while in hospital before doctors performed the emergency procedure to prevent their departure. While fewer than 10 percent recovered sufficiently to be discharged from hospital, those who survived their ordeal reported a sense of separation from their body and observing events without pain or distress.
Others said that they were able to assess and evaluate their life while they were apparently unconscious, complying with the old cliché about our lives flashing before our eyes as we die.
Rather than simply relying on the testimonies of the nearly-departed, however, the researchers also analyzed patients’ brainwave activity patterns while they underwent CPR. In doing so, they detected spikes of activity including gamma, delta, theta, alpha, and beta waves, all of which typically arise during conscious processes. Amazingly, these bursts of activity were present up to an hour into CPR, despite no signs of life from patients during this period.
“These recalled experiences and brain wave changes may be the first signs of the so-called near-death experience, and we have captured them for the first time in a large study,” said study author Sam Parnia in a statement.
“Our results offer evidence that while on the brink of death and in a coma, people undergo a unique inner conscious experience, including awareness without distress.”
The data was collected as part of the AWARE II (AWAreness during REsuscitation) clinical trial and follows on from the first AWARE study, which was published in 2014. During this earlier round of research, the authors interviewed 101 CPR survivors, 46 percent of whom said they could remember the experience.
These memories comprised seven major cognitive themes, including seeing a bright light, a sense of deja-vu, recalling life events, and encountering family members. Some survivors said they saw animals or plants, while others recounted being fearful or experiencing violence or persecution during their brief withdrawal from life.
In 2019, the researchers presented the findings from yet another round of interviews. Comparing the experiences of interviewees to a registry of cardiac arrest survivors revealed that 95 percent of those resuscitated who reported memories of it experienced a sense of joy and peace, 86 percent saw a light, and 54 percent reviewed their major life events. After being brought back from the edge of the eternal abyss, 95 percent said that the event had transformed them in a positive way.
Commenting on the latest findings, Parnia explained that “these lucid experiences cannot be considered a trick of a disordered or dying brain, but rather a unique human experience that emerges on the brink death.” According to the researchers, the brain may undergo a process called disinhibition as we die, resulting in a flood of activity that provides access to the deepest layers of consciousness.
Exactly why this occurs is hard to say, although Parnia insists that the phenomenon raises some “intriguing questions about human consciousness, even at death.”
The study was presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions on November 6.