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The truth about near-death experiences

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  • medit8ionsociety
    Tunnels of light. Meeting with dead loved ones... the truth about near-death experiences Are those extraordinary stories proof of the afterlife - or plain
    Message 1 of 1 , May 12, 2011
      Tunnels of light. Meeting with dead loved ones...
      the truth about near-death experiences

      Are those extraordinary stories proof of the
      afterlife - or plain hokum? A top brain specialist
      has a compelling new theory...

      Gillian MacKenzie remembers feeling worried for
      her unborn child, as the world around her fell
      into darkness, save for a dot of brilliant light.

      She was somehow aware that her delivery had gone
      wrong and she was losing a lot of blood, but
      there was comfort in the light.

      `It was like a tiny pinprick at first and then
      I realized I was being drawn closer to it and
      it was getting bigger and bigger,' she says.
      I felt no fear as I went into the tunnel and
      emerged fully into the brilliance. There was
      the most wonderful feeling of bliss. I can only
      describe it as ecstasy.

      Suddenly I heard a man's voice saying: "Gill."
      It was a very nice voice and I thought:
      "Oh no, I've come before God — and I don't even
      believe in Him!" He asked if I knew who he was
      and I said: "Yes, but I'm afraid I can't say
      your name." He obviously had a sense of humour
      because he chuckled at that.'

      Gillian's experience happened many years ago,
      before the term near-death experience had been
      coined, but it is as real to her today as it
      was when she began haemorrhaging during a
      difficult childbirth.

      No one knows for sure, but scientists believe
      as many as one in ten of us will have a near-death
      experience, most likely during cardiac arrest.

      Typically, we will see a light, travel through
      a tunnel, have an encounter with a lost loved
      one or float above ourselves and watch doctors
      and nurses trying to resuscitate us.

      Those who have had such experiences often
      describe profound moments of joy and insight
      that change them for ever.

      Many believe they have had a glimpse of the
      afterlife, an experience that shores up their
      faith and leaves them unafraid of death. To them,
      it is real, lucid and precious

      It might come as something of a shock, then,
      for them to learn that a respected American
      neurologist believes he can explain all the
      symptoms of near-death experience in physiological
      terms — terms that would firmly close the door
      on thoughts of souls departing for the afterlife
      before returning to Earth.

      Kevin Nelson, Professor of Neurology at the
      University of Kentucky, has been studying
      near-death experiences for more than 30 years.

      In his new book, The God Impulse — Is Religion
      Hardwired Into The Brain?, he puts forward explanations
      for all elements of the near-death experience, but
      central to his argument is the involvement of
      REM — rapid eye movement.

      This is the time during sleep when we dream most
      and during which the sleeper is paralysed apart
      from the eye muscles, heart and diaphragm (which
      controls breathing).

      Professor Nelson believes that some people are
      more susceptible than others to a condition
      called `REM intrusion', where the paralysis
      that accompanies REM happens while an individual
      is awake — and is often accompanied by vivid

      Research conducted by Professor Nelson examined
      the cases of 55 people who had described having
      a near-death experience.

      Of those, 60 per cent had previously had episodes
      of REM intrusion, compared with only 24 per
      cent in a group of people chosen at random.

      `Instead of passing directly between the REM state
      and wakefulness, the brains of those with a
      near- death experience are more likely to blend
      the two states into one another,' he says.

      This places the subject into what he calls the
      `borderlands' of consciousness.

      `Many people enter this unstable borderland for
      only a few seconds or minutes before emerging
      into REM or waking,' he says.

      `In the borderland, paralysis, lights,
      hallucinations and dreaming can come to us.
      During a crisis such as a cardiac arrest, the
      borderland could explain much of what we know
      as the near-death experience.'

      But what about the light, the tunnel, the
      spiritual encounters and out-of-body experiences?
      He has explanations for these, too.

      In his study, Professor Nelson found that the
      symptoms of near-death experiences happened
      in fainting as well as during life-or-death
      traumas such as heart attacks.

      But what most of these episodes have in common
      is a temporary interruption of blood flow to the brain.

      `Normally, 20 per cent of the blood the heart
      pumps sustains the brain,' he says. `If the blood
      flow is reduced to a third of its normal supply,
      the brain remains immediately active, but after
      ten to 20 seconds, it loses consciousness.

      `The brain sustains no injury, even if this
      flow rate lasts for hours. At these marginal
      flows, a person may slip in and out of consciousness.

      `A great deal of what happens in the brain
      during near-death experiences comes about because
      of a reaction to the crisis of having low blood
      flow, regardless of how briefly. When blood is
      draining from the head, just before consciousness
      is lost, the tissue that is most sensitive to
      failure is not the brain, it is actually the eye,
      the retina.

      `When the retina fails, darkness ensues and it
      fails from the outside inwards, producing the
      characteristic tunnel vision.

      `The light at the end of the tunnel could come
      from two different sources. It could be from
      ambient light — such as the background light in
      a hospital emergency room — which may be all the
      brain can recognise as blood drains from the head.

      `Alternatively, the REM system, which is known
      for its robust activation of the visual system,
      could generate light internally, within the brain.'

      But people don't just see the tunnel — they
      feel themselves travelling through it. How
      can this be?

      `Well, the area of the brain associated with
      out-of-body experiences, the temporoparietal
      region, is right next to the area that is
      responsible for our sensation of motion,' he says.

      `Normally, this area gets turned off during REM
      sleep, but in some cases it could be that this
      process does not function properly, and that
      during the transition into REM, the brain
      experiences a sense of motion.'

      That explains the visions, the light and tunnel,
      but what about the floating out-of-body experience?
      And the sensation of being dead?
      The dead bit is easy — this is down to the fact
      that sleepers are paralysed during REM sleep,
      otherwise they might hurt themselves acting
      out their dreams.

      To explain the out-of-body floating, Professor
      Nelson refers to a piece of research conducted
      by a neurologist in Switzerland called Olaf Blanke.

      Blanke and his colleagues made an astonishing
      discovery one day while preparing a 43-year-old
      woman for surgery. She was suffering from seizures
      and the surgeons were applying electrical impulses
      to her brain to try to find out from where the
      problem was emanating.
      Suddenly, the woman, who had to be conscious for
      the procedure, said she had floated outside her
      body and was looking down on herself. The electrical
      current was switched off and she returned to her body.

      `The woman's sense of being in or out of her body
      came and went with the mechanical predictability
      of turning on a light switch,' says Professor

      `The person manning the switch moved her
      consciousness at will. It was as if the elevator
      "up" button for an out-of-body experience had
      been discovered.'
      Finally, feelings of bliss could be accounted
      for by the brain's reward system. During moments
      of extreme crisis, the body releases chemicals
      that provide a sense of relaxation and well-being.

      This is thought to be an evolutionary quirk that
      stems back to prehistoric times. If a hunting party
      had been cornered by a predator and was sure to be
      killed, it made it easier for the rest of the group
      to escape if the victim did not struggle too much.

      The predator would expend time and energy consuming
      one victim, making it easier for the others to
      avoid the same fate.

      But what does Gillian MacKenzie think of all this?
      During her near-death experience, she met her
      grandfather, Harry, who had died two years before.

      She told him she had given birth to a boy — which
      was correct, though she had no way of knowing it —
      and she floated above herself, seeing doctors working
      on her.

      She also floated above her husband, Hamish, following
      him down a hospital corridor and watching him phone
      her mother.
      `I wasn't at all frightened, but I was wondering how
      I was going to let Hamish know that everything was
      going to be all right and that I would get back into
      my body somehow,' she says.

      Gillian, now a pensioner living in Eastbourne,
      East Sussex, adds: `I told my grandfather that I
      would have to leave and go back to look after my
      husband and baby, but he said I had to present a
      strong case for me to be allowed back.'

      During the episode, Gillian re-lived memories, good
      and bad, and said she came away with a better
      understanding of her life.

      For example, she had never forgiven her mother for
      leaving her at boarding school and remembers crying
      as she walked away.

      `Re-living it made me realise that it must have been
      so hard for her, too, hearing me crying and not
      being allowed to look back at me,' she says. `I had
      new insight and I told my grandfather that I would
      have to go back to put this greater understanding
      to good use in helping others. And then I went back.'

      In later years, Gillian became a counsellor.
      `Before the experience, I had been intolerant
      with people. After it, I was a completely different

      `So you can put a rational explanation for the
      experiences of people like me, but that would be
      missing the point. To us, they are real and they
      have a profound effect on you and the way you
      live your life afterwards. It took away any fear
      I might have had of dying and I think it made me
      a better person. You can call them hallucinations
      if you want, but they are our reality.'

      None of this is lost on Professor Nelson. He says
      his work isn't intended to disprove the existence
      of God or to diminish the importance of
      near-death experiences.

      `There is a widening schism between people who
      think God is an anachronism and regard all
      spiritual experience as a dangerous delusion and
      those who consider religion [to be at] the core
      of their lives,' he says.

      `I was determined that someone based in
      neuroscience should try to explain the nature
      of spiritual experience, not explain it away.

      `I treat all of these experiences with the
      reverence and respect they deserve because
      they are powerful to the people who have them.
      They are the most powerful experiences that
      many of them will ever have.

      `So, yes, I might be trying to explain how and
      why they happen in physiological terms, but I
      would argue that isn't incompatible with people

      believing in God if they want to.
      'After all, who's to say that these mechanisms
      weren't created by God in the first place precisely
      to provide comfort just when we might need it
      most — as we approach death.'
      This article is being shared for non-commercial and
      educational purposes only and thus qualifies for use
      under the Fair Use Statutes.
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