Are near-death experiences (NDEs) a side effect of science or spirituality? A team at Massachusetts General Hospital’s (MGH) Center for Neurotechnology and Neuro-recovery and Laboratory for NeuroImaging of Coma and Consciousness, wants to find out. “The brain can create very complex realities, such as psychosis or what happens after taking a hallucinogenic drug, that are beyond our ability to comprehend today,” says Brian Edlow, MD, associate director of both centers. “There’s no reason to doubt that NDEs exist, but I don’t think anyone understands them well enough to have firm convictions about what is happening.”

The science of NDEs is currently limited—and debatable. The term is widely used to describe a conscious experience of a close brush with death, as when the heart stops beating—and the exact prevalence of such experiences is also subject to debate. NDEs may happen to about one in 10 survivors of cardiac arrest, and NDEs also occur after accidents or when people are gravely ill. Those who experience them often recall leaving their bodies and rushing toward a bright light or recount intense feelings of peace and review scenes from their lives, and some can experience life-transforming psychological shifts in their aftermath, such as pursuing new hobbies or religious engagement.

But better understanding the mechanisms behind the phenomenon could offer new treatment pathways, such as virtual-reality NDEs to treat anxiety or depression. “If we can identify the brain structures or connections that are preserved and remain active in people having an NDE, perhaps we can use that resilience for other purposes—for instance, to predict who might be more likely to recover consciousness after brain injury,” adds Dr. Edlow.

Read more in Proto.

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