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Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona Blog

Near-Death Experiences: Physical or Metaphysical?

Most of us at one point or another have probably heard a story or two about someone’s near-death experience (NDE). Typically, such tales involve a sensation of floating above one’s unconscious body. Then, there’s the ascent to a bright light, while bathed in warmth and elation.

Near-Death Experiences: Physical or Metaphysical?

Most of us at one point or another have probably heard a story or two about someone’s near-death experience (NDE). Typically, such tales involve a sensation of floating above one’s unconscious body. Then, there’s the ascent to a bright light, while bathed in warmth and elation.

On the other side, there is a joyful connectedness with the universe, as well as spiritual beings and loved ones who had passed, all in an environment that’s too beautiful for words. Suddenly, there is a call to return from this place of wonder to one’s earthly body.

After these NDEs, many people’s lives are profoundly affected, often leading to changes in careers and relationships. They may no longer fear death and are convinced their experience was real.  Top of Form

But was it?

Research has suggested such metaphysical journeys are the result of a stressed or dying brain suffering from a shortage of oxygen, anesthesia gone bad, or the body’s neurochemical response to trauma.

On the other hand, NDEs seem to be remarkably similar throughout the world, regardless of the wide range of medical conditions that preceded them.

Dr. David Langer, Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, has treated many patients close to death and isn’t sure these NDEs are more than spikes in neural activity in a dying brain; however, he is open to the possibility of it being something spiritual in nature.

He points out that this topic is very subjective; people may be convinced they’ve had an out-of-body experience, but as he explains, “memories are malleable. What you remember could be from the last time you were awake.”

What’s more, these experiences may occur when there’s cardiac death, but not brain death. With NDEs, “the brain isn’t dead, and this could be how your filter operates while on the way to death,” say Dr. Langer.

As a result of a cardiac arrest, hypoxia (a shortage of oxygen to the brain) can occur, leading to confusion and hallucinations. The temporoparietal junction can also affect one’s perception, producing a sensation akin to an out-of-body experience. Too much carbon dioxide (hypercarbia) can also give people a sense of mind-body separation.

Most of us at one point or another have probably heard a story or two about someone’s near-death experience (NDE). Typically, such tales involve a sensation of floating above one’s unconscious body. Then, there’s the ascent to a bright light, while bathed in warmth and elation.

Dr. Langer surmises NDEs could also be a function of evolution. “We don’t want to feel pain or hurt. At some point, all patients succumb, they give in. So, there could be a release of hormones that makes the experience pleasurable.”

In 2000, Dr. Langer saved Shannon Campbell’s life. She had walked into a glass door and immediately started having severe headaches. At first, she thought nothing of it, but a friend convinced her to go to the hospital. Once there, her brain injury was misdiagnosed, and she was sent home. As she got up to leave, she passed out, and was then rushed to get a CAT scan.

The results revealed her brain was bleeding.  

After reading her chart and ordering a full examination, Dr. Langer saw that Shannon’s organs were shutting down, suggesting there existed a blood clot that needed to be removed. He had her taken immediately into surgery.

It turns out she had been born with a cluster of veins in her brain. About a month before her accident, she had hit her head with a hand dryer, which likely initiated the bleeding.

Shannon was placed in a medically induced coma. From that moment until the next morning, she remembers nothing; well, nothing, that is, except for a sensation of leaving her body. As she ascended, she felt herself being snapped back into body.

“It was so vivid. I felt my limbs, everything, suddenly return to my body,” she recalls. “It was so real. That’s all I remember.”

“Shannon’s vital signs were stable, but we were concerned about potential irreversible damage to her brain stem,” adds Dr. Langer.

So, are NDEs primarily a function of brain trauma then? Based on her own personal brush with death, Janice Podzimek of the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona doesn’t think so.

After the birth of her twin girls, Janice was sent home early from the hospital. In less than a week, she began hemorrhaging intensely. After seven days, she started losing consciousness and took a cab to the hospital.

After a brief examination, she was told she could go home. However, when she got up from the table, she collapsed and passed out.

The next thing she remembers is similar to the experience often associated with an NDE. “I felt an immediate push, like going through a tunnel, pushed fast. Actually, it was more like a pull, a force bringing me through, with a light at the end,” Janice shares.

“I felt a calm like never before. Everything around me was beautiful and green. Rolling hills. Many different ‘glowy’ presences that somehow felt familiar to me, even though I couldn’t see their faces.”

She was even approached by one of the familiar beings. Janice told this personage, “I can’t go now. I just gave birth to babies.” Janice was told by the being not to worry, that it wasn’t her time yet and she wasn’t alone.

“Before I could answer, I felt a push back through the tunnel – it was kind of like a wormhole,” she describes. “Next thing I know, I’m awake, right on the floor where I had passed out, with the nurse telling me I’ll have to stay the night in the hospital.”

For Janice, no logical explanation suffices. “I’m convinced I was somewhere else,” she affirms. “Since that experience, I have tried to find that sense of calm. I now have no fear of death; I know we go somewhere else and that’s nice.”

The phenomenon of NDEs continues to perplex medical professionals. The science supports the plausibility of physical explanations; however, the commonality of experiences suggests there’s much more to it. Even Dr. Langer concedes we don’t know enough to definitively declare “case closed!” on the matter.“[It’s still] an unanswered question,” he admits. “I realize people want to believe and their verbal descriptions match. But for me, I’ve never died and come back, so I don’t know.”

Meaning the status of NDEs? TBD.

ABOUT BRAIN INJURY ALLIANCE OF ARIZONA

The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona (BIAAZ) is the only statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of adults and children with all types of brain injuries through prevention, advocacy, awareness and education. BIAAZ also houses the Arizona Brain Health Resource Center, a collection of educational information and neuro-specific resources for brain injury survivors, caregivers, family members and professionals.

What began in 1983 as a grassroots effort has grown into a strong statewide presence, providing valuable life-long resources and community support for individuals with all types of brain trauma at no charge.

The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona:

  • Works with Congressional Brain Injury Task Force
  • Houses Arizona Brain Health Resource Center
  • Hosts Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Workgroup
  • Has Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Response team with peer support, training, and family wraparound services
  • Facilitates Brain Health Advisory Council
  • Manages statewide Neuro Info-Line: 888-500-9165

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