A study of people who received cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in hospital has found that some of them had what’s being dubbed “lucid experiences of death,” accompanied by spikes in brain activity.
The research found that roughly one in five CPR survivors described unique experiences, including feeling separated from their bodies, observing the events without pain or distress, and a meaningful evaluation of life.
These experiences were different to hallucinations, dreams, or CPR-induced consciousness, according to the researchers, who presented their findings at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2022 conference.
The international team of researchers collected data on 567 patients whose hearts stopped beating, in UK and US hospitals, between May 2017 and March 2020.
While they were all treated immediately, fewer than 10% of these people were ultimately discharged from hospital.
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In addition to hearing the patients’ experiences, the researchers observed spikes in brain activity – specifically, in so-called gamma, delta, theta, alpha and beta waves.
In some cases, these activity spikes were observed when CPR had been going on for up to an hour.
“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,” says lead investigator Dr Sam Parnia, an intensive care physician and associate professor in the Department of Medicine at New York University Langone Health, US.
“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.”
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While plenty of people have personal accounts of near-death experiences before, they’re difficult to judge empirically.
“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 of death,” says Parnia.
It may be linked to disinhibition – the release of barriers in the brain as it shuts down.
The researchers are keen to investigate the lucid dying experiences further.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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