Death [is] the only immortal who treats us all alike.
MARK TWAIN’S last written statement, quoted in Moments with Mark Twain by Albert Bigelow Paine
Why is it, that those who die (or nearly die, depending on your definitions) and are revived, regardless of culture, religious beliefs or age, so often describe the near-death experience in the same way – a journey through a tunnel toward increasingly bright light, accompanied by out-of-body sensations, flashes of memory, visions of loved ones, and feelings of overwhelming peace and contentment?
The traditional answer, of course, is that the dying person has glimpsed a paradise beyond death. And the universally paradisaic nature of that moment seems to suggest we all make the grade in the end. Who ever heard of people coming back on the operating table with stories of flames?
Near the beginning of my midlife stare-down with the Reaper, I got to wondering if any competing hypotheses existed for the Everybody-Goes-to-Heaven explanation of the near-death experience. Not that I had any problem with that one, you understand: having taken Pascal up on his Wager, I’d be happy to have a free pass in the unlikely event that I and my fellow Sunday morning recumbents have it all wrong. But I’ll settle for the actual truth anytime. So I wondered.
Imagine my surprise to learn that not one of those phenomena – tunnel with bright light, out-of-body feelings, hearing what others in the room said after you’ve died, memory flashes, appearing loved ones, peace and contentment – not one of them is the least bit mysterious. We know why they all happen.
The Air Force puts its high-altitude pilots through intense testing. One of the tests involves sitting a pilot in the world’s largest centrifuge and spinning him or her until all of the blood runs out of the brain into the blood vessels on the periphery. (Call your local Air Force recruiter.) They pass out when this happens (wimps) – at which point the centrifuge slows, the blood returns to the brain, and they very often wake up laughing and woohooing. Ha ha ha, woohoo!
Guess what else? Tunnel, bright light, memories, loved ones, contentment. The works. These pilots report experiences that are essentially identical to the “near-death” experience. Why?
When your heart stops beating, the blood, not surprisingly, drains from your brain. The Air Force centrifuge simulates that blood-starved brain without stopping the heart. And we know, from these and other experiments, what happens when the blood drains out of the brain: billions of cortical neurons begin to fire randomly. Neurons in the visual cortex are more densely packed toward the center (fovea), so when those neurons begin to fire randomly, the person “sees” darkness at the periphery and increasing brightness toward the center. As more and more neurons fire, the bright center grows in size. The effect is one of moving toward a bright light down a long tunnel.
The neurons firing randomly in the prefrontal cortex trigger random flashes of memory, giving the effect of “life flashing before your eyes.” As the sensory neurons connecting us to our bodies fail, an out-of-body feeling naturally kicks in. Again—these aren’t guesses, a competing hypothesis to put next to heaven in the lineup. We know they happen, and how, and when, and why.
Hearing is the last sense to go, which explains reports of having heard what others have said after apparently being demised.
And the laughing of the pilots, the woohooing? This is the loveliest part, the experience that cured Montaigne of his fear of dying. As our head loses its lunch, the anterior pituitary gland, our private little opium den, floods the brain with endorphins. Whenever the body is stressed – and having the blood sucked out of your brain apparently qualifies as stress – these endorphins, powerful opiates that they are, suffuse us with feelings of tremendous happiness and well-being, an adaptive response that helps us make the best possible decisions in dangerous circumstances. We feel wonderful, peaceful, contented. This contentment combines with the fireworks in the prefrontal memory to produce scores of our happiest memories—like loved ones embracing us, accepting us, welcoming us. So that’s what’s most important to us: love. I’ve got to write that down. Hey, I just did! Woohoo!
The near-death experience stands fully explained not by guesses but by things we know for a fact occur. So why do we still opt for the other explanation?
And it all fits with Montaigne’s description rather nicely, don’t you think? One minute you’re vomiting blood and writhing in pain; the next you can’t feel your body and you’re stoned on methadone. Going forward would have to seem more attractive than heading back. Hell, I’d push life off my lips, too.
There’s a symmetrical loveliness to the fact that my body’s lifelong tendency to cling to survival is reversed once it’s time to go — that the gears that now keep me impelled toward existence will, when the time is right, shift ever so gently, and impel me no less confidently toward nonexistence. I’m consoled by the way that underlines the naturalness of death, and by the further realization that this body of mine, yet again, seems to know what it’s doing. I can relax a bit further into my seat and enjoy the ride.
We’re never going to be free of our natural, adaptive, and understandable fear of losing the magnificent experience of being alive. But the thoughts of other mortals like Epicurus, Montaigne, and Lewis Thomas – who all had the same personal stake in the subject that you and I do – lead me further away from fear and closer to acceptance and understanding. Closer. And they can do the same for our kids as they get older and more sophisticated in their wonderings. The single most significant and profound thing about our existence is that it ends, rivaled only by the fact that it begins. The more knowledge I gather about the two profound bookends between which I find myself, the more I seem to settle into my seat.
I’m still not ready to give Death a big wet smooch, but thanks to some of these reflections, I can at least bear to look at it now. From a distance.
Let’s say about forty years.
For more on near-death research, see this article in The Guardian.
A summary of the study that first noted similarities between G-LOC (gravitationally-induced loss of consciousness) and near-death experiences can be found here (there’s also some hooey on this website–but this page, at least, is useful)
I first learned of the centrifuge studies from Intimate Universe, a simply spectacular video series about the human body and human development that was created by BBC Films several years ago. Discovery Education apparently issued an American version of the series, leaving out (imagine my surprise) the last segment, which deals directly and poignantly with death. Grab the BBC version if you can — many public libraries carry it.