Photo: Eli Bishop Urbex Photgraphy (flickr)

Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

The mysteries behind near-death experiences

By Jessica de Loma Olson

 

Sure you have all heard about the “light at the end of the tunnel”. That moment, almost at the doors of death, you can see your life pass in front of you. In the blink of an eye, you can apparently see all your loved ones. Some even say that they – who knows if this means their mind or their soul – feel detached from the body and able to see everything happening around them. Others sense security and warmth. All these are just some of the personal experiences that can seemingly be grasped on the way towards death. And let me stress on the way, but without actually getting there. These are known as near-death experiences or NDEs.

No matter whether for religious, cultural, scientific matters or just plain curiosity, humans at least at some point of their life always wonder if there is something beyond death. If so, what is it like? Such questions, for which we will probably never get an answer, are closely related to what happens when people resuscitate and NDEs might lead us a bit closer to that eagerly-awaited answer. Many people who have suffered an accident or have temporarily ‘died’ on the operating table recall having these NDEs. But do we know exactly what they consist of and why they occur?

Already in 1982, Daniel Carr published in the journal Anabiosis: The Journal of Near-Death studies his findings regarding how NDEs could be linked with the release of endorphins and enkephalins in the brain. These two opioid peptides, which participate in the response to painful stimuli and in generating happy feeling respectively, were suggested to participate in the secure and warm feeling experienced during NDEs. Multiple studies also propose that other drugs, such as ketamine and DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine a psychedelic chemical), can induce a similar state comparable to NDEs.

“Humans, at least at some point of their life, always wonder if there is something beyond death”

This resemblance between NDEs and drug abuse-related delusions could increase the skepticism about the veracity of these testimonies. Are NDEs just hallucinations? Hundreds, if not thousands, of testimonies flood the Internet describing personal experiences. Books, TV and all sorts of media are an excellent way to share these and leave us doubting whether they are actually true or if it’s just the human brain playing tricks on us.

To demystify this topic, more research is still ongoing. In 2010, a study led by S. Grmec at the University of Maribor (Slovenia) showed that higher levels of CO2 in blood are associated with NDEs in the case of cardiac arrest survivors. These levels of CO2 could alter the chemical balance in the brain, affecting the vision and maybe causing that “light at the end of the tunnel”.

But being realistic, scientists are now focused on understanding if NDEs actually occur, instead of searching for explanations as to what appear to be “NDEs”. This was done in the study published in 2014 by S. Parnia encompassing 4 years of study, 15 hospitals and 3 countries. Cardiac arrest survivors that were temporarily clinically dead and with no signs of consciousness were asked if they remembered anything from the time during their unconsciousness. 39% (55 out of 140) answered yes, making it one of the biggest studies ever conducted in this field, but leaving still much unsolved.

However, no matter what the causes underlying these phenomena are or if they are actually a glimpse of death or not, everybody that presumably experiences them describe it as life-changing. A new opportunity to live their lives. But while NDEs are still a mystery and the fright – or curiosity – towards the unknown of death still haunts us, embrace this uncertainty. Consider it as an opportunity to live life with all its light before we actually see it at the end of the tunnel – or not.

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