Life After Death – The Science of Near Death Experiences

For millennia, we have wondered what happens after death. This October 2014, scientists at Southampton University have published the largest ever study looking into what happens when patients return from death’s door. The outcomes seem to confirm the incredible – that consciousness continues on after you are considered clinically dead.

Classical near death experiences are typically described as being vivid, peaceful and joyous, with heightened senses and an altered perception of time, sometimes encountering spirits or beings. The ‘bright light at the end of the tunnel’ is often reported and is also coupled, albeit more rarely, with out-of-body experiences and memories of the patient looking down upon their own body.

Although reports of near death experiences around the world share similarities that transcend sex, culture, religion and ethnicity, the controversial subject of near death experiences, and life after death, has previously been met with great skepticism. This is to be expected given the inherent complexity of researching these personal experiences, with many early studies plagued by small sample sizes providing arguable, anecdotal evidence.

But after four years of research into cardiac arrests in 15 hospitals in the UK, US and Austria, the Southampton study’s large sample size, combined with in-depth analysis, has opened the door for a more serious scientific approach to future research.

So what does current research propose happens when we shuffle off our mortal coils? Well, the study found that 39 percent of those that were resuscitated from cardiac arrest and were fit to be included in the study (sadly only 140 out of 2060 patients) described some kind of ‘awareness’ during resuscitation, when clinically they were deemed dead. 55 out of 140 people claimed to remember something during resuscitation.

To explain further, the current perception of clinical death is that you stop breathing and your heart stops pumping, with consciousness being lost within a couple of seconds. This is then followed by the brain shutting down and its activity becoming immeasurable within 20 to 40 seconds. However, the present study reports that some of these 55 patients putatively experienced real events for up to three minutes after clinical death – and could recall them accurately following resuscitation.

Looking a little deeper, 101 of these patients were later available for a more extensive interviews, with patient’s experiences falling under one of four categories based on what they recalled:

  1. 46 patients confirmed having no recall of memories or events.
  2. 46 patients had memories not considered near death experiences (NDE) on the NDE Greyson Scale and had no memories of events occurring during resuscitation. Although the memories did have 7 common themes: fear; animals and plants; a bright light; violence or a feeling of being persecuted; déjà vu experiences; seeing family; or recalling events that likely occurred after recovery from cardiac arrest.
  3. 7 patients had near death experience recognized by the NDE Greyson Scale but had no memory of events during resuscitation.
  4. 2 patients had near death experience recognized by the NDE Greyson Scale that involved auditory/visual memories of events during resuscitation.

The researchers conducted investigations in an attempt to validate the patient’s memories at the time of resuscitation. Interestingly, both of the category 4 experiences were confirmed to be an accurate account of real life events.

While the paper made no claims as to how this may be possible, save for discounting hallucinations, the conundrum presented begs many questions, including:

  • Is this similar to other out-of-body experiences?
  • Is it a dreamlike, visual reconstruction of occurring events made possible through heightened senses?
  • Or perhaps it is a statistical projection of what your brain predicts is happening as you die, without input from the senses?
  • And have we been miscalculating when someone should be considered clinically dead?
  • Is the brain still functioning, and if so how and at what level?
  • Or are these “perceptions” truly occurring after brain function has returned following resuscitation and only perceived as if they had happened in real-time?
  • And finally, is there more to life after death that extends beyond the resuscitation time frame?

While, without question, the studying of near death experiences has its limitations, with the present study raising more questions than giving answers, it is a step in the right direction towards a better understanding of what, if anything, happens after death. One thing the study did confirm is that there is at the very least a small possibility (around 1-2%), of experiencing a little life after death.


Parnia S, Spearpoint K, de Vos G, Fenwick P, Goldberg D, Yang J, Zhu J, Baker K, Killingback H, McLean P, Wood M, Zafari AM, Dickert N, Beisteiner R, Sterz F, Berger M, Warlow C, Bullock S, Lovett S, McPara RM, Marti-Navarette S, Cushing P, Wills P, Harris K, Sutton J, Walmsley A, Deakin CD, Little P, Farber M, Greyson B, & Schoenfeld ER (2014). AWARE-AWAreness during REsuscitation-A prospective study. Resuscitation PMID: 25301715

Image via BEEDLDPHOTO / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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