What Your Brain Looks Like When You Think You’re Going To Die

(Photo: Corbis) 

Imagine being on a plane and being told the jet is out of fuel, and you have to now prepare for a crash. That’s exactly what happened to 304 passengers aboard an August 2001 flight (Air Transat Flight 236 ) that ran out of fuel midway over the Atlantic ocean, flying from Ontario to Portugal. and was forced to make an emergency landing without the jet’s two engines functioning.

The plane nearly crashed into the Atlantic Ocean — the passengers were told to prepare for an ocean ditching, which included a countdown to impact — yet the pilot miraculously landed the aircraft on a small island military base in the Azores.

A lot of people were praying and screaming for God, recalled one passenger in a documentary on the flight. “It’s a struggle to stay calm when you’re considering your own death,” said another. “My best friend was talking to his father, who died three years ago. But he’s talking to him because he thought for sure he would be joining him.”

We’ve heard the term about being scared out of our mind.

Watch the details of Air Transat Flight 236′s landing. (Video: AmterdamAirport HD)

And now, researchers from the US and Canada have discovered how the brain looks during a moment of sheer terror and how it processes a traumatic experience.

The study, which was published in the journal Clinical Psychology Science, was conducted in two phases and consisted of people who were aboard the Air Transat Flight.

During phase one, 15 passengers from that flight volunteered to complete a memory test that asked about this incident around three years after it took place. They were also asked to recall memories from September 11th (which happened just a few weeks after their near-plane crash), as well as from a neutral event. The researchers discovered that all of the participants remembered “a remarkable amount of detail” from the harrowing flight. Those participants who were suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) tended to offer additional information that was off-topic.

Phase two occurred about ten years later and included eight of the former passengers. The participants (some with PTSD) were shown news footage from their flight, from 9/11 and from a neutral event. They were placed inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner during the process.

This time around, the researchers noticed that certain regions of the brain — specifically the amygdala, hippocampus, and midline frontal and posterior—were activated as the volunteers remembered their flight, as well as 9/11. These brain changes did not occur in other participants (from a comparison group) who also recalled 9/11.

“Regions such as the amygdala are very well-known for their role in emotional processing more generally,” Dr. Daniela Palombo, lead study author and post-doctoral researcher at VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Health. “For example, this region ‘lights up’ when you see angry or sad faces/videos.” She continues that regions like the hippocampus are critical for memory. “This region ‘lights up’ when we encode and remember many different types of information.”

And so it seems that emotions and memory have a strong link. “While people consider emotion and memory as separate ‘processes,’ in reality, the regions that support emotion and memory interact,” explains Palombo. “Other researchers have shown greater ‘cross talk’ between these regions when we encode new emotional experiences, as well as when we remember them. Our work shows that these regions are both active when you remember a trauma.”

She and her team believe that the “carryover effect” from the near-plane crash changed the way these participants process new information, which indicates that a distressing incident may make us see the world through a new lens.

“We speculate that people who have experienced trauma may become more sensitized to things in their environment,” says Palombo, “It may evoke more emotion and that in turn could influence how the event is remembered. There is certainly some research to support this idea. So yes, the lens is likely a more sensitive and cautious one.”

Palombo and her fellow researchers are hoping their latest findings will lead to further research that can further understand and improve treatments of PTSD.

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