Scientists saw a surge in brain activity in dying patients that could finally help explain mysterious near-death experiences

rendering of illuminated brain waves
The brain may live on for a short period of time even after the heart stops. What this means for human consciousness is still up for debate.MR.Cole_Photographer/Getty Images
  • Scientists observed a surge in brain activity in dying patients even after their hearts stopped.

  • The activity consisted of gamma waves, which are associated with lucid dreams and hallucinations.

  • Scientists say their observations may help explain bizarre reports of near-death experiences.

Scientists saw a surge in brain activity in dying patients. It's one of the very few times where researchers have had the opportunity to measure brain activity in humans immediately before and after "death."

The researchers say it could help explain the bizarre phenomenon that so many people report during a near-death experience, like leaving the body, floating above it, or seeing memories of their lives flash before their eyes.

Near-death experiences, "challenges our fundamental understanding of the dying brain," the researchers reported in the study, which was published last month. So, research like this is critical for building a clearer picture of the human experience near death.

How scientists measured human brain activity near death

The four patients in the recent study were comatose and removed from life support, with their families' permission. At this point, electroencephalogram sensors measured the patients' brain activity as they went into cardiac arrest.

The researchers found that two out of four of the dying patients experienced a swell of gamma waves — the brain activity associated with lucid dreams and hallucinations — even after their hearts had stopped, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Scientists have long thought that the brain dies with the rest of the body, but the latest study suggests that people may retain a certain level of consciousness that lends to dream-like, out-of-body experiences as they die, Vice reported.

"The discovery of the marked and organized gamma activities in the dying brain suggests that [a near-death experience] is the product of the dying brain, which is activated at death," the lead author of the study, Jimo Borjigin, told Vice.

"As far as I am concerned, our study may be as good as it will ever get for finding neural signatures of near-death consciousness," Borjigin told Vice, adding that the "only thing better than this is to have the patients survive to tell the tale that correlates with the detected neural signatures."

Borjigin has observed this same type of surge in brain activity in previous studies on dying rats, but it has historically been very difficult to examine in humans.

That said, Borjigin aims to collect more data on dying human brains in the future to better understand the human death experience, per Vice.

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