Among those who have had a brush with death, the stories are often similar: Dark tunnels capped with bright lights, conversations with dead relatives, and spiritual sensations akin to the soul leaving the body are common. Strangely, new research presented on Friday suggests that near-death experiences are far more common than you might think and, interestingly, share some universal themes.
"I saw angels, and they were singing the most beautiful music I have ever heard."
Based on a survey on 1,034 people from 35 different countries, a team of scientists from Norway, Denmark, and Germany found that 10 percent of people reported having some type of near-death experience (106 people). These experiences ranged from dramatic feelings of struggle, to “total peace,” as described by several of the survey respondents, who recounted their most intimate brushes with death in an online questionnaire. These accounts were reviewed team of scientists led by Daniel Kondziella, Ph.D., a neurologist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
Kondziella’s work will be presented on Saturday at the fifth Congress of the European Academy of Neurology. Though it hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, it includes surprisingly detailed accounts of near-death experiences. As Kondziella’s team reviewed these accounts, they discovered that some common patterns emerged among them.
What Are Near-Death Experiences Like?
The following experiences received NDE ratings higher than seven on the previously established Greyson Near-Death Experiences Scale, which indicates whether an experience is a true brush with death or a different psychological experience.
Here are a few highlights:
Male, 28: As I was fighting, my life started flashing before me in my head. […] I felt like my soul was being pulled out of my body. I was floating and was [lifted in the air]. After a few moments I felt like I was in an enormous tunnel of darkness, and at its end there was the brightest white light I have ever seen. I remember that my dead relatives were at the gate, including my maternal grandmother.
Female, 57: I was very young when I almost drowned. I saw angels, and they were singing the most beautiful music I have ever heard.
Male, 46: I encountered a truly out-of-body experience where my eyesight and visual became incredibly abstract. For around an hour I had no sense of self or my surroundings
Of all the near-death experiences documented, 87 percent included the sensation that time had sped up or slowed down, and 65 percent involved the sensation that thoughts were coming and going rapidly. More than half of people reported having exceptionally vivid senses or an out-of-body experience.
Most who had “true” near-death experiences (greater than a 7 on the Greyson scale) reported that they were pleasant, but this wasn’t always the case.
Why Do Some People Have Near-Death Experiences?
One explanation for these mystical-seeming sensation is the controversial idea that the brain naturally produces the psychedelic compound DMT during those episodes. People who take DMT as a psychedelic drug often describe have near-death-like experiences, though the reasons why are unknown.
Kondziella’s work did not look to explain why people have these experiences, only to show that they had them. He did, however, find a health-related pattern that may pave the way for a new hypothesis.
His work illuminated an association between near-death experiences and reports of REM sleep intrusion. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is the stage of sleep in which people tend to dream; as they sleep, their eyes dart back and forth rapidly beneath their eyelids and their body enters a form of paralysis called “muscle atonia.” In people with REM sleep intrusion, the typical experiences of REM sleep bleed over into wakefulness. Sometimes, this can include intense hallucinations or feelings of paralysis.
In Kondziella’s study, people who had reported symptoms of REM disruption were more than 2.8 times more likely to report also having had a near-death experience.
"Our central finding is that we confirmed the association of near-death experiences with REM sleep intrusion."
The idea that REM sleep disturbances may share some underlying connection with the near-death experience isn’t unique to Kondziella’s work. In 2006, a paper in Neurology also noted a correlation between sleep paralysis or sleep-related hallucinations and NDE, but that paper was also criticized for its methods; notably, critics pointed out that a sample of people who are willing to share their experiences on the internet may be ‘atypical’ compared to most people who had such transformative experiences.
Kondziella points out that his study tried to remedy some of those concerns by collecting random participants through a crowdsourcing platform for scientific research, Prolific Academic. With his results in hand, he believes that there is a connection worth pursuing between REM sleep intrusion and near-death experiences.
“Our central finding is that we confirmed the association of near-death experiences with REM sleep intrusion, he said on Friday. “Although association is not causality, identifying the physiological mechanisms behind REM sleep intrusion into wakefulness might advance our understanding of near-death experiences.”
The sleep connection, for now, remains speculative. But going forward, it may hold clues as to why one in ten people experience brushes with the mystical when they’re in dire straits and why some people don’t.
Methods:Using a crowd-sourcing platform, we recruited 1034 lay people from 35 countries to investigate the prevalence of near-death experiences and self-reported REM sleep intrusion. Reports were validated using the Greyson Near-Death Experiences Scale (GNDES) with ≥7 points as cut-off for near-death experiences .
Results Near-death experiences were reported by 106 of 1034 participants (10%; CI 95% 8.5-12%). REM intrusion was more common in people with near-death experiences (n= 50/106; 47%) than in people with experiences with 6 points or less on the GNDES (n= 47/183; 26%) or in those without such experiences (n= 107/744; 14%; p=<0.0001). Following multivariate regression analysis to adjust for age, gender, place of residence, employment and perceived danger, this association remained highly significant; people with REM intrusion were more likely to exhibit near-death experiences than those without (OR 2.85; CI 95% 1.68-4.88; p=0.0001).
Discussion Using a crowd-sourcing approach, we found a prevalence of near-death experiences of 10%. While age, gender, place of residence, employment status and perceived threat do not seem to influence the prevalence of near-death experiences, we confirmed a significant association with REM sleep intrusion.