Near death experience: Is it brain playing tricks?


By Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana

Life, itself, strictly speaking, is a near death experience (NDE); for some it may be a long one but, unfortunately, for some others it may be very short indeed. Perhaps, if we all realize this fact, though we are well aware of it but continue to disregard, we may put our lives to better use and the world would be a better place to live in.

Having read Dr Ranjith Perera’s interesting article titled ‘Near death and out-of-body experiences’ (The Island, 22nd October) my interest in the subject was rekindled and I decided to watch, again, on YouTube Dr Bruce Greyson’s masterpiece of a lecture ‘Is Consciousness produced by the Brain’ to which I give credit for most of the facts in this article. Anyone interested in learning more can watch it on YouTube but, though the title of the lecture is as I quoted, is listed as ‘’Does Consciousness need a Brain". I was also fortunate in finding another excellent article, "The Science of Near-Death Experiences", on the website by Gideon Lichfield, a New York based journalist who has written a number of articles on NDE. To understand NDE, we need first to understand the relationship of Consciousness and the Brain.

The Department of Psychiatry and the Division of Perceptual Studies in the University of Virginia is best known for studies on Rebirth and Consciousness, mostly due to an endowment by Chester Carlson, the inventor of the photocopier (Xerox), whose interest in Buddhism was aroused by his wife. The first Chester Carlson Professor was Ian Stevenson, well known pioneer researcher on Rebirth, and Bruce Greyson succeeded him on his retirement in 2002. Bruce Greyson is called by many ‘the father of research on NDE’ and is internationally recognized for the Greyson scale he devised for measuring various aspects of NDE.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama started visiting this centre as the translator on his trips to USA, Jeffrey Hopkins was the Professor of Tibetan and Buddhist studies at the same university. This collaboration brought about the merging of the Science of Buddhism with Modern Science, undoubtedly, the greatest achievement of the Dalai Lama. Under the direction of His Holiness, an annual conference on Cosmology and Consciousness is held in Dharamsala and during the inaugural conference, in December 2011, titled ‘Mind and Matter’ Prof Greyson posed the question ‘Is Consciousness produced by the Brain?’

Most western scientists believe that consciousness is produced in the brain as many factors like drugs acting on the Brain, injury to the Brain, stimulation or removal of some parts of the Brain alter Consciousness but, he argues, that the Brain may be more like a mobile phone that receives sound than actually producing it. He argues that though thoughts, perceptions and memories are related to brain but are not originated in the brain and illustrates this by the behaviour of Consciousness in extreme circumstances.

Western science is reductionistic; breaks down to parts but sum of the parts does not, all the time, explain the whole. A single neuron (brain cell) cannot produce consciousness needing a cluster to do so but we do not know the minimum number of neurones needed to produce consciousness and, so far, no biochemical basis has been found to explain how consciousness is produced. For the lack of a better explanation, scientists class consciousness as an ‘emergent’ property of the Brain but the term, again, remains undefined and the mechanism is unexplained. Before the 19th century, Brain and Consciousness were not coupled and coupling may have started with Newtonian Physics but we have to note that, with the realization of the limitations of Newtonian Physics, Scientists have now moved on to Quantum Physics.

During NDE, Consciousness seem to be dissociated from the Brain and it is said that according to Buddhist Philosophy too, Consciousness can exist without the Brain but what happens to Consciousness on death? Is it the ‘force’ for rebirth?

Prof Greyson’s thesis that Consciousness is independent of the Brain is based on a number of factors:



He has identified 87 cases of mental clarity returning shortly, may be hours or days, before death and quotes the experience of many care workers in the UK who have noticed patients with dementia recovering memories shortly before death.

Two interesting cases he refers to are; a 42-year-old man with a terminal brain tumour who was confused and delirious becoming lucid and coherent a few hours before death, speaking to his wife calmly about his impending death, to die peacefully hours later and an 81-year-old in Iceland, who had severe dementia for a long time, suddenly looking at his son, Liger, whom he did not recognize for years and telling him ‘Liger, I will recite you a poem’; he recited the poem and died peacefully.

It looks as if the diseased brain was suppressing consciousness which was released just before death. After all, the village practice of reciting the ‘Pin Potha’ (book of merits) on the deathbed may have real value.


A number of cases of normal people, some with high IQs, have been shown to have minimal brain tissue on investigation. A high school student admitted with a head injury, after a road traffic accident, was found to have no discernible cortex at surgery which was beyond explanation.

Dr John Lober, who runs a special clinic for children with Hydrocephalus (increased fluid in the brain with reduction of brain matter) in Sheffield in the UK, has reported that a number of children with very significant reduction of brain matter, in some 90% of the skull being occupied by fluid, were functioning normally with normal or high IQs, so much so that one of his papers was titled ‘Is your brain really necessary?’He cites the astonishing case of a university student, referred to him because of a large head, having only a thinned layer of cerebral cortex due to severe hydrocephalus but with an IQ of 126 and getting a first class degree in Mathematics!


In Tibet, the Delogs are a group of people whose experience resembles NDE but they are ‘dead’ for days before waking up and describe in great detail their ‘out of body’ journey.

NDE happens only in about 10-20% ofwho are resuscitated or spontaneously recovered after a short period of apparent ‘clinical death’ and they report mental clarity, vivid sensory imagery with a clearer picture than in real life.

Prof Greyson has investigated nearly 1000 cases of NDE, the youngest being a child of 8 months who had kidney surgery and recounted events later and the oldest a 81 year old who got a cardiac arrest (heart stoppage) after a heart attack. The average age was 31 and the cause of ‘near death’ was 32% surgery, 24% infection and 24% accidents.

Following NDE, they had:

1. Changes in thinking like altered time or stopping of time in 84%, revelation or sudden understanding in 54%, speeded thoughts in 42% and life reviews in 25%

2. Emotions like peacefulness in 92%, Cosmic unity in 78%, Joy in 77% and unconditional love in 72%

3. Paranormal features like separation from body (out of body experience)in 86%, senses abnormally vivid (seeing colours not seen in real life) in 66%, extra-sensory perceptions in 34% and precognition in 20%

4. Other world features like entering another world in 76%, coming to ‘a point of no return’ in 69%, meeting a mystical being in 59% and seeing deceased spirits in 36%

Following NDE most have after-effects which include being more spiritual (81%), more compassionate with desire to help (78%), increased appreciation of life (77%), more meaning and purpose in life (78%), greater belief in survival after death (82%), less fear of death (86%), less interest in material things (37%) and less interest in status and competition (37%).

Three features, according to Prof Greyson, point to consciousness without a brain in NDE:

1. Enhanced mental function which manifests as thinking clear than usual (47%), faster thinking (38%), more logical thinking (29%) and better control of thought (17%). Interestingly, closest they were to death more enhanced the mental functions were.

2. Perception from outside the body. 48% report this phenomenon and gave accurate description of the process of resuscitation. Some blind from birth were able to describe what they saw including even colours.

3. Visits with deceased persons was reported in 42%. Most intriguing case was that of a 9 year old boy who was very ill with Meningitis and unconscious for 36 hours. He said, on recovery, that his sister Teresa told him to go back which surprised his parents as she was in a College 1500 Km away. The confused father, on trying to contact her, found to his surprise and shock that she had died in a car crash the previous night. Another girl described meeting a brother she never knew she had.


Ian Stevenson and his team have investigated 2416 cases of past life memories, half in Asia. Past life ended due to violent causes in 60% cases.Most start recollections around the age of 2-5 years and memories fade away when they are around 6-9 years. Past life could be identified in 60% cases.

Memories; identify people and places as well as mode of death. Children when taken to past-life places were able to identify relatives and objects.

Personality traits: some had likes and dislikes of past-life and some play with toys of the opposite sex. Some Burmese children claimed they were Japanese pilots shot down during the War and showed preference to Japanese food.

Unlearned skills: ability to play musical instruments without any training and ability to speak different languages. Some children born in Tamil speaking areas spoke very fluent Sinhala.

Birthmarks and birth defects some of which had a relationship to the mode of death. 18% had matches confirmed by medical records. Some birthmarks fade with age.

One of the most interesting cases in USA was that of a pilot shot over Iwo Jima who was reborn as James Lineger in Louisiana. Around the age of 3 years he described the aircraft he flew in as well as the aircraft carrier he flew from. He also named his life-long friend who was with him. His father, who was a devout Christian, wanted to disprove but on investigation found the facts to be accurate and found his sister in the previous birth living in California, whom he identified. She confirmed that James had the friend he named.

Prof Greyson concludes that in extreme conditions, consciousness can be produced and function without a functioning brain. Though he is very convincing, it is well worth reading Gideon Lichfield’s article, as well,because it offers opinions from sceptics, who are convinced all this can be explained by distortions of brain function, in addition to many other interesting facts.

Interest in NDE in USA had been aroused after the screening of the film, ‘Heaven is for Real’, last year based ona book published in 2010 which sold 10 million copies about a young boy who told his parents how he visited heaven while having emergency surgery. Unfortunately, after all the publicity the boy has recently admitted that he made all that up! Last year, Eben Alexander, a Neurosurgeon in USA, published accounts of his ‘journey’ while being comatose for a week with meningitis in a top-selling book titled ‘Proof of Heaven’. Having studied all his medical charts, after recovery, he has come to the conclusion that he was too comatose to have an actively functioning brain and that the only explanation is that his soul ‘took the journey’ but sceptics have questioned a number of facts in his accounts. They have also questioned why he did not publish any of his findings in a peer-reviewed journal.

Sceptics point out that shortage of oxygen (hypoxia), which is very common after a cardiac arrest, can lead to disorientation, confusion, or hallucinations. Temporo-parietal junction, a part of the brain, acts as an integrator of data from all senses and organs and plays an important role in assembling them into our overall perception of the body. A disturbance in this area can produce an out-of-body experience. Another effect of Cardiac arrest is accumulation of carbon dioxide (hypercarbia) which, someresearchers claim, may produce a feeling of separation from the body or of being in a tunnel. Neurochemicals released by the lack of blood supply to the Brain might play a part in triggering hallucinations or creating a sense of peace.

Lichfield, in his article, refers to new animal data which is as follows:

"There is one newish bit of research that the materialist camp has seized on. A study at the University of Michigan, published in 2013, took anesthetized rats and stopped their hearts. Within 30 seconds, the rats’ EEG brain signals flatlined—but first they spiked, with an intensity that suggested that different parts of the brain were communicating with one another even more actively than when the rats were awake.

This sort of communication is thought to be a key step in perception; effectively, the brain’s various areas are comparing notes on the stimuli they’re getting. If humans experience the same death spike as rats, it may mean that the brain goes into a final, hyperactive spasm when its oxygen supply is cut as it tries to figure out what is happening. If so, that heightened activity might explain why people who say they had an NDE report that what they experienced seemed more real than the physical world."

‘Death spike’ is a plausible explanation but being plausible does not make it true, more so because it has been demonstrated only in an animal experiment. What is true for animals may not necessarily be true in humans and, therefore, further experimentation is needed. Till then, what was stated in an email to Gideon Lichfield by one of best known sceptics, the British Psychologist, Susan Blackmore, who was initially a believer after an out-of-body experience but has become a sceptic after further research, holds true:

"No purpose is served by those who persist in the false and unhelpful black and white comparison between NDEs as ‘true, wonderful, spiritual etc. etc.’ versus NDEs as ‘JUST a hallucination of no importance.’ The truth, it seems to me, is that NDEs can be wonderful, life-changing experiences that shed light on the human condition and on questions of life and death."

True: Even if the Brain is playing tricks, if any good comes out of it – it certainly is worth it.

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