When I was eight years old, I fell off of a jungle gym backwards. I was resting against a rope, at the top of a ten-foot gangplank, and it suddenly gave way. I dropped to the ground, like a rag doll, and I hit the back of my head on the concrete below. After the initial shock of impact, I caught my breath, and I stood up in a daze. There was no one around. I was completely alone. I stumbled four or five feet forward and then I dropped to the ground.
I was surrounded by a warm, all encompassing bright, white light. I was the light and the light was me. I had no body. I was fully immersed in its long, gentle and loving embrace and filled with an overwhelming sense of peace and joy. It felt like returning home. I was exactly where I needed to be; and I never wanted to leave. There was no sense of “I”, or a life before, just that particular moment of indescribable happiness. After a period of time, an awareness grew that I could not stay, and I had to go back. I was then jolted into my body. Everything went black and I was filled with pain. I woke up on the ground and I made my way up towards the house for help. It was only many years later that I realized that I had not fainted. I had experienced a brush with death.
As described in this Scientific American article, near-death experiences, or NDEs, are triggered during singular life-threatening episodes when the body is injured by blunt trauma, a heart attack, asphyxia or shock. Approximately one in ten patients with cardiac arrest in a hospital setting undergoes such an episode. Thousands of survivors of these harrowing touch-and-go situations report of leaving their bodies, and experiencing a realm beyond everyday existence, unconstrained by the usual boundaries of space and time.
NDEs share broad commonalities: becoming pain-free; seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel and other visual phenomena; detaching from one’s body and floating above it; or even flying off into space (out-of-body experiences). They might include meeting loved ones, living or dead, or spiritual beings: a recollection or review of lifetime memories, both good and bad (“my life flashed in front of my eyes”). A jarring disconnect separates the massive trauma to the body and the peacefulness and feeling of oneness with the universe.
Death requires irreversible loss of brain function. When the brain is starved of blood flow and oxygen, the patient faints in a fraction of a minute and the electroencephalogram, or EEG, becomes isoelectric, or flat. This implies that large-scale, spatially distributed electrical activity within the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, has broken down. Like a town that loses power one neighbourhood at a time, local regions of the brain go offline, one after another.
Given these power outages, this experience produces the rather strange and idiosyncratic stories that make up the majority of NDE reports. To the person undergoing it, the NDE is as real as anything the mind produces during normal waking. When the entire brain has shut down because of complete power loss, the mind is extinguished, along with consciousness. When oxygen and blood flow are restored, and the brain boots up, the narrative flow of experience resumes.
Until this point in my life. I have not shared my NDE story with many people. And from those that I have shared it with, I have received a range of responses: some open, others dismissive. It does not matter to me. I know what I experienced. I can clearly remember it now, even thirty-seven years later. It is beyond logical explanation. It was an expansive, spiritual experience: not a simple trick of a traumatized brain. Having recently lost a friend to cancer, and facing the imminent death of two family members, this conviction provides me with a lot of comfort. “Life” continues on after a physical death occurs.
I recently watched the Surviving Death series on Netflix. The first episode explores NDEs and I think that they did an excellent job investigating the concept. If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend that you check it out.