New Study Claims to ‘Explain’ Near-Death Religious Experiences

It’s been an exciting few months in the world of near-death experiences. First, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander published Proof of Heaven, in which he describes falling into a meningitis-induced coma and undergoing “a profound spiritual experience that took me beyond space and time.”

Proof of Heaven had been hovering at the top of national bestseller lists for over 35 weeks when, in July, Esquire came out with a punishing investigation of Alexander’s claims. The book’s sales barely budged.

Now, a team of researchers at the University of Michigan has provided some of the first direct evidence that the brain really does go into overdrive when at the edge of death—although not quite in the way that Alexander might have expected.

Like so much brain research, the study is vaguely weird and very simple: take nine rats. Induce cardiac arrest. Monitor brain activity.

The results for all nine rats were emphatic: instead of shutting down, their brains became hyperactive as their hearts stopped. In particular, neural patterns were of a kind “associated with waking consciousness, altered states of consciousness during meditation, and rapid eye movement sleep.” Rats cannot write bestselling memoirs, but it was clear to the researchers that they were undergoing a kind of heightened brain activity very different from that seen in ordinary rodent life.

Near-death experiences have provided some of the most vivid, difficult-to-explain accounts of apparently supernatural activity, and there’s the sense that science, once again, has moved into territory once reserved for the sacred mysteries. Fittingly, the Michigan team couldn’t help but take a dig at Eben Alexander. Citing Proof of Heaven, among other sources, they write:

Near-death experience represents a biological paradox that challenges our understanding of the brain and has been advocated as evidence for life after death and for a noncorporeal basis of human consciousness…we now provide a scientific framework to begin to explain the highly lucid and realer-than-real mental experiences reported by near-death survivors.

There’s no question that the Michigan study has implications for neuroscientists interested in religion—and for religious folks worried about the findings of neuroscience. But there’s no need to panic and reassure believers, as Catholic Online recently did, that “faith remains strong” even after this “gruesome study involving rats.”

Sure, The Economist is now suggesting that if near-death experiences are divine, then rats must have souls, and there’s always the overeager journalist who will jump to conclusions and claim that scientists have totally and finally solved near-death experiences. But it seems pretty obvious that rat brainwaves don’t offer an ironclad debunking of supernatural forces.

Really, believers can take heart in these findings. There’s solid evidence, finally, that people who report intense edge-of-death experiences aren’t just making stuff up. Something weird is going on. Maybe that weirdness can be explained in terms of gamma oscillations, anterior-posterior-directed brain connectivity, and other neuroscience jargon. Still, it just might be harder to explain—and of greater interest to those who are religious, or neuroscientific, or both—how a panicked consciousness in overdrive translates its experience into the language of the religious experience.