Near-Death Experiences Getting Slightly Less Mysterious

The nonfiction publishing phenomenon of 2011 and 2012 was, without a doubt, Heaven Is For Real, an account of a three-year-old boy who during surgery visited heaven, where he met Jesus, who rides on a "rainbow horse." Young Colton Burpo's father Todd attested that it just had to be true, since Colton knew details he could never have learned elsewhere, like the fact that Jesus had marks on his hands. Sure, Todd Burpo is a pastor and the family is intensely religious, but still. It couldn't possibly have been a dream, right? Heaven Is For Real has sold an incredible 7.5 million copies, and is now in its 142nd week on The New York Times paperback non-fiction bestseller list.

The top spot on that list is held by this year's nonfiction publishing phenomenon, Proof of Heaven, a neurosurgeon's account of how he fell into a coma and went you know where. It's "proof," you see, because the doctor had an extended vacation amongst the clouds, when his brain was, he says, "shut down." Could it have been a dream he had while emerging from his coma? Nah. And so what if he turns out to be something of a charlatan? Any way you slice it, near-death trips through the Pearly Gates are box-office boffo. Which is why a new study on what happens to rats when they reach the end of their terrestrial moment is particularly interesting:

Scientists from the University of Michigan recorded electroencephalogram (EEG) signals in nine anesthetized rats after inducing cardiac arrest. Within the first 30 seconds after the heart had stopped, all the mammals displayed a surge of highly synchronized brain activity that had features associated with consciousness and visual activation. The burst of electrical patterns even exceeded levels seen during a normal, awake state...

When the heart suddenly stops, blood flow to the brain stops and causes death in a human within minutes. A likely assumption would be that, without a fresh supply of oxygen, any sort of brain activity would go flat. But after the rats went into cardiac arrest, Mashour and his colleagues observed the opposite happening...

In the rats, this connectivity went above and beyond the levels seen during the awake state — which could possibly explain the hypervivid, "realer-than-real" perceptions reported close to death, Borjigin said...

Borjigin also noted an increase in a certain type of EEG pattern that has been tied to visual stimulation in humans that could possibly explain the very bright light that survivors describe.

While the rats can't tell us whether they were travelling through a tunnel headed for a white light, were flooded with a feeling of well-being, and then met all their little rat friends hanging out with Rat Jesus, they do seem to be having some kind of near-death experience. (And although the articles don't mention it, I presume the rats then proceeded to an actual-death experience. Thanks for your help, rats.)

Of course, we could get a hundred studies demonstrating that every element of what people describe in their near-death experiences is perfectly explicable from the physiological processes our bodies and brains go through as we approach death (for instance, in some people it might have something to do with carbon dioxide levels in blood), and it wouldn't dent the sales of these books one bit. Why? Well it may be my bias as an atheist, but I've always thought that if you really believed in heaven, you wouldn't need a three-year-old's tale of Jesus' rainbow horse to convince you. But even the most fervent believer wants to be assured that death is not death at all, but merely a way point on the road to something even better, that we need not worry about the fear that grips every sentient being, that it's all going to be OK. And no matter how silly the package in which that assurance is delivered, millions of people will rush to open it.

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