Environmental Science
articles by Will Kemp

Science versus pseudoscience: near death experiences

Recent theories of modern physics predict that the universe has more dimensions than are apparent to us. Many near-death experiencers report the perception that there are more dimensions than we are commonly aware of. These two statements might be related.

Near death and out of body experiences are frequently reported by people who have undergone severe trauma and have come close to death. Descriptions of these experiences seem to be similar around the world and across different age groups – including young children (Bonilla, 2011). Near death experiences (NDEs) typically involve some combination of feelings of peace, looking down at the situation from above, being surrounded by brilliant white light, passing through a tunnel, encountering mysterious beings, dead family members or friends, and being given a choice of whether to stay or go back (Cole, 1993; Mann et al., 2001). These experiences are often interpreted as being religious or spiritual in nature, and as indicating the existence of an “afterlife” (Agrillo, 2011; Mann et al., 2001).

One major obstacle to understanding the mechanism of near death experiences is the fact that the subject is either unconscious or clinically dead and no significant brain activity would be expected to occur in those circumstances. On the face of it, near death experiences should require a higher degree of consciousness and brain activity than could exist in that condition (Bonilla, 2011). There is also a problem with understanding how memories can arise in those conditions as the subjects are frequently in states where memory formation is usually unable to take place (Parnia & Fenwick, 2002). These difficulties with understanding the experiences in terms of brain activity have been used to argue that NDEs are the result of out of brain activity and, therefore, evidence of some kind of afterlife (Agrillo, 2011).

However, out of body experiences have been produced by stimulation of the temporoparietal junction of the brains of people who had electrodes implanted for unrelated medical reasons (De Ridder et al., 2007) and similar experiences can be induced by psychoactive drugs and hypnotism (Gabbard et al., 1982 in Cole, 1993). Studies of cardiac arrest patients in the Netherlands and Slovenia found that only around 20% had near death experiences (van Lommel et al., 2001; Klemenc-Ketis et al., 2010), which suggests that such experiences are nothing like universal in people who come close to dying. Klemenc-Ketis et al. (2010) investigated the correlation between blood carbon dioxide levels, serum potassium levels and the incidence of near death experiences in cardiac arrest patients, and found that higher levels of either were independent predictors of NDE. Overall, these studies suggest there are likely to be neurological causes of NDEs which, with further investigation, could be more fully understood. The greatest barrier to further investigation is the difficulty of systematically studying people who are close to death and who require urgent medical intervention in an attempt to save their lives.

But, whatever the causes of near death experiences are, they are real and important to the people who experience them. These people are normally in a medically critical state and need psychological as well as physical support if they are to recover from their trauma – therefore their interpretation of what has happened to them should be taken seriously and treated with respect (Cole, 1993).


Agrillo, C. 2011. Near-death experience: Out-of-body and out-of-brain?. Review of General Psychology, 15(1), 1-10.

Bonilla, E. 2011. Experiencias cercanas a la muerte. Investigación Clínica, 52(1), 69.

Brumblay, R.J. 2003. Hyperdimensional Perspectives in Out-of-Body and Near- Death Experiences. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 21(4), 201-221.

Cole, E. J. 1993. The near death experience. Intensive & Critical Care Nursing : The Official Journal of the British Association of Critical Care Nurses, 9(3), 157-161.

De Ridder, D., Van Laere, K., Dupont, P., Menovsky, T., & Van de Heyning, P. 2007. Visualizing out-of-body experience in the brain. The New England Journal of Medicine, 357(18), 1829-1833.

Klemenc-Ketis, Z., Kersnik, J., & Grmec, S. 2010. The effect of carbon dioxide on near-death experiences in out-of-hospital cardiac arrest survivors: A prospective observational study. Critical Care, 14(2), R56.

Parnia, S. & Fenwick, P. 2002. Near death experiences in cardiac arrest: visions of a dying brain or visions of a new science of consciousness. Resuscitation, 52(1), 5-11.

Mann, S., Riddell, G., & Dumas. 2001. Experiences: Near death experiences. Australian Journal of Parapsychology, 1(2), 171-175.

van Lommel, P., van Wees, R., Meyers, V. & Elfferich, I. 2001. Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. Lancet, 358(9298), 2039-2045.