A new study led by New York University (NYU) has found that one in five people who survive cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) after cardiac arrest described lucid experiences of death that occurred while they were seemingly unconscious.
The study involved 567 participants whose hearts stopped beating while hospitalized and received CPR between May 2017 and March 2020 in the United States and the United Kingdom. Survivors reported having unique lucid near-death experiences, such as perceptions of a separation from the body and observations of external events without fear or distress, together with a meaningful evaluation of their lives, actions, intentions, and thoughts toward others. According to the scientists, these experiences were different from hallucinations, delusions, illusions, dreams, or CPR-induced states of consciousness.
Brain scans revealed spikes of brain activity, including the activation of so-called gamma, delta, theta, alpha, and beta waves up to an hour into CPR. Such brain waves usually occur when people are conscious and performing higher mental functions like thinking, memory retrieval, or conscious perception.
“These recalled experiences and brain wave changes may be the first signs of the so-called near-death experience, and we have captured them for the first time in a large study,” said study lead investigator Sam Parnia, an associate professor of Medicine at NYU. “Our results offer evidence that while on the brink of death and in a coma, people undergo a unique inner conscious experience, including awareness without distress.”
These findings suggest that the sense of self and consciousness, much like other biological body functions, may not stop completely around the time of death. “These lucid experiences cannot be considered a trick of a disordered or dying brain, but rather a unique human experience that emerges on the brink of death,” Parnia explained.
As the brain is shutting down, several of its natural braking systems are released, in a phenomenon known as “disinhibition,” which gives access to the depths of a person’s consciousness, providing access to stored memories and thoughts from early childhood and other periods in life. While the evolutionary function of such phenomena is not yet clear, they open intriguing questions about the nature of human consciousness and the meaning of life.
The study was presented at a resuscitation science symposium that is part of the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2022 (Chicago, November 6, 2022).
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