There are simple scientific explanations, but are they right?
To all external appearances, Ann was unconscious after slipping into a diabetic coma. She was unresponsive to pin pricks. Worse, other abnormal neurological reflexes said she was either brain dead or soon would be.
But Ann was dimly aware of her surroundings and experienced other classic Near Death Experiences (NDEs): She saw a long tunnel with a bright light at the end. And she seemed to be floating above her body, looking down on her still form in the hospital bed.
We know this because, fortunately, Ann has recovered and can tell her story.
Roughly 3% of Americans say they have experienced NDEs. Of those, 24% report out-of-body experiences and 31% describe the tunnel.
A few such reports could be discounted as urban legends, but (do the math) over 10 million?
But are these experiences paranormal?
Good scientists will tell you that it’s unwise to reject any possibility out of hand. And if paranormal phenomena can be disproven through experiments, they are legitimate grist for the scientific mill. But good scientists will also tell you that it’s prudent to look for simple explanations grounded in known phenomena before reaching for your Ouija Board.
And there are simpler explanations for NDEs.
Studies of deeply unconscious or comatose patients have shown Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and EEG activity associated with hypnogogic states or “waking dreams.” In these twilight states of consciousness, imagined perceptions—such as floating outside the body—and real perceptions mingle. Recent research (albeit in rats) shows that EEG activity actually spikes above normal as the brain begins to shut down, presumably with strong subjective experiences.
One of these experiences could be out-of-body sensations that occur with stimulation of the right temporoparietal region of the cerebral cortex.
So what about the tunnels?
There’s a simple explanation for this, too: As the light sensitive part of the eye called the retina loses oxygen, blindness creeps in from the periphery, sparing central vision. This phenomenon occurs when people are about to faint, or experience extremely high G-forces, as they would when executing fighter plane maneuvers.
Therefore, starved of oxygen, people near death could be expected to report a bright light surrounded by darkness.
Now, just because these explanations are simpler than paranormal possibilities, it doesn’t mean that they’re right. But I’m a big fan of Albert Einstein who observed, “When the solution is simple, God is answering.”