What Happens When You Die? Scientists Say Near-Death Experiences Share Elements but Vary Widely

Seeing a bright light and experiencing a tunnel are among the most common features of near-death experiences. Public domain

What do you picture when you hear "near death experience?" A blinding light? An out of body experience? Maybe some spooky interactions with heavenly beings or spirits?

Scientists who studied a range of recorded near-death experiences for a paper published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that all three were among the most common elements of such visions.

Many people report having visions during moments when they say they passed close to death. Accounts of such experiences date back to Ancient Greece. Psychologists refer to such reports as "profound psychological events with transcendental mystical elements" that usually occur when a person is either close to death or in serious physical or emotional danger.

In this latest study, the researchers found these reports often shared common features. But they also sought to discover whether there was a common order in which these features would occur. Past examinations have attempted to parse whether some system of organization is present throughout these accounts, but the researchers say their study was the first "formal and rigorous" attempt to do so. Their results showed that different experiences are often unique, and raise questions over how the phenomenon of near-death experience is defined.

The researchers, including Charlotte Martial of the University of Liège and University Hospital of Liège in Belgium, analyzed 154 written accounts of near-death experiences. They found that the most common aspect of a near-death experience was a feeling of peacefulness (reported in 80 percent of the accounts), seeing a bright light (69 percent) and encounters with spirits or people (64 percent.)

When investigating the chronological sequences of the experiences, the researchers reported that about a third of participants (35 percent) began their vision with an out of body experience, and the most common final feature was a return to the body (36 percent). "This suggests that near-death experiences seem to be regularly triggered by a sense of detachment from the physical body and end when returning to one's body," Martial said in a statement.

According to the study, the most common chronological sequence of four events in a near-death experience were having an out-of-body experience (seeing one's body from the outside, for example); being aware of a tunnel; seeing a bright light; and finally a feeling of peace. But this exact sequence was reported in just 22 percent of the 27 experiences that featured these four elements.

"Our findings suggest that near-death-experiences may not feature all elements, and elements do not seem to appear in a fixed order," said Martial. The reports may exhibit commonalities, but they vary widely in chronology and in how many of the usual features occur in a given experience, Martial noted.

The researchers say the study raises significant questions about what specific aspects of near-death experiences could be universal and which are not.