What Happens When You Die? Scientists Have Re-created a Near-death Experience to Find Out What It Feels Like

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Anna said she felt as if she was in a tunnel when she first felt the effects of DMT. Getty Images

What happens when you die? As she lay blindfolded in a seat in a dimly lit room, Anna* came close to finding out.

But Anna wasn’t dying, or even close to death, when she entered what she described as an alternate realm. Instead, she was among 13 volunteers who had agreed to take the powerful hallucinogenic dimethyltryptamine (DMT) for a study conducted by the psychedelic research group at Imperial College London, U.K.

The researchers, who watched Anna surf her consciousness in the low light of the research room at one of the world’s most prestigious research institutions, pumped the volunteers with the psychedelic to learn how close DMT could bring a person to the sensation of skirting death.

DMT’s trip is said to mimic the feeling of almost dying so accurately that those who take it describe hallucinations that mirror near-death experiences—psychological events reported by people who have come close to or believe they have come close to dying.

GettyImages-453598088 A healer starts a ceremony by offering a Yage: A mixture of the ayahuasca hallucinogenic and a psychoactive bush, in La Calera, Cundinamarca, Colombia, on August 09, 2014. Researchers at Imperial College London gave study participants DMT, an ingredient in ayahuasca. EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images

For the first time ever, the scientists measured the similarities between a DMT trip and near-death experiences. Their results were published in the Frontiers in Psychology in August.

The hallucinogenic (which occurs naturally in our bodies) is better known as the main ingredient of ayahuasca, the brew traditionally sipped in spiritual ceremonies of some indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. In recent years, such rituals have also become popular with a sizable minority of Western tourists looking to expand their psychological horizons. Tellingly, ayahuasca translates from the Quechua language as “the vine of the dead” or “the vine of the soul.”

As DMT takers traverse what some call “the dome” of their trip, intense, transcendent, psychedelic hallucinations unfurl. Similarly, although there is no accepted definition for a near-death experience, because each experience is unique, common aspects include reported out-of-body experiences, a feeling of inner peace and the sensation of passing into another world.

Obviously, no one knows what it feels like to die, as no one has yet made it back from death. Near-death experiences are therefore probably the closest we’ll ever come to finding out. And DMT could be an important tool for exploring this part of our minds.

Christopher Timmermann, a Ph.D. candidate at Imperial College London and lead author of the study, told Newsweek the team used DMT in a controlled research environment to safely induce radical shifts in consciousness and chart the experiences of participants.

“By doing so we might get a fuller picture of the limits of consciousness and how these experiences correspond to brain activity,” he said.

“By giving people DMT we hope to get a fuller picture of the limits of human consciousness.

Within minutes of DMT being pushed into a vein in Anna’s arm, she felt disembodied, she told Newsweek. Hit with a quiver of panic, she reminded herself to breathe. Calmer, she entered the tunnel that is so often described by those who have faced death. When she reached the end, Anna popped into a place where time and space were configured in a way she didn’t know was possible.

Experimental ambient music washed into Anna’s ears to soothe her as she dropped into what she dubbed a “cosmic soup," while the octopus-sucker-like sensors of an electroencephalogram imager documented her brain activity.

The research was part of a broader program by Imperial’s psychedelics group dedicated to understanding the potential therapeutic uses of such compounds to treat mental illness, said Timmermann.

Imperial is among the institutions leading the charge in what is known as the psychedelic renaissance. Evidence has accumulated to suggest that drugs more commonly associated with youth counterculture, including LSD, magic mushrooms, ketamine, MDMA and peyote ibogaine, could counter disorders such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in controlled medical settings. These studies, stressed Timmermann, are conducted in a safe laboratory environment, and self-medicating with psychedelics is not recommended.

In a 2016 study published in The Journal of Psychopharmacology, researchers at New York University and Johns Hopkins University found that just one dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, eased symptoms of anxiety in cancer patients for eight months when compared with a placebo. 

“DMT and psilocybin are very similar molecules and induce similar subjective effects. Therefore, it is intriguing to speculate on the therapeutic potential of DMT, however much research is needed to explore these ideas further,” said Timmermann.

After their trip, the participants in Timmermann’s study were quizzed on what they saw and felt. Did time seem to speed up or slow down? Did they see, or feel surrounded by a brilliant light? Or sense they were in some other, unearthly world? The team compared their responses with a sample of people who had reported near-death experiences.

Most of the study's DMT users said they were initially engulfed in a sensation of warmth, and a vibration in their bodies. Geometrical patterns were then followed by the sensation of “being somewhere else,” punctuated by a “fundamental quality of deep importance,” said Timmermann. Some, Anna included, felt they had communicated with foreign entities, in encounters charged with a deep sense of emotion and gratitude.

“Many of them struggled to find the words for the details and what they encountered,” said Timmermann.

Read more: FDA approves psychedelic magic mushrooms ingredient psilocybin for depression trial 

When the team compared the experiences of participants to those who had reported near-death experiences, they found a “striking overlap” in almost every item of the questionnaire. The main difference came in the participants being knowingly involved in a study, versus the shock and distress of a near-death experience. As a result, near-death experiences were more likely to be accompanied with a feeling of crossing a point of no return when compared with DMT trips. 

The findings are "remarkable," said Timmerman. “These results really grounded our results even further and are, in our opinion, important as they may open up further doors into the study of both the NDE [near-death experience] and the DMT experience."

Anna remembers little of the specifics of her trip, but several images lingered in her mind when she descended from her high. “One image I do remember is lots of books flipping open and rainbows zooming out,” she said.

“I felt a presence lift my head and tell me to pay attention: 'You came to discover something.' But it was a juxtaposition because I felt disembodied at the same time. It was a strange paradox.”

As was required of participants in order to qualify for the study, Anna had previously dabbled in other hallucinogens, like LSD and mushrooms, which can keep a user high for as long as a quarter of a day. But nothing she had ever experienced came close to her intense, comparatively short, 20-minute DMT trip.

The normal laws of physics didn't apply. I was walking around my consciousness in a lucid dream.

“Imagine dreaming and things morph and the normal laws of physics don't apply. I was walking around my consciousness in a lucid dream," she recalled. 

Anna was faced with a figure of a lonely girl sitting in a gray, cold and gloomy scene, and became overwhelmed with the sense of how important compassion, love and empathy were. "It was as if I was being shown everything is interconnected and there are lots of lessons to learn."

This heightened sense of compassion, the researchers noted, seemed to stick long term, both in DMT takers and those who had near-death experiences. More than a year after Anna took DMT in March 2017, she still felt compelled to be more giving to others, she said.

Still, despite the apparent benefits, the evidence to explain why DMT creates a similar effect to a near-death experience is scarce, said Timmermann.

“There have been hypotheses stating that because we are able to synthesize DMT naturally in our bodies, then in extreme situations (as in near-death experiences) there will be a massive release of DMT in the brain that may cause NDEs.

"Another alternative is that similar states of consciousness can be reached through different mechanisms. Both DMT and NDEs could induce similarly dramatic effects in the brain but through differing starting points,” he said.

So, what exactly happens when you die? We're still not sure, but DMT could at least be one of the less permanent ways of indulging one's curiosity. 

*Name has been changed to protect participant’s identity.

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