This Is What It Feels Like To Almost Die

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Near-death experiences are often talked about, but actually researching them can be pretty difficult. Now, a new study begins to shed some light on heading toward that white light.


For the study, published online today in the journal Resuscitation, researchers looked at 101 survivors of cardiac arrest over a four-year span of time. Using three stages of interviews, the investigators were able to gather a multitude of information about the participants' experiences.

Their results showed remarkable variety: The most reported near-death feeling was a sense of everything speeding up or slowing down (27%), followed by a sense of pleasantness or peacefulness (22%). A fair amount of participants (13%) also reported that their senses were more vivid than usual, and that they felt separated from their physical bodies. The results also showed that almost half of participants' experiences / perceived imagery tended to fall within one of seven themes: fear, plants and animals, violence or feeling persecuted, déjà vu, family, the classic bright light, or recalling events that probably happened while the person was recovering.

Although 7% of participants said they were aware of things that would normally have been out of view, only one was able to give enough details (the color of the scrubs personnel were wearing, or specific instructions nurses gave) to be verified. And, the researchers were able to confirm these details by looking at medical records. Other studies have shown that this type of awareness can also happen when patients are under anesthesia.

Previous work has revealed that 10-20% of cardiac-arrest survivors report a sense of awareness mid-resuscitation, despite their considerably impaired brain function — a hallmark characteristic of near-death experiences. Which indicates the possibility of cognitive processes continuing after we've stopped showing other signs of life. But, obviously, this study has its limitations. With such a small sample size, plus self-reporting, it's difficult to really know what people were going through. But, knowing more about what happens when we "lose" our lives can help us develop better understanding and appreciation while we've still got 'em.

Welcome to Death Week. This week, we'll attempt to unpack our feelings, fears, and hang-ups about death, dying, and mourning. We’ll do our best to leave no gravestone unturned.

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