What happens once we die? Near-death experiences (EMI) could provide the answer to this question that fascinates humanity, always aware of its fragility. We take stock of the tracks and plausible explanations of this extraordinary phenomenon.
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In 2017, Colette Aussedat went to the hospital to have a stent placed in her heart. But the routine intervention, performed under local anesthesia and intended to unblock an artery, does not go as planned. Colette feels herself leaving before going into cardiac arrest. “The first thing I remember — and it’s very vivid in my memory — is feeling the presence of my three daughters,” she says. It was like an embrace of love, an oceanic impression of tenderness. And then, nothing. I found myself in a large light brown space of absolute calm. It was a kind of spacious room, open in front of me, from which I could have circulated to leave it or go further. I saw myself in this place, and I thought very clearly: “Ah well, that’s how it is…” I knew that I was dying; it was obvious. I felt like I was detaching myself. I was all alone, without anxiety. It was extremely serene.” The Frenchwoman – whose heart stopped for 10 seconds – took some time to understand what she had been through, once she returned to reality.
A subjective experience
Colette is far from the only one to have known this type of experience, which scientists call “imminent death”. Thousands of testimonials — more or less credible — abound on the Internet. “We can define the EMI as a subjective experience that the individual lives when he is close to death, explains the DD Charlotte Martial. One of the peculiarities is that this experience contains recurring prototypical dimensions: every time, or almost, there are the same [éléments] that come back, like the experience of decorporation [l’impression de sortir de son corps], the vision of a tunnel or of a light, or even the encounter with an entity, which may just as well be a being of light as a face, the presence of one or more people, living or dead, that whether we recognize it or not. This neuropsychologist manages studies on NDEs at the Coma Science Group (GIGA-Consciousness), an international research group specializing in disorders of consciousness and other altered states of consciousness associated with the University of Liège, Belgium. As part of her work, she notably collects testimonials from people who have experienced an NDE, using a standardized form of around twenty questions.
Among these are: “You had a feeling of peace and / or well-being”, “You had the feeling of leaving the earthly world or integrating a new dimension and / or a new environment” or even “You had the impression of suddenly understanding everything about yourself, others and/or the universe”. Developed just over a year ago, this protocol is based on the Greyson Scale, developed in 1983 by psychiatry professor Bruce Greyson, a pioneer in NDE research. “If the subject has had a sufficiently rich experience with dimensions prototypical of near-death experiences, then it is considered to be an NDE,” says Dr.D Charlotte Martial. However, this tool has limitations. Like any researcher who will work on subjective experiences, I could not guarantee 100% the veracity of what the person affirms.
A personal interpretation
In November 2008, the Dr Eben Alexander III falls into a deep coma after an acute bacterial meningitis attacks his brain. While his doctors give him little chance of survival, the one who was associate professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School wakes up a week later, convinced that he has spent this time in paradise, a place that it does not associate with any religion. His memories are very clear and, according to him, very real.
He remembers a white light drawing him into a lush valley full of life, with no sign of death or decay, where thousands of beings danced to the sound of angelic choirs. “Millions of butterflies spun in vast formations of pure colors, beyond those of the rainbow, and, beside me [sur un papillon] was my spirit guide, a beautiful young woman with sparkling blue eyes, brown hair and high cheekbones, who sported a beautiful smile.” From this lush valley, Eben Alexander III was taken to other realms which he believed enabled him to understand the existence of a God (a “central source of consciousness”), to grasp the meaning of life — “based on the principles of love, mercy, kindness and compassion” — and to understand the reality of reincarnation (“different from that of Buddhism”).
Interviewed by videoconference, he delivers his story in one go, like a well-oiled machine. It must be said that, since his NDE, the doctor, who no longer practices and who is now interested in the nature of consciousness, devotes his time to telling his story. After being on the Oprah and Dr. Oz sets, he lectures around the world and is the author of several bestselling books (his first, Proof of Heaven – A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife…, released in 2012, has been translated into 40 languages and has sold two million copies). “Coming back” from death — or, in the case of Eben Alexander III, from a coma — can be a lucrative business.
“Each person who has had a near-death experience interprets it in a personal way, influenced by their own memories, their knowledge and expectations of the world, as well as their knowledge of NDEs,” says Dr.D Charlotte Martial. With this in mind, she and her team seek to understand the importance that culture and religion have on NDEs, by collecting testimonies from all over the world. “Today, research is mainly done in Europe and North America,” laments the neuropsychologist, who nevertheless highlights some papers showing that in India, people who have had a near-death experience tend to talk about a river to cross, whereas in the West, we rather describe a tunnel.
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The mysteries of the brain
You don’t have to be close to death to experience an NDE. Some people have experienced it during syncope, high fever or strong emotions, in deep meditation… or under the influence of drugs! Taking DMT (a powerful hallucinogen) would cause an experience similar to an NDE, according to a study carried out by Imperial College London, in partnership with the University of Liège. Similarly, another study carried out by the latter establishment, in collaboration with Dr.r Enzo Tagliazucchi of the University of Buenos Aires also showed similarities between near-death experience and taking hallucinogens. “We compared the written accounts of subjective experiences induced by 165 substances with the accounts of the EMI, explains the DD Charlotte Martial. Ketamine, salvia, DMT, and psilocybin, among others, produced subjective experiences strongly similar to an NDE. We can therefore suppose that there would be an endogenous substance in humans, which could be activated when it is close to death.
Could this explain the rich experience of Eben Alexander III? The lecturer asserts on the contrary that his nervous system showed almost no activity and that, therefore, it would have been impossible, according to him, for his experience to be a hallucination created from scratch by his sick brain. However, he was not in a state of irreversible brain death: his brain continued to function when he was in a coma, as is the case with all people who have experienced an NDE. Those who died for a few seconds or a few minutes before coming back to life were in fact in a situation of clinical death (ie the cessation of breathing and of the heart), which is reversible.
Even if Eben Alexander III is convinced to have been in paradise, the DD Charlotte Martial prefers to keep both feet on the ground by advancing the hypothesis that the NDE is rather a defense mechanism of the brain, capable of creating, in 85% of patients, another reality, this one positive and much more serene. than the one he’s actually in, whether it’s cardiac arrest or a coma. But what about the remaining 15% of cases? Just like a bad trip lived under the effect of taking hallucinogens, the near-death experience sometimes turns into a nightmare. Some people mention in particular the appearance of monsters, in a situation that could be described as hellish. “We are still far from understanding what happens when we die, recalls the DD Charlotte Martial. Consciousness remains a great mystery, as does death.
For Colette Aussedat, and many other people who have experienced an NDE, the end is not — or is no longer — a source of anxiety. “It was a beautiful moment, and I wouldn’t mind going that way,” she says. Wouldn’t it be reassuring to live a positive experience, of absolute serenity, when our time comes?
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Beyond Death: All About Near Death Experiences (NDEs)
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