Chemicals released in near-death situations may lower our chances of surviving

The science behind walking towards the light

Graphic by Bram Keast

Recent studies have shed some new light on why almost dying feels like it does, but it’s not what you might think.

The study  on the link between near-death experiences and cardiac arrest explains that the heart and the brain make unusual connections when your brain believes it’s about to die, and that it might be a lot less beneficial than it feels.

Near death experiences sometimes occur when an individual is facing impending death. Usually the experience is characterized by unusual sensations such as warmth, calmness, sensing the presence of a light, or out-of-body detachment.

What happens after you die?

Accounts of people who have escaped death seeing white lights, passed-on family members, and green fields have been the center of debates concerning the existence of the afterlife for decades.

However, science says the process may go like this: your heart slows down, even stops, and your blood stops flowing. Your brain panics and starts an intense and erratic burst of hormone activity.

, the feel-good hormone you get when you keep a healthy exercise regime  or become a drug addict , amongst other things.

Another is norepinephrine, which bumps up your heart rate and makes you very aware . This mixed bag of hormones is pretty euphoric, and it very well might be a scientific answer to many claims of feeling peaceful or even joyful just before being resuscitated.

While this is all well and good, further studies show this flash of feelings might be detrimental to the patient’s chances of surviving.

A study performed by the University of Michigan medical school using rats showed that these brain signals synchronized with the rat’s heart rhythm. Blocking these brain signals, however, actually turned out to delay  ventricular fibrillation, also known as an uncoordinated heartbeat , which is the most common arrhythmia in heart attacks – so, in a way, delaying death.

Would a similar attempt to recreate the blockage of hormones in humans reduce cardiac arrest fatalities? Does this prove that “walking towards the light” is our brain’s way of comforting us over our impending death?

Aside from raising compelling questions about the mystery of the afterlife, these findings could eventually greatly improve the relatively poor chances of surviving a cardiac arrest.

Up to 40,000 cardiac arrests happen every year in Canada , and approximately 20 per cent of cardiac arrest survivors report having a near-death experience . This research could lead to information that may enable more patients to survive heart attacks.

In the meantime, the question of what happens after death is one of the most divisive ones on earth. Its mystery comes, of course, from the human endeavor’s inability to proceed observation of an individual’s mental state of being post-mortem.