Today, new evidence is published that backs the idea that the near-death experience is a biological experience, rather than anything to do with a larger, spiritual dimension, a glimpse of heaven, or the existence of the soul.
People who have had near-death experiences are able to slip into dream sleep more easily than those who have not had one, according to a study published in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
"I see it as an activation of certain brain regions that are also active during the dream state," said Prof Kevin Nelson, a neurologist and lead study author, from the University of Kentucky, Lexington.
The study compared 55 people with near-death experiences with 55 people of the same age and gender who had not had them.
It found that people with near-death experiences were more likely to have a sleep-wake system in which the boundaries between sleep and wakefulness were not as clearly regulated, and the dream sleep state - when there is rapid eye movement - can intrude into normal wakeful consciousness.
Examples of "REM intrusion" include waking up and feeling that you cannot move - sleep paralysis - having sudden muscle weakness in your legs, and hearing sounds just before falling asleep or just after waking up that other people cannot hear.
Of the people with near- death experiences, 60 per cent reported REM intrusion, compared with 24 per cent of people who had not had near-death experiences.
"These findings suggest that REM-state intrusion contributes to near-death experiences," said Prof Nelson.
Prof Nelson said other factors supported this. Several features of near-death experiences are also associated with the dream state, for example, the feeling of being outside of one's body and being surrounded by light.
Because the brain turns off the body's ability to move during dreaming, muscles can lose their tone, or tension.
"During a crisis that occurs with REM-state intrusion, this lack of muscle tone could reinforce a person's sense of being dead and convey the impression of death to other people," Prof Nelson said.
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