Study finds why near-death experiences may happen, but mystery remains

Near-death experiences, more commonly called NDEs, are experiences a person may report occurring in a life-or-death situation. Various phenomena are associated with NDEs, including the perception of leaving one's body, feeling a loss of identity, relaxation, a sense of security, seeing a bright light, and more.

Many people who have experienced an NDE report intense phenomena that, in some cases, may alter the way they look at life post-event. Such experiences are typically triggered when a person faces an extreme situation that could be fatal or that is extremely stressful. Of course, every person who reports a near-death experience survives the encounter that triggered it.

Little is known about this phenomena, which has been reported by people across the world. Historic accounts of near-death experiences, which were often perceived as religious in nature, can be found in writing going back to ancient times. Though we don't know how these events happen, a new study may reveal why they occur.

The new research comes from the University of Liege and the University of Copenhagen, which suggest that near-death experiences are a type of survival mechanism with evolutionary origins. The scientists point toward thanatosis, a defense mechanism in which animals pretend to be dead, as the potential evolutionary basis for near-death experiences.

What about the complex perceptions and imagery a person may experience during an NDE? The study asserts that human development of language skills may have triggered an evolution in 'playing dead' that results in 'rich perceptions' when someone encounters a highly threatening situation that triggers an NDE.

Neurologist Daniel Kondziella explained:

Of note, the proposed cerebral mechanisms behind death-feigning are not unlike those that have been suggested to induce near-death experiences, including intrusion of rapid eye movement sleep into wakefulness. This further strengthens the idea that evolutionary mechanisms are an important piece of information needed to develop a complete biological framework for near-death experiences.