Mystical experiences close to death in which people report a variety of spiritual and physical symptoms, including extracorporeal sensations, visual or auditory hallucinations, accelerated thoughts and distortion of time, affect approximately 10% of the population, according to a new study that analyzed participants from 35 countries.
These near-death experiences (NDEs) are equally common in people who are not in imminent danger of death, such as in those who have experienced life-threatening situations such as heart attacks, car accidents, near-drowning situations or wars
The new findings have been presented at the 5th Congress of the European Academy of Neurology (EAN) by researchers from Rigshospitalet, the University Hospital of Copenhagen and the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark; the Brain Injury Research Center, in Berlin (Germany) and the Norwegian University of Technology in Trondheim, in Norway.
The experiences most frequently reported by the participants in their study included: abnormal time perception (87%), exceptional thinking speed (65%), exceptionally vivid senses (63%) and feeling of being separated from or out of your body (53%).
The study group that reported on NDEs described in various ways that they felt at peace,they were 'sucking' the soul, they were listening to the angels singing, they were aware that they were outside their body, they saw their life pass at great speed before them and they were in a dark tunnel before they reached a light.
Others spoke of being aware of the presence of another person before falling asleep, or of a demon sitting on his chest while they were paralyzed, unable to move.
The team recruited 1,034 lay people from 35 countries through an online crowdsourcing platform (to eliminate selection bias) and asked them if they had ever had an NDE. If they answered "yes", they were asked for more details, using a detailed questionnaire assessment tool called the Greyson Near Death Experience Scale, which asks about 16 specific symptoms.
A total of 289 people reported an NDE, and 106 of them reached a threshold of 7 on the Greyson NDE scale (confirming a true NDE). Around 55% perceived the NDE as a real threat to life and 45% was not really a threat to life.
Far from being a pleasant experience associated with feelings of peace and well-being, as some previous studies have reported, the new study found a much higher rate of people who reported that their NDE was unpleasant.
In general, of all the people who reported an NDE, 73% said it was unpleasant and only 27% said it was nice. However, in those with a score of 7 or more on the Greyson ECM scale (a confirmed NDE), this changed to 53%, indicating a pleasant experience and an unpleasant 14%.
On the basis of information obtained from previous studies, the researchers found an association between NDEs and the intrusion of sleep with Rapid Eye Movement (REM) during wakefulness.
REM sleep is a phase of the sleep cycle where the eyes move quickly, the brain is as active as when someone is awake, dreams are more vivid and most people experience a state of temporary paralysis, as the brain sends a signal to the spine that serves as a cord to stop the movement of arms and legs.
When REM sleep intrudes on wakefulness, some people report visual and auditory hallucinations and other symptoms such as sleep paralysis, where they feel conscious but can not move. The intrusion of REM sleep at wakefulness was more common in people with scores of 7 or more on the Greyson ECM scale (47%) than in people with scores of 6 or less (26 percent), or those below of the threshold without such experiences (14%).
"Our main finding is that we confirm the association of near-death experiences with the intrusion of REM sleep." Although the association is not causality, identifying the physiological mechanisms behind the intrusion of REM sleep in waking could advance our understanding of the experiences close to death, "says the lead researcher, Dr. Daniel Kondziella, neurologist at the University of Copenhagen.
It explains that the prevalence of 10% of NDE was higher than in previous studies conducted in Australia (8%) and Germany (4%), which could be explained by the fact that they had been performed with cardiac arrest survivors instead of people not selected, as in this study.
Dr. Kondziella confirms that his study replicates the findings of a previous 2006 study that had been accused of selective bias, but the new study addressed those potential failures by recruiting through a crowdsourcing platform.
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