For centuries people have been talking about near-death experiences, where the patient has an out-of-body experience and remembers seeing a bright light and feels a great sense of peace. We have linked this experience with knocking on the doors of heaven, to many other spiritual explanations. According to a new study, there might be a biological explanation for this.

According to a team of researchers from University of Kentucky, while a person is undergoing a near death experience the same parts of his/her brain are activated as the brain of a person who is having a dream. The scientists compared 110 people, half had never had a near death experience, while the other half had.

They found that the people who had had a near death experience had less clearly separated boundaries between periods of sleep and wakefulness. The near death experience people reported looking down at themselves in the operating theatre or being bathed in a bright, white light. When a person is in a REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep stage, similar sensations also happen.

You can read about this study in the journal Neurology.

The majority of people with near death experiences also experience REM while they are awake (called REM Instrusion), say the researchers. Less than 25% of those who have never had a near death experience ever experience REM stage while they are awake.

REM intrusion may mean you wake up and cannot move your limbs, or any part of your body, your muscles may feel incredibly weak, or you hear sounds that other people cannot hear. It is a paradoxical state of being in a dream stage while you are awake.

The scientists say that near death experiences are caused by the same parts of the brain being activated as they are during REM.

The researchers say they cannot rule out a spiritual explanation for a near death experience. They say that, as scientists, their job is to find out what is going on physically. It is not their job to find out why.

Just like dreams can seem really real, so can near death experiences, say the researchers.

Written by: Christian Nordqvist
Editor: Medical News Today