Towards a Neuro-scientific Explanation of Near-death Experiences?

  • A. Vanhaudenhuyse
  • M. Thonnard
  • S. Laureys


Near-death experiences can be defined as “profound psychological events with transcendental and mystical elements, typically occurring to individuals close to death or in situations of intense physical or emotional danger. These elements include ineffability, a sense that the experience transcends personal ego, and an experience of union with a divine or higher principle” [1]. Common elements recurring in near-death experiences are experiencing a panoramic life review, feelings of peace and quiet, seeing a dark tunnel, experiencing a bright light, or out-of-body experiences [1] (Fig. 1). During an out-of-body experience, people seem to be awake and see their own body and the world from a location outside their physical body [2] (Fig. 2). Some spiritual and psychological theories have been developed in order to explain near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences. Clinical studies have aimed at determining their frequency and assessing precipitating factors. Recent studies have shown the involvement of the temporo-parietal cortex in the generation of out-of-body experiences and offer a neurological account for the phenomenon, rebuffing dualistic, non-physical explanations. In this chapter, we discuss what is and is not known about the neuronal correlates of these extraordinary experiences.
Fig. 1.

Common elements recurring in near-death experiences are seeing a dark tunnel, experiencing a bright light, feelings of peace and quiet, experiencing a panoramic life review or out-of-body experience (from Hieronymus Bosch, 1500s “Paradise and the Ascent in the Empyrean” left; and Schiavonetti, 1808 “The soul leaves the body at the moment of death” right).

Fig. 2.

One of the principal components of near-death experiences is out-of-body experiences. An out-of-body experience is defined by the presence of disembodiment, the impression of seeing the world from an elevated and distanced visuo-spatial perspective and the impression of seeing one’s own body from this perspective. Studies have shown that electrical stimulation of the temporo-parietal junction (highlighted in gray) can generate out-of-body experiences (with permission from Cliff Laureys)


Cardiac Arrest Bright Light Physical Body Cardiac Arrest Patient Cardiac Arrest Survivor 
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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. Vanhaudenhuyse
    • 1
  • M. Thonnard
    • 1
  • S. Laureys
    • 1
  1. 1.Coma Science Group Cyclotron Research CentreUniversity of LiègeLiègeBelgium

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