By Niamh Anderson
NEAR-death experiences are caused by the chemistry of the brain rather than paranormal activity, Scots researchers have claimed.
Phenomenon such as bright lights, meeting the dead and “crossing over” have been experienced by as many as 3% of the UK population.
But a study by Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities has concluded there is no evidence that anything supernatural going on.
In every case, concluded the researchers, the “near death” experiences were simply a trick of the brain.
Dr Caroline Watt, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, said this study helps us to understand the capabilities of the brain.
“Near Death experiences most likely result from the brain’s attempt to make sense of traumatic and confusing experiences that the individual is having during some form of trauma. We can learn something about how the brain works by looking at these experiences.”
The study said that feelings such as moving towards a tunnel of light can be explained by visual activity during “retinal ischemia” which occurs when the blood and oxygen supply to the eye is depleted.
The same feeling can be experienced in patients suffering from glaucoma who lose their peripheral vision.
According to the review, a feeling of fear or hypoxia – oxygen loss – can also trigger the feeling of moving towards the after- life.
The study also revealed that encounters with angels and dead relatives are more likely to be an abnormal amount of dopamine being released into the body.
The neurochemical can evoke hallucinations and can often result in vivid “visions” of the deceased.
Again, the scientists said this feeling can be experienced by patients suffering from Alzheimer’s or progressive Parkinson’s disease.
While a feeling of looking down on your own body, or out of body experiences can happen when there is a breakdown in the brain’s multi-sensory processes.
Near-death experiences have been widely reported by celebrities such as Sharon Stone, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Sellers and Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman star Jane Seymour.
Seymour claimed to have seen herself lying on her bed when she had an allergic reaction to a flu injection.
Pink Panther star Peter Sellers reported seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel when he was pronounced clinically dead after suffering from eight rapid heart attacks in a row.
Ozzy Osbourne also reported seeing a bright light after being pronounced officially dead after a biking accident.
He complained that he did not see any angels however.
But Dr Watt said that more research should be conducted on the phenomena.
“I’d say there is more work to be done to gain a full understanding of near death experiences, but I think our work suggests that the most parsimonious explanation of these experiences is that they are due to normal psychological and physiological processes.”
The psychologist said that the research stemmed from the human fascination with the alleged “paranormal” world.
“I think that so long as people continue to believe in the paranormal and have paranormal experiences, there is plenty of work for researchers to do to try to understand what lies behind these experiences.”
She added that research is under way to prove that pareidolia- the notion of seeing faces in random shapes and objects- can also be attributed to neuroscience.
The research is published in the Journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.