What happens on the way from life to death? Researchers regularly ask themselves this question. A current US study is now providing answers. Those affected report near-death experiences: they left their bodies, heard conversations or reassessed their lives.

Our consciousness remains active even when the heart stops beating. That’s a finding from Sam Parnia and his research team at New York University. They examined victims who had suffered a cardiac arrest and were resuscitated. So the 567 subjects were apparently unconscious and on the verge of death. One in five was then able to describe clear experiences of death.

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Others also reported re-evaluating their entire lives — including everything they did or how they felt about other people. According to the experts, these experiences on the brink of death were different from hallucinations, dreams, illusions and delusions. During this time, the brain showed increased activity and markers for clarity. Study leader Parnia concluded in a press release: “These lucid experiences cannot be viewed as a prank of a deranged or dying brain, but as a uniquely human experience emerging on the brink of death.”

Parnia has been concerned with consciousness and its activity at the end of life or during resuscitation for years. “These remembered experiences and brainwave changes could be the first signs of the so-called near-death experience, and we’ve captured them for the first time in a large study,” says the critical care physician, who is also an associate professor at NYU Langone Health School of Medicine and the organization’s director for intensive care and resuscitation research. “Our results demonstrate that people on the brink of death and in coma have a unique inner conscious experience, including awareness without stress.”

It is a confirmation of what many people have been reporting for years, but which have not been taken seriously, Parnia added in an interview with the New York Post. “These are real experiences that occur when we die.” Strictly speaking, that’s why he dislikes the term “near-death experience” and finds it stigmatizing. The same applies to him with the colloquial expression “life passes before your eyes”.

“When we say, ‘Life rushes past you,’ it’s almost like a movie, like ‘phew,’ like an asteroid,” Parnia said. “Like, ‘Oh, there it is and now it’s gone.’ And it’s not like that.”

The medic continued: “People on the brink of death undergo a deep, purposeful, meaningful re-evaluation of their entire lives that focuses on their thoughts, their intentions and their actions towards other people. What’s fascinating is that they’re reliving everything they’ve done, but not really like in a movie and not in chronological order.”

The study has been accepted for publication in a future issue of Circulation.