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Scientists report that they have found clues that might help explain so-called near-death experiences. People regularly report having powerful experiences when they come close to dying. Some people believe these are evidence of supernatural forces. But as NPR's Rob Stein reports, the new research suggests they actually may be caused by a burst of activity from a dying brain.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: We've all heard these stories, spooky stories from people who say they visited a netherworld between life and death.

JIMO BORJIGIN: Many of them have out-of-body experiences. It includes feelings of peace and quiet, always seem to have a dark tunnel and bright light. And they also seem to meet their deceased relatives.

STEIN: Jimo Borjigin's a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan.

BORJIGIN: Many of them think it's a - it's evidence they actually went to heaven, perhaps even spoke with God.

STEIN: Borjigin wanted to find out if there was something happening in the brain that could help explain these experiences.

BORJIGIN: If the near-death experience comes from the brain, there got to be signs, some measurable activities of the brain at the moment of cardiac arrest.

STEIN: But it's really hard to study this in people. So Borjigin and her colleagues used rats. They implanted six electrodes into the brains of nine rats, gave the animals lethal doses of drugs and watched what was happening in their brains as they died.

BORJIGIN: We found continued and heightened activity. Measurable conscious activity is much, much higher after heart stops within the first 30 seconds.

STEIN: Now, when Borjigin says conscious activity, she's treading into really tricky territory. It's hard to measure consciousness. Scientists aren't even sure what it is. But Borjigin and her colleagues think they not only measured signs of it but that the surge of activity they detected was a kind of hyperconsciousness: the brain in overdrive.

BORJIGIN: That really just really blew our mind. We thought, wow, that really is consistent with what patients report.

STEIN: Patients often report that what they experienced felt more real than reality, so real that they're often life-altering. But Borjigin thinks that what they're experiencing are sort of like super intense dreams. When we dream, there's a lot of activity in one part of your brain and the other part is trying to figure out what's going on. Borjigin thinks something similar is happening with near-death experiences. One part of the brain is trying to make sense of what's happening as another part kicks into a super active state to try to survive.

BORJIGIN: The near-death experiences, perhaps, is really is the byproduct of the brain's attempt to save itself.

STEIN: Many other scientists praise the research, which is being published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Christof Koch is a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.

CHRISTOF KOCH: It shows us in considerable more detail than ever done before what happens when the brain is dying. Unlike a light switch, when you turn off a light switch, the light immediately goes from on to off. The brain doesn't immediately go off, but it shows a series of sort of complicated transitions.

STEIN: But other scientists are unconvinced. They question how much rat brains can really tell us about humans. Sam Parnia studies near-death experiences at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York.

DR. SAM PARNIA: I don't think that this particular study helps, in any way, to explain near-death experiences in human beings. We have no evidence at all that the rats had any near-death experiences or whether animals can have any such type experience, first of all.

STEIN: But Borjigin and Koch argue that rat brains are similar enough to human brains to provide clues to what's happening when we're dying. And they acknowledge the new research is just the first step toward really understanding near-death experiences. Rob Stein, NPR News.

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