Science has explained away Near Death Experiences (NDE’s) and Out of Body Experiences (OBE’s) separately, but what happens when both occur at the same time? In How Stuff Works, Josh Clark recounts the story of Pam Reynolds. In 1991 she was undergoing brain surgery and for the 45 minutes that the doctors worked she was clinically dead. When she came to she reported having experiences while she was on the operating table. These included having conversations with dead relatives but also being able to see her body as they operated on her. She remembered the whole experience and was able to provide details including the saw the surgeons used on her skull.
So what does science make of Pam’s experience? Technically, when you are brain dead you shouldn’t be able to form new memories. A study from the University of Kentucky posited that NDE’s happen in the brain stem:
Researchers there theorize that the mysterious phenomenon is really an instance of the sleep disorder rapid eye movement (REM) intrusion. In this disorder, a person’s mind can wake up before his body, and hallucinations and the feeling of being physically detached from his body can occur. If this is true, then this means the experiences of some people following near-death are confusion from suddenly and unexpectedly entering a dream-like state. The area where REM intrusion is triggered is found in the brain stem — the region that controls the most basic functions of the body — and it can operate virtually independent from the higher brain. So even after the higher regions of the brain are dead, the brain stem can conceivably continue to function, and REM intrusion could still occur [source: BBC].
Regarding out of body experiences, while Dr. Olaf Blanke conducted a brain mapping test, he was able to induce OBE’s by stimulating the Temporal Parietal Junction:
The temporal parietal junction (TPJ) is responsible for sorting through this disparate information and putting it together into a coherent package.
The TPJ also happens to be the region that controls our comprehension of our own body and its situation in space. Blanke believes that a misfiring of this region is responsible for OBEs. If any of the information being sorted by the temporal parietal junction becomes crossed, like where we are in space, then we could seemingly be released from the confines of our body — even if only for a moment.
So it seems like science has been able to explain both NDE’s and OBE’s separately. But what about when they happen at the same time? NDE’s happen when the brain stem is active even if the higher brain is dead. OBE’s happen when the higher brain is stimulated, but it’s supposed to be dead remember? Therein lie the areas of further research and study. In the meantime we can continue to analyze the content of these NDE’s and OBE’s. As physician Dr. Melvin Morse wrote, “Simply because religious experiences are brain-based does not automatically lessen or demean their spiritual significance.”
To read the full HowStuffWorks article go here.