You know those old stories about people witnessing a bright light or catching a glimpse of the afterlife when having a near-death experience? It turns out they were probably just hallucinations created by their dying brains.
According to a new study from the University of Michigan, the traditional reactions reported by people near death may simply be illusions caused by a rush of electrical activity in the dying brain.
The groundbreaking study involved recording the electrical nerve impulses of anaesthetized rats whose hearts were artificially stopped. Within 30 seconds after suffering cardiac arrest, all the rats displayed a short surge of widespread, highly synchronized brain activity.
And in that fleeting time period, the brain signals of the legally dead rats were up to eight times stronger.
Scientists working on the study say that experiment proves that the brain is highly active in the seconds right after the heart stops, which naturally means that reports of people claiming to have seen heaven or deceased loved ones are of physical, not spiritual, origin.
"We were surprised by the high levels of activity," said Dr. George Mashour, one of the researchers on the study. "In fact, at near-death many known electrical signatures of consciousness exceeded levels found in the waking state, suggesting that the brain is capable of well-organized electrical activity during the early stage of clinical death."
Until now, it was generally assumed all brain activity ceases once the heart stops.
Not surprisingly, some people are already drawing a line between the surge of neural activity and human consciousness, but the scientific community is trying to steer off the rush to judgment.
Dr. Chris Chambers of Cardiff University says there are two major barriers to consider before making the connection.
"First, we don't know to what extent rats experience consciousness at all, so we don't know what the activity means," Dr. Chambers said. "Second, even if rats are conscious, to conclude from their brain activity alone that these bursts of activity reflect consciousness would be a logical fallacy known as reverse inference."
And there's the rub. Until testing on humans (or at least those humans willing to have their hearts stopped) becomes accepted practice, there's no way to totally dispel the public's romanticized visions of the afterlife.
"To overcome these limitations," admitted Dr. Chambers, "we would need to run a study in humans and relate the changes in activity to what they report about their conscious experience."
In other words, we may never really know the truth behind those eerie reports of people claiming to have seen their late Aunt Millie waving at them from the great hereafter. Either way, keep walking toward the light.