A&O READING excerpts from What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about the Brain by Cristof Koch (2020)


Excerpts from

What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about the Brain

by Christof Koch[i] (2020)[ii] 

excerpted and slightly reformatted 

A conscious (and probably non-conscious) concern with STATES of MIND is woven throughout ART & ORGANISM.  These are the critical attributes of creating, inventing, discovering, communicating, and perceiving acts and works of ART.  What was the artist thinking? why? should we care if we are nevertheless affected by their work? Has art the power to provide access to minds that can inform or enrich (or endanger) us?  What cognitive processes were engaged in the creation of the earliest forms of art.  Perhaps an extension of the human developmental phenomenon of pursuing a theory of mind as humans create connections with each other.


What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about the Brain


      • Near-death experiences are triggered during singular life-threatening episodes when the body is injured by a heart attack, shock, or blunt trauma such as an explosion or a fall.
      • These events share broad commonalities: becoming pain-free, seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel, or detaching from one’s body and floating above it and even flying off into space.
      • Why the mind should experience the struggle to sustain its operations in the face of a loss of blood flow and oxygen as positive and blissful rather than as panic-inducing remains a mystery.
  • Credit: Brian Stauffer


  • Local brain regions go offline one after another. The mind, whose substrate is whichever neurons remain intact, then does what it always does: it tells a story shaped by a person’s experience, memory and cultural expectations.



Near-death experiences, or NDEs, are triggered during singular life-threatening episodes when the body is injured by blunt trauma, a heart attack, asphyxia, shock, and so on. About one in 10 patients with cardiac arrest in a hospital setting undergoes such an episode. Thousands of survivors of these harrowing touch-and-go situations tell of leaving their damaged bodies behind and encountering a realm beyond everyday existence, unconstrained by the usual boundaries of space and time. These powerful, mystical experiences can lead to permanent transformation of their lives.

NDEs are not fancy flights of the imagination. They share broad commonalities—becoming

  • pain-free,
  • seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel and other visual phenomena,
  • detaching from one’s body … (out-of-body experiences).

They might include meeting loved ones, living or dead, or spiritual beings such as angels;

  • a Proustian recollection or even review of lifetime memories, both good and bad (“my life flashed in front of my eyes”); or
  • a distorted sense of time and space.

There are some underlying physiological explanations for these perceptions, such as progressively narrowing tunnel vision. Reduced blood flow to the visual periphery of the retina means vision loss occurs there first.

NDEs can be either positive or negative experiences. The former receive all the press and relate to the feeling of an overwhelming presence, something numinous, divine. A jarring disconnect separates the massive trauma to the body and the peacefulness and feeling of oneness with the universe. Yet not all NDEs are blissful—some can be frightening, marked by intense terror, anguish, loneliness and despair.

It is likely that the publicity around NDEs has built up expectations about what people should feel after such episodes. It seems possible, in fact, that distressing NDEs are significantly underreported because of shame, social stigma and pressure to conform to the prototype of the “blissful” NDE.


Most …[experiences of great danger] fade in intensity with time, and normality eventually reasserts itself (although they may leave post-traumatic stress disorder in their wake). But NDEs are recalled with unusual intensity and lucidity over decades. … [research indicates that ] NDEs were recalled with greater vividness and detail than either real or imagined situations were. In short, the NDEs were remembered as being “realer than real.”


[Early on] researchers turned a phenomenon once derided as confabulation or dismissed as feverish hallucination (deathbed visions of yore) into a field of empirical study.

I accept the reality of these intensely felt experiences. They are as authentic as any other subjective feeling or perception. As a scientist, however, I operate under the hypothesis that all our thoughts, memories, percepts and experiences are an ineluctable consequence of the natural causal powers of our brain rather than of any supernatural ones.


… I care about NDEs because they constitute a rare variety of human consciousness and because of the remarkable fact that an event lasting well under an hour in objective time leaves a permanent transformation in its wake, a Pauline conversion on the road to Damascus—no more fear of death, a detachment from material possessions and an orientation toward the greater good.


Similar mystical experiences are commonly reported when ingesting psychoactive substances from a class of hallucinogens linked to the neurotransmitter serotonin, including psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), LSD, DMT [the hallucinogenic compound in ayahuasca](aka the Spirit Molecule), and [a methoxylated derivative of DMT], 5-MeO-DMT (aka the God Molecule), consumed as part of religious, spiritual or recreational practices.



It must be remembered that NDEs have been with us at all times in all cultures and in all people, young and old, devout and skeptical (think, for instance, of the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, which describes the mind before and after death). To those raised in religious traditions, Christian or otherwise, the most obvious explanation is that they were granted a vision of heaven or hell, of what awaits them in the hereafter. Interestingly, NDEs are no more likely to occur in devout believers than in secular or nonpracticing subjects.

Personal narratives drawn from the historical record furnish intensely vivid accounts of NDEs …

A calm feeling of the most perfect tranquility succeeded the most tumultuous sensation…. Nor was I in any bodily pain. On the contrary, my sensations were now of rather a pleasurable cast …. Though the senses were thus deadened, not so the mind; its activity seemed to be invigorated in a ratio which defies all description; for thought rose after thought with a rapidity of succession that is not only indescribable, but probably inconceivable, by anyone who has been himself in a similar situation. The course of these thoughts I can even now in a great measure retrace: the event that had just taken place …. Thus, traveling backwards, every incident of my past life seemed to me to glance across my recollection in retrograde procession … the whole period of my existence seemed to be placed before me in a kind of panoramic view.British admiral Sir Francis Beaufort (1791)


I lay, as it seemed, in a constant stupor which excluded the existence of any hopes or fears. Mind and body seemed to be dual, and to some extent separate. I was conscious of the body as an inert tumbled mass near a door; it belonged to me, but it was not I. I was conscious that my mental self used regularly to leave the body …. I was then drawn rapidly back to it, joined it with disgust, and it became I, and was fed, spoken to, and cared for …. And though I knew that death was hovering about, having no thought of religion nor dread of the end, and roamed on beneath the murky skies apathetic and contented until something again disturbed the body where it lay, when I was drawn back to it afresh.—Scottish surgeon Sir Alexander Ogston (1900)

More recently,:

On the fourth day following that operation I went into shock and became unconscious for several hours …. Although thought to be unconscious, I remembered, for years afterwards, the entire, detailed conversation that passed between the surgeon and anaesthetist present …. I was lying above my own body, totally free of pain, and looking down at my own self with compassion for the agony I could see on the face; I was floating peacefully. Then … I was going elsewhere, floating towards a dark, but not frightening, curtain-like area … Then I felt total peace. Suddenly it all changed—I was slammed back into my body again, very much aware of the agony again.—British writer Susan Blackmore’s report of a woman who had an emergency gastrectomy in 1991.


The underlying neurological sequence of events in a near-death experience is difficult to determine with any precision … [but] It is possible, though, to gain some idea of what happens by examining a cardiac arrest… The patient has not died, because the heart can be jump-started via cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Modern death requires irreversible loss of brain function. When the brain is starved of blood flow (ischemia) and oxygen (anoxia), the patient faints in a fraction of a minute and his or her electroencephalogram, or EEG, becomes isoelectric—in other words, flat. This implies that large-scale, spatially distributed electrical activity within the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, has broken down. Like a town that loses power one neighborhood at a time, local regions of the brain go offline one after another. The mind, whose substrate is whichever neurons remain capable of generating electrical activity, does what it always does: it tells a story shaped by the person’s experience, memory and cultural expectations.

Given these power outages, this experience may produce the rather strange and idiosyncratic stories that make up the corpus of NDE reports. To the person undergoing it, the NDE is as real as anything the mind produces during normal waking. When the entire brain has shut down because of complete power loss, the mind is extinguished, along with consciousness. If and when oxygen and blood flow are restored, the brain boots up, and the narrative flow of experience resumes.



Many neurologists have noted similarities between NDEs and the effects of a class of epileptic events known as complex partial seizures. These fits partially impair consciousness and often are localized to specific brain regions in one hemisphere. They can be preceded by an aura, which is a specific experience unique to an individual patient that is predictive of an incipient attack.


Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin, in his novel The Idiot, remembers:

During his epileptic fits, or rather immediately preceding them, he had always experienced a moment or two when his whole heart, and mind, and body seemed to wake up to vigor and light; when he became filled with joy and hope, and all his anxieties seemed to be swept away forever; these moments were but presentiments, as it were, of the one final second (it was never more than a second) in which the fit came upon him. That second, of course, was inexpressible. When his attack was over, and the prince reflected on his symptoms, he used to say to himself: … “What matter though it be only disease, an abnormal tension of the brain, if when I recall and analyze the moment, it seems to have been one of harmony and beauty in the highest degree—an instant of deepest sensation, overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life? … I would give my whole life for this one instant.


[Today] neurosurgeons are able to induce such ecstatic feelings by electrically stimulating part of the cortex called the insula … Patients report bliss, enhanced well-being, and heightened self-awareness or perception of the external world. Exciting the gray matter elsewhere can trigger out-of-body experiences or visual hallucinations.


Why the mind should experience the struggle to sustain its operations in the face of loss of blood flow and oxygen as positive and blissful rather than as panic-inducing remains mysterious.  …  Perhaps such ecstatic experiences are common to many forms of death as long as the mind remains lucid and is not dulled by opiates or other drugs given to alleviate pain. The mind, chained to a dying body, visits its own private version of heaven or hell before entering Hamlet’s “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”



This article was originally published with the title “Tales of the Dying Brain” in Scientific American 322, 6, 70-75 (June 2020)




The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation. Edited by Janice Miner Holden, Bruce Greyson and Debbie James. Praeger, 2009.

Leaving Body and Life Behind: Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experience. Olaf Blanke, Nathan Faivre and Sebastian Dieguez in The Neurology of Consciousness. Second edition. Edited by Steven Laureys, Olivia Gosseries and Giulio Tononi. Academic Press, 2015.



[i] Christof Koch is chief scientist of the MindScope program at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and author of The Feeling of Life Itself—Why Consciousness Is Widespread but Can’t Be Computed. He serves on Scientific American‘s board of advisers.