“Spiritual Doorway in the Brain”: The science of near-death experiences

Do animals have them, too? Why the white light? Can you really “return” from the dead? An expert explains

Katherine Don
Salon

We’ve all heard about the bright white light at the end of the tunnel, but what’s really going on in a “near-death experience”? That’s what neurologist and medical doctor Kevin Nelson tries to uncover in his first book, “The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience.”

Dr. Nelson is one of the world’s leading researchers in the biology of near-death and other mystical experiences, and his fascinating book takes the reader from investigations of MRI studies of the brain to historical anecdotes and philosophical inquiry. Three decades of research led Dr. Nelson to a unique and unexpected conclusion about near-death experiences — rather than arising from parts of the brain that are unique to higher cognitive functions, they actually involve the oldest, most primitive parts of our brain, and might also relate to having dreams while still awake.

What happens near death, and what does it have to do with God? To find out, Salon spoke on the phone with Dr. Nelson from the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington.

First things first: What’s the deal with the tunnel and the light?



The tunnel is easy to explain. Much of the near-death experience is caused by low blood flow to the brain and to the head. When this happens, the eye fails before the brain fails. The outside field of vision goes first, but the center is preserved until the very end, so you develop a tunnel-like sensation. This sensation is also common in people who are about to faint.

As for the light, when your eye loses blood flow, light might become all that you’re capable of seeing. Another reason for the light is the REM system, which is the “rapid eye movement” state of sleep. When the eye and the retina shut down, the remaining control system for vision is the REM system — this is why you can see things when you’re dreaming, and this type of vision might be activated during a near-death experience and cause a person to see light.

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