In March 2013, a study conducted by the Coma Science Group of the University of Liège showed that the memories associated with near-death experiences are different from ordinary memories. They seem more real than imagined memories and, even more surprisingly, realer than real memories. How do scientists study a subject on the edge of the paranormal?
This article was originally published as “L'expérience de mort imminente plus vraie que vraie”. It was translated from French by Timothée Froelich.
“I saw a light at the end of a long hall.” Near-death experiences are reported by some patients who have been very close to death. Different testimonies mention similar phenomena, like a brilliant light, or a sense of moving through a passageway. In March 2013, the Coma Science Group of the University of Liège revealed in a study on memories from near-death experiences that they seem to differ from other memories. They might even feel more real than real memories. Scientists are taking another look at a phenomenon too often considered paranormal.
Memories that feel realer than reality
Testimonies of near-death experiences frequently mention a kind of hyper-reality. The Coma Science Group showed that the memories associated with these phenomena were more intense than common memories. A 2007 study had already established that patients kept tangible memories from this phenomenon even 20 years after experiencing it. This time, the Liège study compared the memories of four different groups of people: some patients who had lived a near-death experience during a coma, some who retained memories from their coma, some who didn’t, and a control group. A questionnaire codifying the characteristics of the memories helped the team to compare the memories studied with other real and imagined memories, like intentions never carried out in reality or memories from dreams.
Histogram of the results of the Memory Characteristics Questionnaire
obtained by the Coma Science Group
(Source: Thonnard & Charland-Verville et al.)
The results of the study show that “the memories from near-death experiences significantly differ from all other memories.” When the patients describe these memories, they mostly refer to themselves, giving more sensorial or emotional details. Near-death experiences feel more real than the true memories of the patients.
“Let’s set the record straight”, Vanessa Charland-Verville
The reality of near-death experiences is no longer in question; however, only a small number of scientists have developed an interest in the issue. It has mainly been used to support religious arguments. “Our goal is to set the record straight about a subject that requires seriousness and honesty. We are true skeptics, open to all testable propositions,” says Vanessa Charland-Verville, neuropsychologist from the Coma Science Group.
According to a 2008 study*, between 2% and 12% of the individuals who wake up from a coma have had a near-death experience. “These experiences change the patients’ lives,” explains Vanessa Charland-Verville. They tend to become less materialistic, and want to share a message of love. It is, therefore, interesting to study the phenomenon to understand why people experience such a change in personality.
Near-death experiences are still not completely explained by scientists, but studies are underway.
(Source: Scott Wurzel)
A first approach to lean on
“Even if the result [of the Coma Science Group] has to be considered preliminary, it contains some elements that help us understand an intriguing phenomenon that is hard to explore on a scientific basis,” explains neuropsychologist and memory specialist Francis Eustache. Different hypotheses assimilate near-death experiences with hallucinations or recreated memories. The authors plan to compare these different phenomena to see if near-death experiences show more similarities to one or the other. “The next step is to combine other techniques, such as medical imaging, to study these memories,” concludes Vanessa Charland-Verville.
* M. Thonnard, C. Schnakers, M. Boly, M.A. Bruno, P. Boveroux, S. Laureys, A. Vanhaudenhuyse, Expériences de mort imminente : phénomènes paranormaux ou neurologiques ?, Rev Med Liege 2008; 63 : 5-6 : 438-444.
To find out more:
Characteristics of Near-Death Experiences Memories as compared to Real and Imagined Events Memories, M. Thonnard, V. Charland-Verville, S. Brédart, H. Dehon, D. Ledoux, S. Laureys, A. Vanhaudenhuyse, Coma Science Group, Cyclotron Research Centre and Neurology Department, University and University Hospital of Liège, Belgique, [available on MyScienceWork].
Expérience de mort imminente avavav: phénomènes paranormaux ou neurbiologiques ?, M. Thonnard, C. Schnakers, M. Boly, M.A. Bruno, P. Boveroux, S. laureys, A. Vanhaudenhuyse.