When we’re staring death in the face, Nelson says, there’s strong evolutionary pressure to remember every detail. Survival demands an alert and attentive brain to meet the threat head on and be prepared to combat it again in the future.
So even though my dad is in his late 70s and usually is too absentminded to remember what he ate for lunch, his NDE is seared in his mind — something called preferential encoding, says Steven Laureys, a neurologist who is chair of the World Federation of Neurology Applied Research Group on Coma and Disorders of Consciousness and director of the Coma Science Group at the University of Liège in Belgium. My dad’s brain recorded every vision, every feeling, every sound, in such detail that the memories seem to color everything in his life.
Laureys admits researchers still don’t know “how an abnormally functioning brain can record an experience that’s so emotional, so vivid and so real.” But they have enough evidence to consider NDEs a physiological reality linked to brain activity.
“People tend to come back from NDEs happier and no longer fearing death. The experience becomes a cornerstone of their lives.”
In a 2013 PLOS One study, Laureys and his Liège colleagues compared NDEs with other memories of intense real-life events, such as marriages and births, as well as with memories of dreams and imaginary thoughts. To their surprise, NDE memories among a group of 21 coma survivors were much richer than any imagined or real event. “Even when the NDE happened decades before, patients’ memory of the experience was as vivid as if it occurred yesterday,” Laureys says.
It makes sense if you look at electroencephalography (EEG) measurements of activity in the brain when recalling an NDE. A 2014 EEG study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that NDE memories are stored as episodic memories — recollections of events that you yourself participated in, like recalling where you were when the 9/11 attacks happened, rather than simply remembering the fact that the attacks happened. Scientists from that same study also concluded that the seemingly otherworldly memories from an NDE give off electrical patterns that are similar to real memories and significantly different from imagined events. The researchers noted that those who had NDEs describe the experience as “realer than real.” All of the participants in the study said their NDE was the most powerful, intense and important experience of their lives.
Life After Almost-Death
For my dad, the NDE provided overwhelming peace. While he was suspended between this world and the unknown, he says a force told him, “You’re not going to die today.” And he says he wasn’t ready to go — he had newfound motivations to explore.
“People tend to come back from NDEs happier and no longer fearing death,” Laureys says. “The experience becomes a cornerstone of their lives.”
My dad’s experience not only affected how he lives his life, but also how he relates to others. Now, he’s especially kind to strangers, more giving, always willing to lend a hand to someone who needs it. I’ve even seen him give money to panhandlers, something he seemed to shy away from before his accident.
Apparently, he’s not alone. According to a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, people who had NDEs became more tolerant of others, gained a greater appreciation of nature and understood themselves better compared with those who didn’t experience an NDE.
Science can’t explain why a father who drove like a NASCAR star now writes treatises on safe and courteous driving. And it can’t explain how someone who lived by numbers now prefers penning philosophical missives. But research does give us some clues about how NDEs change people’s personalities. They become sweeter, softer and more reflective — just like my dad.
[This article originally appeared in print as "A Brush With Death."]