It’s one of the most popular and overused movie clichés. A key character is near death and their life suddenly flashes before their eyes. If it’s a comedy, they might disagree with what they’re seeing. If it’s a tragedy, they might be inspired to fight for life to right some wrongs. If it’s an action flick, they might get an idea on how to save the day and come back to … save the day, of course. It’s used so often that most people assume the phenomenon is real. In fact, it has a psychological name – a ‘life review experience’ (LRE) – and some hallucinatory and spiritual speculations, but no one has proven its existence scientifically.
That proof came one step closer to reality recently when researchers at Hadassah University in Jerusalem gave extensive interviews to seven people who had LREs. From their responses, they devised a questionnaire which was filled out by 264 additional people who had LREs. Their study, published this week in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, reinforces some common beliefs about LREs but refutes many more.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that the events in the LRE do not manifest chronologically but appeared to be completely random. One participant described it this way:
There is not a linear progression, there is lack of time limits […] It was like being there for centuries. I was not in time/space so this question also feels impossible to answer. A moment, and a thousand years… both and neither.
In addition, some of the experiences were seen simultaneously, but the subjects said their brains were able to sort them out and make some sense of them. Many of the participants said the re-seen experiences were often extremely emotional events in their lives, often involving relatives or close friends who seemed to able – in the vision – to share their own experiences as they related to the person’s near-death LRE.
Is this proof that the ‘life flashing before your eyes’ near-death experience is real? Not quite, says study member and neurologist Judith Katz. That would require analyzing the brain with a scanner while the person was having the LRE – not exactly something you can do while emergency medical personnel are trying to bring them back quickly. If it were possible to pinpoint, Katz believes the section of the brain where the LRE may be occurring is either the prefrontal, medial temporal or parietal cortices, which experience hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and blood loss during severe traumas.
Finding near-death subjects may not be necessary. The researchers believe that the LRE section of the brain also controls déjà vu, autobiographical memories and emotions about events – which means scans of brains experiencing those neurocognitive activities – which are common in most people - may help explain the similar LRE phenomenon and possibly help create them without the severe trauma..
LRE sounds interesting … if it weren’t for that near-death part.