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This Is What a Near-Death Experience Really Feels Like, According to Science

A new study reveals what kind of things you're likely to see and feel when you have a brush with death—and in what order.

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New research

No one knows for sure what happens after death, but researchers have been working to solve the question of what humans experience when they’re dying. What do the majority of people see when they’re about to die? What do they feel? Charlotte Martial, PhD, neuropsychologist at the University of Liège and University Hospital of Liège, Belgium, and her team analyzed the written accounts of near-death experiences from 154 people, publishing the results in Frontiers of Neuroscience. It’s the first rigorous study of this phenomena, Dr. Martial told ScienceDaily. As it turns out, there are four major events common to these close calls.

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Feeling peaceful

The sensation of peacefulness might not be something you’d expect of a near-death experience, but the study reported that a whopping 80 percent of participants shared this feeling. A lot of us fear death and expect the worst when it comes to dying, so it’s nice to know that a peaceful feeling is the most common near-death phenomena of all. (Maybe finding some humor in the afterlife can help?)

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A bright light

We’ve all heard this one, though it turns out that bright light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the most common feature of a near-death experience. Still, 69 percent of the study participants reported this visual. Why exactly this happens is still not fully known. One theory proposes oxygen deprivation is the cause; others suggest that the bright light is the result of some kind of brain activity that is triggered while dying.

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Seeing ghosts

A poll conducted by HuffPost and YouGov reveals that 45 percent of Americans believe in ghosts. Many skeptics and non-believers may still knock the idea that these spirits exist, but Dr. Martial found that 64 percent of the people in their study encountered such apparitions while almost dying. Some report that seeing a people from their past; others say they encounter spirits of some sort.

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Out-of-body experience

An out-of-body experience is when a person feels as though they have been detached from their body and are able to see themselves from a removed perspective. There have been many attempts to try to uncover the reason for out-of-body experiences, ranging from theories related to inner ear problems and even tricks of the mind. Either way, Dr. Martial and her team found that 35 percent of people reported leaving their own body; 36 percent said that returning to their body was the very last thing that happened in their near-death timeline. Dr. Martial told ScienceDaily that, “This suggests that near-death experiences seem to be regularly triggered by a sense of detachment from the physical body and end when returning to one’s body.”

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The most common timeline

Part of Dr. Martial goal was to discover whether there was a standard series of events to all near-death experiences. However, only 22 percent of the participants—34 people—shared the same timeline. The order of phenomena began with the out-of-body experience, being in a tunnel, seeing a bright light, and then feeling at peace. (Whether it’s a close call or the real thing, have you fully prepared for your end?)

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The outliers

Besides the four common phenomena, there were a handful of other events the participants reported, such as coming to a border or point of no return (40 percent), a feeling of harmony (14 percent), visions of the future (4 percent), and—yes—seeing their life pass before their eyes (16 percent). (Here’s how doctors choose to spend their last moments.)

Taylor Markarian
I have a B.A. in Writing, Literature & Publishing from Emerson College. I write for several lifestyle and entertainment publications, such as Alternative Press, Revolver, Your Tango, and The List. I'm a sucker for dogs and a hardcore kid for life. Let's start talking.