It's your brain, Laureys tells you
Laureys strongly disagrees. "There is no evidence there can be conscious experience without brain activity," he said.
Lying in your hospital bed, you have become a true believer, and you are happier for it.
But your brain never died, the doctor tells you. You were in a coma. Perhaps your heart stopped for a while; maybe it didn't. But that's not even necessary to have an out-of-body experience.
"Many individuals having had NDEs were not physically in danger of death suggesting that the perception, on its own, of the risk of death seems to be important in eliciting NDEs," the study said.
It's enough just to think you're dying to have one.
The American Psychological Association concurs. It defines near-death experiences as "profound psychological events with transcendental and mystical elements, typically occurring to individuals close to death or in situations of intense physical or emotional danger."
In the case of coma patients, the brain producing the NDE may be functioning minimally, but it is still alive, Laureys hypothesized. He said one can stimulate certain parts of the brain to produce single elements of the experience.
It's a vivid hallucination, Laureys' report surmises. "It was a normal brain activity that produced their extraordinary perceptions."
Needs more research
Though the results of his studies were marked and consistent, the Belgian research team has tested only a small number of patients so far.
And it has not been able to scan brain images of patients having NDEs to get hard data on the hypothesis of the physiological nature of the experience.
Laureys' research alone is not enough. He wants to see more scientists get involved. As a doctor, he feels it's the compassionate thing for them to do.
Too many people have the experience for serious researchers to ignore it, he said, and a lot of people are afraid that their consciousness will linger long after they pass away, making them witnesses to whatever happens to their bodies.
"The public is historically afraid to be buried alive," Laureys said. "People are afraid to sign up as organ donors." They are scared they may have to watch them being extracted from their bodies.
There are more than enough spiritual models for NDEs, he said -- and superstitious ones. "There are a lot of crazy explanations out there."
It's high time for more hard science, Laureys said. A high percentage of his coma patients report having had NDEs, and he believes many of us go through these "afterlife" experiences when we die.
Laureys doesn't want to speculate on the existence of heaven or hell, but he does say that only a small minority of near-death experiences are horrifying. Most of them are pleasant and uplifting.
From his accounts, it sounds like more people go to "heaven" than to "hell."