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April 11, 2006

Near-death experiences linked to sleep cycles

New research suggests that REM intrusion predisposes people to near-death experiences:

In a study comparing 55 people with near-death experiences with 55 people who had no such experiences, neurologist Kevin Nelson of the University of Kentucky found that people who reported such experiences were also more likely to report a phenomenon known as "REM intrusion," where things normally experienced during sleep carry over into wakefulness. REM is an acronym for rapid eye movement, one of the phases of sleep.

Such people wake up but still feel paralyzed or hear sounds that others do not -- as the vestiges of sleep fall away, those experiences disappear. It is not considered a disorder, but merely a variant of the brain's sleep-wake cycle.

Nelson, who published his findings in the journal Neurology, said the extreme fear or feeling of danger brought on by imminent death might trigger the brain mechanism that governs the transition between sleep and wakefulness, leading people to experience various dreamlike phenomena. [WaPo]

These are fascinating results. Sleep paralysis has also been linked to alien abduction experiences.

Update: 3Quarks links to Nature's NDE/REM coverage.

Ted from Vancouver kindly sent a link to the abstract: Nelson KR, et al. Does the arousal system contribute to near death experience?. Neurology. 2006;66:1003-1009.


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Such people wake up but still feel paralyzed or hear sounds that others do not -- as the vestiges of sleep fall away, those experiences disappear.

Doesn't everyone do this? It always takes me a bit of time to shake off dream-reality. Do other people just (bing!) wake up?

I normally wake up quite suddenly, but I have experienced sleep paralysis a couple of times. No hallucinations or feelings of transcendence, just the feeling of being completely paralyzed with my eyes closed. It's an unpleasant feeling, but it's not scary anymore because I know that I can just go back to sleep and try waking up again.

Hey there!

Sleep paralysis is apparently not really all that common. I have it quite frequently upon waking and was shocked to find out just a couple of years ago that it isn't something that just happens to everybody.

I've had some pretty terrifying and surreal dreams while experiencing sleep paralysis - dreams of being buried alive and dreams of being attacked by burglers with paralysis-inducing poisoned darts. They used to be pretty scary, but like Lindsay, it's happened to me enough times that I can usually pick up on it when I'm having an episode and relax.

I always thought that near-death experiences were just powerful dreams of death. I may have been right!

Very interesting, and I am curious about the fundies reply to the study.

As for the term NDE, I suppose someone could consider that an appropriate term for this experience if all suprising phenomena are tied directly to the heavens by a magical silver cord.

I've been interested in this topic since I found I could usually initiate a lucid dreaming episode with a specific sleep schedule. By waking up early in the morning then returning to bed a few hours later, subsequent dreams were much more accessable via conscious thought. Observation of my own experience with these phenomena have led me to believe that the "loud sounds" occasionally heard are directly associated with long periods of no breathing. Sometimes they coincide but, IMHO not always. And once, just once, there was a incredible experience whereby my brain had entered a state where complex geometric understanding and manipulation was possible. But as soon realization of this occured, it began to fade....

I know, unless you've seen it it sounds like BS but heres my evolutionary neuro-physiological idea for an explanation. You're asleep and for some reason stop breathing. After a period of time, possibly due to some stage of hypoxia, the brain initiates a state whereby something so perceptually mindblowing seems to occur and then you wake with a start. (I did!) Thereby possibly overcoming some barrier to consciousness that was preventing wakefullness in the first place.

Interestingly, this gives a whole new layer of meaning to "Dharma's" part in the movie Gross Pointe Blank. If you got it, watch it...

That's interesting. For what it's worth, the wikipedia article on DMT (dimethyltryptamine) posits a possible link between trace amounts of naturally-occurring endogenous DMT in the human brain and phenomena such as near-death experiences, perceived alien abduction experiences, as well as ordinary dreaming.

DMT is sort of a super-hallucinogen, which appears to work on the same neuropharmacological pathways as LSD, mescaline (peyote), and psylocibin/psylocin (shrooms), but to do so much more quickly and intensely. Interestingly, it's also one of the key active ingredients in ayahuasca tea, which can (for the time being anyway) legally be imported, possessed and consumed by members of the Uniao do Vegetal church for use in their religious ceremonies, following the Supreme Court's unanimous February decision in Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal, 546 U.S. ___ (2006).

I first had sleep paralysis after college, and hadn't heard of it. Scared the heck out of me, and I'm grateful the Web was able to quickly educate me. I could easily see believing in evil spirits after one such experience.

As for NDEs, another proffered explanation I've seen has been oxygen deprivation, with specific discussion of how low oxygen affects parts of the brain and maybe the retinas.

Predating this all is the incubi & succubi (or hag) phenomena, which goes back to Classical times.

The comments imply that near death
experiences may be some sort of dream.
Could be. But just as easily it could be
completely different. The whole issue has
a basis in the notion of a difference between
an hallucination or dream and the "real". But the "real" can be described as just a type of
hallucination that others claim to share.
What is really happening is up for grabs.
The narrowness and shallowness of the scientific conception of things is clearly shown here, and it is based upon the conceptual mind- body split we inherited from Descartes. It is dogma.
You are such a good writer, a comment by you showing a little more imaginative, penetrating and independent thinking concerning this post would have made it more interesting. Are you some kind of positivist?

This is another failed theroy has has many logical problems first of all yes rem intrusion is a very deep sleep which usually does produce vivid images the problem here is even in a very deep sleep people's experiences in dreams are always very different however in the near death experience they are simlar. also it does hit on some many other things. the near death experience is very structured it is impossible to be knocked down by materialists,deductionism.

I had a similar experience to an NDE but I was in no life threatening situation and I was not alseep or unconcious. Vision mabey??

I have had these REM disruptions for a little over a year now. They are generally terrifying but I'm getting better and calming down while I am having them. I have some interesting observations in relation to the person who commented about the DMT drug present in LSD, Mescaline, and Psyclobin. I recently tried some Psyclobin through "magical mushrooms". I did not relate the experience to sleep paralysis at all at the time (although looking back it would not have been an illogical thing to do), however just now I had my first REM disruption since taking shrooms and can definately report that the "consciousness location" you find yourself in during sleep paralysis is INCREDIBLY SIMILAR to the location on a "Shroom Trip" (you would need to go a little overboard to get there, I did an entire eighth my first time and added some THC to the mix...). While the shroom experience was distinctly less frightening and intense and much longer and much more grounded in reality, the experiences were inexplicably similar and I realized this as it was happening before even waking up.

Also I've noticed that my REM disruptions almost ALWAYS occur when I am sleeping at an out-of-place time, usually during the day with lots of sunlight around me. It's gotten to the point where I knew if I napped today in that situation sleep paralysis was likely to occur... but I don't fear it anymore. Has anyone else noticed parallels between environmental factors and the occurence of sleep paralysis?

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