Do rodents hold the key to answering questions about what happens when we die? A group of researchers have concluded that increased activity in the brains of dying laboratory rats may explain the cause of near-death experiences (NDEs) in humans. While the findings provide tantalizing clues to the origin of NDEs, some researchers have cast doubt on how much they really tell us, pointing out that certain crucial questions remain unanswered.
Peering into the Minds of Rodents
Jimo Borjigin and her team of researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor looked at the electrical activity in the brains of nine laboratory rats while they were being euthanized. After inserting six electrodes into the brain of each rat, they gave each animal a lethal injection and collected data on brain activity while the rats were dying. What they discovered was an increase in electrical activity associated with consciousness immediately before cardiac arrest. For researchers like Borjigin and her team, the findings can be extrapolated to what happens inside the dying human brain too.
Borjigin has interpreted the findings as evidence for materialist assumptions about how consciousness arises. "Now science tells us the experiences really could be real for these individuals, and there is actually a biological basis for that", she told National Public Radio, adding that "[t]here's a scientific basis in their brain. It's all really happening in their brain during this very early period of cardiac arrest". In other words, for researchers like Borjigin, brain activity causes NDEs, which cease to exist when the brain dies.
Rats Don't Answer All of Our Questions
Other scientists have contested the relevance and significance of Borjigin's findings. One of these is cardiologist Sam Parnia, who has argued that the study does not help "in any way to explain near-death experiences in human beings", and that "we have no evidence at all that the rats had any near-death experiences", since they cannot tell us what they experienced. In addition, attributing NDEs to heightened brain activity does not explain how people have NDEs when they are clinically brain-dead, as in the case of Pam Reynolds.
Borjigen's study is exciting since it sheds more light on what causes NDEs, but it does not necessarily provide conclusive answers. Perhaps there is a non-materialist, holistic explanation. Only further research will reveal the truth.