A New Death Experience Explanation
NDEs can be a consequence of a fundamental urge of survival
In 1843, a lion attacked Scotland's explorer and missionary David Livingstone.
Later Livingstone remembered, "I heard a scream,..... and looked half round, I just saw the lion jumping on me." The lion closed his jaws and shot him "as a rat terrier dog does."
But then something unusual occurred. The attack's shock brought forth a kind of dreaminess that Livingstone characterised. "Though [I was] well aware of all that was going on, there were no sense of pain and no feeling of panic," he added. The lion quickly let his body go. His body went limp.
In a study in Brain Communications, published in July 2021, European researchers highlighted the accounts of Livingstone and many other academics as examples of thanatosis or "dead play."
Although possums are most known for that behaviour, thanatosis is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom. Insects, birds, fish, snakes, dogs, and most living beings, including people, will automatically fancy death if the typical escape methods (fights or fights) are not feasible anymore.
In this current study, the European team argues that NDEs may be a by-product of elastosis.
Considering the complexity of the human brain they noted, it is possible that thanatosis in persons would "develop in a more comprehensive experience with rich details from a relatively stereotyped behaviour and expand to contexts other than predatory attacks."
The idea that people are always "playing dead" may sound strange, but not rude.
People have been known to purposefully simulate death in some life-or-death scenarios—such as active shooters—to avoid hazards. However, some also seem to be unaware and automatic of death pretending.
"There is an unintentional and transient motor inhibition known as tonic immobility that could react to those exposed to high menace," wrote the authors in a study in 2017. This study indicated that 70 per cent of victims of sexual assault had severe tonic immobility, defined as some form of trauma-caused paralysis.
A study from 2019 in the newspaper Chronic Stress argued that tonic immobility belongs to our system of "passive defence," a final resort we use. Paralysis is often associated with reductions in discomfort and sensations of depersonalisation and derealisation, research revealed, in specific scenarios (like Livingstone's horrible meeting with that lion).
Foreign experiences, feelings of euphoria or happiness, and other phenomena experienced by people during NDEs can be of use in life-threatening situations.
The authors of the new study state that the spectrum seems to contain tonic immobility and other passive defence behaviours. The most severe ends of this continuum can include near-death experiences.
Daniel Kondziella, MD, PhD, is a new research author and associate professor of clinical research at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He argues acting the dead can be a life-saving tactic from an evolutionary perspective.
For reasons of self-defence, many animals attack and may thus leave you alone once you appear dead—and hence no longer threaten you. Although an animal will consume you, it may not chomp down immediately. If you appear dead, the animal can focus on other concerns and give you a chance to flee.
"Because people don't have natural adversaries anymore, most near-death experiences take place in non-predatory conditions," he adds.
In their study report, Kondziella and her colleagues suggest that we have developed the "cerebral processes" during NDEs as they offer a further benefit. Foreign experiences, feelings of euphoria or happiness, and other phenomena experienced by people during NDEs can be of use in life-threatening situations.
"To make individuals tranquil and so improve their chances of surviving can feels of serenity and joy," he explains. "It's a considerably higher than panic reaction."
This death-feigning notion does not persuade everyone.
Bruce Greyson, MD, is a University of Virginia Emirit Professor of psychiatry and neuroconduct. He's also the author of After, a book detailing his years of near-death study.
Greyson describes the new article as "an intriguing concept;" nonetheless, he argues too much is true of NDEs that appear to be contradictory.“
Even when they went limp, which might be related to tonic immobilities, the writers didn't talk about what it means to see, to assess our lives, to meet other entities from an outside-body point of view.
In Kondziella's opinion, many of the 'dreamlike characteristics' of near-death experiences appear to coincide with REM sleep. Some of his investigations found that those living with REM disturbances or abnormalities might have an NDE more probable. It states there is potential for a cerebral shift into the REM area, which could explain paralysis and surreal sensations, to both NDE and Thomatosis.
"While we can't establish this beyond question, I believe the correlation is really fascinating," he says.
All this guessing is fun, but it is likely that definitive replies will not arrive soon. There is a lot of the brain locked and determining the basic causes and functions of NDEs definitely remains a very high order.