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US team explains near death experiences

'REM intrusion' fingered

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A team of US scientists has come up with a plausible explanation for "near death" events, wherein individuals experience out-of-body sensations or an aura of clear white light - and it has nothing to do with ascending toward the pearly gates.

Rather, it's all down to "REM intrusion" where "the same parts of the brain are activated when people dream as in near death experiences", the BBC reports.

The University of Kentucky team studied 55 people who'd had near death experiences - defined as "a time during a life-threatening episode when a person undergoes an outer body experience, unusual alertness, sees an intense light, or feels a great sense of peace" - and compared them to 55 who hadn't.

Sixty per cent of those who claimed a near death experience said they'd also suffered a "REM state of sleep during periods of wakefulness", or REM intrusion, described by study author professor Kevin Nelson to the Daily Telegraph as "an activation of certain brain regions that are also active during the dream state".

Nelson added: "However, I hesitate to call it dreaming or dreaming while awake. This is the first testable hypothesis of a biological basis for these experiences. People who have near death experiences may have an arousal system that predisposes them to REM intrusion."

The theory has found favour with Dr Neil Stanley, director of sleep research at Surrey University, who chipped in: "There are plenty of rational people who say that these things happen and the one part of us that's utterly fantastical is our dreams.

"Our dreams can appear incredibly real - after all they are our reality when they are happening. If you get that sort of reality playing through into your consciousness, it's a very convincing reason to believe such a thing is happening."

For the record, common symptoms of REM intrusion include "waking up and feeling unable to move, having sudden muscle weakness in the legs, and hearing sounds just before falling asleep or waking up that others do not hear", the Kentucky team notes.

There's more in the full study, as published in Neurology. ®

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