Tunnel of Light: Making Sense of Near-Death Experiences

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

In 1982, a young stained-glass artist by the name of Mellen-Thomas Benedict lay dying of an inoperable brain tumor. In order to have the best quality of life before his immanent death, Benedict declined chemotherapy treatments. After about 18 months of hospice care, Benedict woke up one day around 4:30 a.m., knowing he was going to die. A few hours later, Benedict had a near-death experience in which he perceived being surrounded by a beautiful shining light that he automatically felt was a symbol of the “source” or “higher self.” He described the experience as one of joy and peace: “It was just overwhelming. It was all the love you’ve ever wanted, and it was the kind of love that cures, heals, regenerates.” He described feeling a strong desire to communicate and travel toward this light that emanated love, peace, harmony, as human souls swam around him. Benedict’s own consciousness expanded — perceiving and knowing all things from all time. It was this stage of infinite consciousness that revealed to him that death should not be seen as an “end” but instead as a transition into the infinite reality of being: immortality.

Benedict was clinically dead. His nurse rushed to his bedside and found no vital signs, no blood pressure or cardiac activity. Shortly after leaving the room, she heard a loud crash. Upon returning, she found him lying on the floor, trying to reach the window. Within three days, Benedict was discharged from the hospice and felt better than he had ever felt before. Three months later, follow-up brain scans were performed and astonishingly showed no signs of the tumor. Benedict’s physician referred to this occurrence as a “spontaneous remission” (which is commonly known as a spontaneous regression: the spontaneous cure or improvement of a severe disease). But Benedict chose to call it a miracle.

Within the last two decades, there has been a significant increase in people reporting near-death experiences like Benedict’s. Multiple surveys conducted throughout the United States, Australia, and Germany suggest that 4 to 15 percent of the population has had near-death experiences. One study found that nearly 800 people in the United States encounter a near-death experience every single day. Even though there have been an increasing number of people willing to “come out of the closet” and talk about these “higher consciousness” incidents, near-death experiences have been occurring for thousands of years.

Back in the year 300 B.C., Plato described the near-death experience of a warrior named Er, who, after being slain in battle, woke up on his funeral pyre to tell the surrounding crowd about meeting deities and fallen companions in the afterlife. In 1741, George de Benneville, a physician and lay minister in Europe, wrote a vivid account of his near-death experience, one which included all of the common motifs: “I quickly came to a place which appeared to my eyes as a level plain, so extensive that my sight was not able to reach its limits, filled with all sorts of delightful fruit trees and which sent forth such fragrant odors that all the air was filled as with incense.” Fast-forward about two and a half centuries, and we find that soldiers and ministers aren’t the only ones having near-death experiences. One of the most fascinating groups of individuals to have undergone such events are neurologists.

Dr. Eben Alexander, appointed professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and best-selling author of the autobiographical book “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife,” was skeptical about near-death experiences — until November 10, 2008, when he became comatose due to a rare form of meningitis. Despite multiple procedures and antibiotic treatments over a seven-day period, Alexander’s body deteriorated fast and his team of physicians soon gave up hope. Then a week later, Alexander miraculously awoke to the amazement of his family and doctors and realized that his previous notions of near-death experiences were totally wrong. He described his enigmatic incident as being transformative and “indescribable.” He experienced a unified consciousness and was aware of “a divine presence” which conveyed thoughts of love and peace: “You are loved. You are cherished forever. There’s nothing you can do wrong. You have nothing to worry about. You will be taken care of.”

Alexander also described the occurrence as being “hyperreal and extremely crisp and vivid.” In a conversation with Diana DiFranco — holistic psychotherapist and frequent lecturer at the American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences — she described to me how near-death experiences are commonly felt as being “more real than everyday life.” Colors, smells, and sensations become fully optimized like never before.

After this event, Alexander had to change his previous thoughts about near-death experiences and invite a new understanding of the brain into his work: “That hyperreality that people describe … is not something that is going to be explained by [this] little simplistic talking about CO2 and oxygen levels. That just won’t work. I promise you that won’t work.”

This statement directly challenges the notions of Dr. Lakhmir Chawla, an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at George Washington University. Chawla asserts that near-death experiences are simply caused by a surge of electrical activity as the brain runs out of oxygen before death. However, the oxygen-depletion theory is only one of many classical neurophysiological theories challenged by people who have undergone near-death experiences.

Many neuropsychologists still believe that our consciousness is a product of the proper functioning of our brains — with the death of our brains comes the death of our consciousness. This notion falls under the realm of “material science,” where material (i.e., the brain) gives rise to mind and consciousness. However near-death experiences support the notion that consciousness is in fact non-local (i.e., not confined to the brain) and that death is only a moment of transition from a temporal consciousness to a timeless experience of it. This new notion of consciousness has produced an emerging movement called “post-materialist science,” lead by internationally renowned scientists from a variety of scientific fields including biology, neuroscience, psychology, medicine, and psychiatry. Dr. Gary Schwartz — professor of psychology, medicine, neurology, psychiatry, and surgery at the University of Arizona — is one of the pioneering researchers and supporters of post-materialist science.

During a conversation I had with Schwartz at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, he spoke of how the brain seems to be more like a receiver of consciousness than an actual producer of it. As such, the brain is similar to a TV set. It merely picks up the signal of consciousness and has nothing to do with actually creating it. “The claim that staunch materialists would like to make is that near-death experiences can be explained as residual firing of either the cortex or subcortical structures after it has been damaged or the heart stopped. But the problem with that wishful thinking is that all electrical activity ceases within 40 seconds to a minute of the time that blood flow has stopped. There is no evidence of electrical firing of the brain at all.” Schwartz argues that materialists simply find it impossible to believe that consciousness continues after the brain has stopped functioning, even though new research clearly shows that consciousness survives physical death.

In 2001, Dr. Pim van Lommel — researcher and retired cardiologist at the Rijnstate Hospital in the Netherlands — investigated near-death experiences in cardiac arrest patients. Of the 344 patients who were successfully resuscitated after suffering cardiac arrest, 41 of them reported undergoing vivid near-death experiences that included out-of-body sensations. The patients were able to describe details of their conditions during their cardiac arrest, despite being clinically dead as indicated by their flatlined brain-stem activity. Even though these findings clearly point toward the post-materialist notion that consciousness does not solely reside in the brain, van Lommel’s results were critiqued on many grounds.

In 2008, Dr. Jason Braithwaite — senior lecturer in cognitive neuroscience at University of Birmingham’s Behavioural Brain Sciences Centre — published a critique of van Lommel’s study in the journal Skeptic. In his critique he states how van Lommel and his team misconstrued the dying-brain hypothesis by mistakenly interpreting the flat readings of an electroencephalogram test as correlating directly to “no brain activity.” (Recently, doctors discovered deep-level brain activity in comatose patients.) Yet, this critique seems weak. Although there may be some brain activity during flatline periods, this insignificant activity would most likely be unable to account for the highly complex thought processes, visions, insights, and sensations that occur during near-death experiences.

Organizations such as the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, labs like the Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health at the University of Arizona, and conferences as for example the American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences are capturing the minds and hearts of many researchers and health care providers who are beginning to understand the importance of recognizing and allowing near-death experiences to change the current neurophysiological model of consciousness, life, and death.

It seems that both materialists and post-materialists have a long way to go when it comes to understanding what happens when the brain begins to die. Maybe the answer isn’t so elusive, and we will perhaps find it sooner than we think, in this life, or the next.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


  1. There is no reliable evidence that the tunnel of light phenomena originate in the nervous system or any other structures of the physical body. The experience is fairly universal and robust.

  2. I have epilepsy. When I have seizures I see the light tunnel, I enter it and light becomes very intense then I black out. I don’t believe its near death experiences , its just the brain shutting down well that’s what I think.

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