Two days before he died from cancer at the age of 39, my father was sitting in a hotel restaurant with my mother, in considerable discomfort. After a while, they noticed two very familiar people sitting at a table across the room — my father’s father and a family friend who he had been very close to when he was younger. Both these people had been dead for many years. Later, my mother reflected that they had come to collect my father, to guide him to wherever he was about to go.

Encounters such as these, in which a dying person is “brought home” by someone who loved them earlier in their life, are one of the many fantastical experiences commonly reported by people close to death. For several decades, psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying “near-death experiences”, to understand what causes them and what they might mean. Some of the most remarkable reports have come from patients who clinically died before being resuscitated — and saw things that changed their lives.

Researchers say that 10-20% of those who have returned from the brink of death have clear memories of what they went through. The same stories come up over and again. They have left their body and are looking down from above. They’re in an infinite void, or approaching a border from which there is no return. They feel a deep sense of harmony with something much bigger than themselves. Scenes from their past are played out in front of them and they see how their actions affected others. They’re passing through a tunnel towards a bright light. They’re in a beautiful garden with people who have died before them.

These visions are quite different from everyday dreams or drug-induced hallucinations, which tend to be fractured, disordered and difficult to interpret. They almost always have a narrative arc, a distinct reality and a clear purpose or moral intent. They are often exquisitely detailed. Bruce Greyson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, has collected hundreds of graphic accounts that he describes as “quite real and quite profound in their impact”. The following example, recounted in his 2021 book After, is from a 23-year-old woman who almost died during a bad reaction to an anaesthetic during childbirth: “This was a beautiful green meadow with beautiful flowers, beautiful colours … colours that I’d never seen before … I realised I was seeing the inner light of all the growing things, just utter glory in colour.”

Another of his patients, a firefighter at an air force base, recalled being in some kind of tunnel after being severely injured in an explosion: “There was a light in the distance and I saw the spiralling strings of blue-green light coming and going like the aurora borealis. The light was drawing me to it. I moved exceptionally fast down the tunnel and it took no time at all to reach it … The light was emanating from a being … He was beautiful to look at, and projected the feelings of unconditional love.”

Most people who report near-death experiences describe them as pleasant or even transcendent. Recently, Sam Parnia and his colleagues at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine interviewed survivors of cardiac arrest. Many recalled a pervasive sense of peace. “It was so calm and serene with an incredible amount of tranquility,” one of them told the researchers. Another described feeling “nothing but love, goodness, truth, and all things to do with love. There was no room for fear or evil … I was so happy to be there.”

It is tempting to think that these upbeat assessments tell us something about death itself — that there is no reason to dread it, that some part of us survives it. But near-death experiences are reported exclusively by people who survived. They may describe the process of dying, but not what comes afterwards. Moreover, not all of them are tranquil. Greyson and a fellow researcher, Nancy Evans Bush, have recorded dozens of reports of negative experiences which they say contain many of the same phenomena as positive experiences but differ greatly in “emotional tone”. Patients who float outside their body can find it terrifying. The oft-reported infinite void can trigger feelings of desperate isolation. A few people have had the sensation that they are plunging through the gates of hell. One woman who passed out during a traumatic childbirth found herself floating on water, a feeling she described as “pure hell. I had become a light out in the heavens, and I was screaming, but no sound was going forth. It was worse than any nightmare.”

The long history of these accounts upends much of what we believe about the relationship between the mind and the brain. In the prevailing orthodoxy of medicine, the mind should not be capable of heightened, lucid states when the brain is barely functioning or clinically dead. But when Parnia and his team at New York University monitored the electrical activity in the brains of cardiac arrest patients as they underwent CPR, they found surprising evidence of high-level cognitive functioning in many of the patients up to an hour after cardiac arrest — even though blood flow and oxygen levels diminished drastically within seconds of their heart stopping. The researchers think the brainwaves they recorded were “biomarkers of consciousness” — neural correlates of the near-death experiences reported by some of the surviving patients when they woke up. They suggest that instead of completely dying when oxygen levels fall off, the brain enters a state of disinhibition that allows “lucid understanding of new dimensions of reality — including people’s deeper consciousness”.

Whatever we encounter when we die, it is likely the same for all of us. The central elements of near-death experiences appear to be universal, though they are often filtered through the lens of culture or religion. For instance, the Tibetan delogs — people who have “returned from death” — have the sensation of looking down on their body, but they are more likely to see it as the corpse of a pig, a symbol of ignorance and delusion in Tibetan Buddhism. And their journey through the after-world is often populated with formidable or horrifying deities, as in this account of a Bhutanese delog from the mid-17th century in which she witnessed “an ox-headed acolyte of the Lord of Death beating some tied-up victims for having eaten meat”.

A grand theory of near-death experiences is almost certainly beyond us. They may be a mechanism to allow us to make sense of the life we have lived. They may hint at hitherto unrealised levels of consciousness. It’s hard to imagine them having an evolutionary purpose, unless their function is to rescue us from the brink of death. But one thing they tell us for sure: the mind is more than a function of the brain, and we still don’t know the full extent of what it is capable of.

We do know that such patients lose their fear of death. They become more loving, more tolerant, more interested in the suffering of others. They care less about material possessions and appreciate the everyday things more. They live more fully in the present. Greyson thinks everyone should live life as if they’ve had a near-death experience, since — as he says in his book — “they tell us that life is more about meaning and compassion than about wealth and control”.

My father died surrounded by people who loved him, but I rather hope they weren’t the last people he saw. I like to imagine he was greeted by friends and family who had gone before him, who ushered him through the tunnel of light, introduced him to the radiant figurehead and settled him into the beautiful garden. Who knows, maybe he’ll be waiting for me there.

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