It’s a well-known trope in movies, books, and pretty much any other form of storytelling where the protagonist has a near-death experience: At the moment of reckoning, they see their life flashing before their eyes — their entire past spooling out before them, a replay of all the most significant moments.
And the phenomenon isn’t confined to fiction: Plenty of people have reported having what researchers call “life review experiences,” or LREs — including some scientists. Take for example, Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who claims to have spoken to God in a near-death experience. Without much evidence to support the existence of LREs, though, the best that researchers can do is lump them in with hallucinatory or dreamlike experiences.
But a new study on consciousness, published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, takes a different approach to evaluating LREs — and, according to the authors, adds both neurological and statistical support to the argument that they really do exist.
For the study, a team of researchers led by Judith Katz, a neurologist at Hadassah University in Jerusalem analyzed seven accounts of LREs that they had gathered through in-depth interviews. They found that the stories all had several elements in common, including a few that contradicted commonly held ideas about what an LRE looks like. The order of events, for example, was rarely chronological — more often, interviewees reported witnessing their life events in random order, or even simultaneously. Here’s what one participant who went through a near-death experience had to say about the timeline of their LRE:
‘‘There is not a linear progression, there is lack of time limits […] It was like being there for centuries. I was not in time/space so this question also feels impossible to answer. A moment, and a thousand years… both and neither. It all happened at once, or some experiences within my near-death experience were going on at the same time as others, though my human mind separates them into different events.”
Another common element of LREs was the inclusion of deeply emotional experiences from the perspective of others close to them. Here’s what another participant had to say: ‘‘I could individually go into each person and I could feel the pain that they had in their life … I was allowed to see that part of them and feel for myself what they felt.” Another one: “I was seeing, feeling these things about him [my father], and he was sharing with me the things of his early childhood and how things were difficult for him. In fact, all interviewees in the study said after their LRE, they had experienced a major change in perspective regarding significant people in their lives or important life events. (In an interview, Katz said that she found this to be the most interesting part of the study’s findings.)
Taken together, the authors wrote, the common threads across all the LREs don’t just add credence to the argument that the phenomenon is real — they also help push researchers closer to a definition. To truly understand LREs, though, scientists would have to identify what’s happening in the brain as they’re happening. To that end, Katz and her colleagues offered up a few theories as to which regions of the brain might be involved, focusing on areas that store autobiographical memories. The prefrontal, medial temporal, or parietal cortices, all of which fall into that category, also happen to be particularly vulnerable to hypoxia and blood loss resulting from traumatic near-death experiences.
As the last step in their study, the authors built a survey around the common threads they’d identified in LREs and administered it to a group of online volunteers who had never had one. Many of the same elements they’d identified, the researchers found, were also things that most people experienced in other contexts at one point or another — things like déjà vu or regret around certain events in their lives. “These results suggest that the LRE phenomenon is based on an alteration of a common neurocognitive mechanism shared by the general, healthy population,” they wrote.
When your life flashes before your eyes, in other words, it isn’t the brain reacting to the threat of death in some special, mystical way — it’s just a super-concentrated version of mental processes that happen every day. Which means that it’s such a common trope for good reason: If the researchers are correct, seeing a replay of your life in moments of danger can happen to pretty much anyone.