Infrequent near death experiences in severe brain injury survivors - A quantitative and qualitative study

Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2013 Jan;16(1):75-81. doi: 10.4103/0972-2327.107715.


Background: Near death experiences (NDE) are receiving increasing attention by the scientific community because not only do they provide a glimpse of the complexity of the mind-brain interactions in 'near-death' circumstances but also because they have significant and long lasting effects on various psychological aspects of the survivors. The over-all incidence-reports of NDEs in literature have varied widely from a modest Figure of 10% to around 35%, even up to an incredible Figure of 72% in persons who have faced close brush with death. Somewhat similar to this range of difference in incidences are the differences prevalent in the opinions that theorists and researchers harbor around the world for explaining this phenomena. None the less, objective evidences have supported physiological theories the most. A wide range of physiological processes have been targeted for explaining NDEs. These include cerebral anoxia, chemical alterations like hypercapnia, presence of endorphins, ketamine, and serotonin, or abnormal activity of the temporal lobe or the limbic system. In spite of the fact that the physiological theories of NDEs have revolved around the derangements in brain, no study till date has taken up the task of evaluating the experiences of near-death in patients where specific injury has been to brain. Most of them have evaluated NDEs in cardiac-arrest patients. Post-traumatic coma is one such state regarding which the literature seriously lacks any information related to NDEs. Patients recollecting any memory of their post-traumatic coma are valuable assets for NDE researchers and needs special attention.

Materials and methods: Our present study was aimed at collecting this valuable information from survivors of severe head injury after a prolonged coma. The study was conducted in the head injury department of Guangdong 999 Brain hospital, Guangzhou, China. Patients included in the study were the ones Recovered from the posttraumatic coma following a severe head injury. A total of 86 patients were chosen. Near death experience scale (NDES) score of 7 or more was used as the criteria of screening NDE experiences. After identifying such individuals, the Prakash-modification of the Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was used to interview and record the data for qualitative analysis.

Results: We found that contrary to earlier incidence reports, NDEs in post head injury patients were markedly low. Only 3 out of 86 of the patients recruited had a clear and confident experience of NDE. We conducted a qualitative study to explore further into these experiences. IPA of these 3 patients revealed four master themes: 1. Unique light visions 2. Intense feelings of astonishment, pleasure, and fear 3. The sense of helplessness 4. Supernatural but rationality of experience.

Conclusion: NDE is uncommon in head-injury cases as compared to other near-death conditions. But the persons experiencing it have immense impacts on their belief systems and emotions. This experience should be further explored by studies of larger samples.

Keywords: Near- death experiences; post- traumatic coma; qualitative analysis.