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What Happens When “Your Life Flashes Before Your Eyes”

You often hear about near death experiences. Someone crossing the street nearly gets hit by a car and later recalls that his life “flashed before his eyes.” What does that mean and how does it happen?

Scientists set out to answer these questions, terming the phenomenon a “life review experience” (LRE). In a recent study of people who said they had undergone an LRE, researchers discovered these commonalities:

  • The LRE timeline typically is not chronological; most people see their life events flash either in random order or seemingly all at once.
  • People may experience an LRE from the point of view of someone close to them. In other words, a person doesn’t just see his own life flash before his eyes, he may see others’.
  • People who have LREs experience a changed perspective in the way they regard other significant people in their life or important events that occurred in the past.

To figure out why this phenomenon occurs, neuroscientists studied the prefrontal, medial temporal and parietal cortices of the brain, which all are associated with housing autobiographical memories. These parts of the brain also are vulnerable to hypoxia and blood loss that can occur in the event of a traumatic, near-death experience.

In their study, the researchers compared LRE occurrences to those of people who had non-trauma-related but similar experiences such as “déjà vu” or who feel regret about past events. They found that all of these experiences trigger common neurocognitive mechanisms that happen every day – but in a more highly concentrated way.

The study suggests that an LRE is not a mystical event that happens to special people. It’s a common neurological process that can pretty much happen to anyone who experiences a near-death event.

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