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Research Likens Life-Changing Effect of Psychedelics To Near-Death Experiences

A new study by Johns Hopkins University found that psychedelics produce similar effects to near-death experiences.

Min read
AJ Herrington
November 30, 2022

A recent study has determined that the effects of some psychedelics are similar to the life-altering effects of near-death experiences, bringing the people who experience the phenomona less fear and a more positive attitude toward death. The study, which was conducted by researchers at John Hopkins University School of Medicine and published in 2019, found that psychedelics including psilocybin, LSD, and ayahuasca, an indigenous South American plant tonic containing DMT, produced effects similar to near-death experiences, with ketamine showing the strongest similarity to the phenomenon.

What Is A Near-Death Experience?

A near-death experience, or NDE, is a common pattern of events experienced by many people when they believe they are about to die. NDEs can occur under periods of “extreme physiological conditions such as trauma, ceasing of brain activity, deep general anesthesia or cardiac arrest in which no awareness or sensory experiences of any kind should be possible according to the prevailing views in neuroscience,” according to information from the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

Research into NDEs has revealed several common traits, including vivid memories with strong bodily sensations that have a strong sense of being real, often referred to as one’s life “flashing before their eyes.” The experience can also induce a feeling of being comfortable and free of pain, as well as sensations of leaving the body, entering a dark tunnel or approaching a bright light. NDEs can be deeply meaningful, with research showing that many people characterize the experience as being more real than memories of real events. Commonalities in NDEs have been reported across a wide expanse of religions and cultures, suggesting that they are related to biological factors rather than religious beliefs or perceptions.

“The real or perceived proximity to death often results in a non-ordinary state of consciousness characterized by phenomenological features such as the perception of leaving the body boundaries, feelings of peace, bliss, and timelessness, life review, the sensation of traveling through a tunnel and an irreversible threshold,” the authors of the recent study wrote. “Near-death experiences (NDEs) are comparable among individuals of different cultures, suggesting an underlying neurobiological mechanism.”

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Researchers Use Linguistic Analysis To Compare Psychedelics And NDEs

To explore the possibility that NDEs could be a natural function of the brain, the team of Johns Hopkins researchers studied the experiences of thousands of people who had taken different psychoactive substances and compared them to the recollections of people who had had an NDE. Using a linguistic analysis, the researchers studied the prevalence and meaning of different words in the accounts of substance use and NDEs and determined that stimulants and depressants showed little similarity between the drugs and NDEs. However, stories about psychedelics and hallucinogens showed strong similarities to NDEs, with the psychedelic drug ketamine showing the strongest similarity.

“The word most strongly represented in descriptions of both NDEs and ketamine experiences was “reality,” highlighting the sense of presence that accompanies NDEs,” according to a report in Scientific American. “High among the list of words common to both experiences were those related to perception (saw, color, voice, vision), the body (face, arm, foot), emotion (fear) and transcendence (universe, understand, consciousness).”

Both Psychedelics and Near Death Experiences Produce Positive, Transformational Experiences

In the study, people described both NDEs and psychedelics as bringing them a more a positive attitude toward death and less fear. Patients reported significant increases in welfare, psychological insight and meaning in their lives.  Both experiences were described as spiritual or mystical and included a sense of oneness, transcendence, sacredness, and awe, which were stronger in psychedelic experiences. But people who had survived an NDE were more likely to describe the event as “the single most meaningful, spiritually significant, insightful and challenging experience of their lives,” according to a report in PsyPost.

Not all psychedelic experiences include a life-changing effect, while nearly all NDEs are described as transformational. Additionally, a 2012 study into the similarity between DMT and NDEs found that the effect of DMT did not last as long as the impact of an NDE. But researchers believe that the similarities between the experiences may one day lead to therapies that can provide the benefits of an NDE without the risk.

“Our analysis sheds light on the long-standing link between certain drugs and the experience of ‘dying,’ suggests that ketamine could be used as a safe and reversible experimental model for NDE phenomenology,” the authors of the study wrote.

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About the Author

AJ Herrington

A.J. Herrington is a California-based freelance writer covering psychedelics and cannabis news, business and culture. His work can be found in national publications including Forbes, High Times, Cannabis Now, and more.

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