There have long been tales of people’s life flashing before their eyes in near-fatal incidents. Now, however, scientists have said that the phenomenon does occur but not in the way that it is usually portrayed.
People who have had life-review experiences (LREs) rarely saw their life in chronological order but saw multiple life events at the same time from different stages of their lives.
Researchers said that an individual would also have seen traumatic episodes from the perspective of other people.
Scientists from Hadassah University in Jerusalem analysed seven accounts of LREs obtained during in-depth interviews with people who had experienced them.
Their responses were used to devise a wide-ranging questionnaire that was sent to 264 other people who gave detailed accounts of their experiences.
The respondents said that there was rarely an order to their life memories and that they seemed to come at random.
One person wrote: “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 feature was the feeling of an intensely emotional experience from somebody else’s point of view. One respondent said: “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 said: “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.”
Every participant in the study said that their LRE had resulted in them gaining a new perspective of the significant people in their lives or of important events.
Researchers said that the study had highlighted “a most intriguing mental phenomenon that [had] fascinated humans from time immemorial”. They said that the phenomenon had featured in countless works of literature and film, yet little was known about its cognitive and psychological origins.
Their conclusions meant that not only was there more evidence that LREs were real, but that scientists were closer to defining them.
The researchers said that the phenomenon could be caused by the parts of the brain that store autobiographical memories, such as the prefrontal, medial temporal or parietal cortices.
These parts of the brain are susceptible to hypoxia and blood loss as a result of serious injury.
The study, published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, said: “Re-experiencing one’s own life events, so-called LRE, is a phenomenon with well-defined characteristics, and its subcomponents may be also evident in healthy people. This suggests that a representation of life events as a continuum exists in the cognitive system, and may be further expressed in extreme conditions of psychological and physiological stress.”