What's the deal with the bright light you see before dying?

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Oct. 1 2002 5:42 PM

What's the Deal With the Bright Light You See Before Dying?

Train operatorKelvin DeBourgh Jr. was killed last week when the new AirTrain, which connects Manhattan to Kennedy International Airport, crashed. Before succumbing to his injuries, he told rescue workers: "I can't see you anymore—all I see is a bright light." Why do the mortally wounded often report seeing a bright light before dying?

Assuming it's not the Great Beyond, medical science has advanced several theories as to the bright light's physiological roots. Many researchers ascribe the glow to the effects of anoxia, or oxygen deprivation, which can affect the optic nerves. Others suspect that trauma to the right temporal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for perception, can cause the senses to malfunction. Michael A. Persinger, a neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, has replicated the bright-light phenomenon in test subjects by stimulating their right temporal lobes with mild electromagnetic fields.

A third theory holds that the brain releases massive amounts of endorphins, or natural painkillers, when the body is gravely injured. Those endorphins may "override" the optic nerves, causing the victim to see a peaceful glow rather than their own mangled body or teams of desperate paramedics scurrying about. This endorphin-induced serenity can be crucial to warding off lethal shock, thus giving the person better odds of survival.

It has also been suggested that some bright-light glimpsers neither gaze at eternity nor experience unusual neurological activity. Instead, they may simply mistake the high-powered operating room lights as something a tad more mystical.

Bonus Explainer: In Western societies, the bright light is often accompanied by visions of deceased relatives, idyllic gardens, and a convivial bearded man in flowing white robes—all standard images of the Christian heaven. Dying Hindus in India, by contrast, typically picture the afterlife as a Kafkaesque bureaucratic office. Fading Micronesians have been known to describe a bustling, skyscraper-filled metropolis.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of The Skies Belong to Us.

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