It happened 32 years ago, but Kay Bjork is still able to vividly recall the near- death experience she had following emergency surgery to repair a fallopian tube that burst as a result of an undiagnosed ectopic pregnancy.

She remembers clouds of orange light, seeing everyone in the recovery room but feeling that they were looking through her, and having an intense moment of clarity.

“It was like having the question answered,” says Bjork, who is now 70 and lives in Franklin, Tenn. “I’m not a religious person, but it was like I was given the answer, and my thought was, ‘Of course, why didn’t I think of that.’”

Bjork’s story is remarkably similar to many others told by people who believe they have had near- death or out-of-body experiences. Now a new study offers a possible scientific explanation for this.

The REM Connection

Researchers from the University of Kentucky in Lexington found that people who report having a near-death experience are more prone to have also experienced blurring of their awake and sleep states -- a condition known medically as REM intrusion.

Clinical neuropsychologist Kevin Nelson, MD, and colleagues interviewed 55 people with a history of near-death experiences and twice as many people matched for age and sex with no such history.

Sixty percent of those who reported having had near-death experiences also reported at least one occurrence of their REM sleep state intruding into their awakened state, compared with only 24 percent of those without near-death experiences.

The findings are reported in the April 11 issue of the journal Neurology.

Near-Death Experiences and Stages of Sleep

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the sleep stage during which dreaming occurs. REM sleep also involves paralysis of major muscles, accelerated respiration, and, as the name suggests, increased eye movement.

Common characteristics of REM intrusion include a sense of temporary paralysis upon awakening and visual or auditory hallucinations during the transition from sleep to being awake or the reverse.

“The brain switch that links REM sleep and wakefulness seems to be different in people who have had a near-death experience,” Nelson tells WebMD. “Instead of passing directly between REM sleep and wakefulness, the brain switch in those people seems to be more likely to blend the two.”

Nelson says many commonly reported features of near-death experiences are also associated with the REM state, including the feelings of being surrounded by light, being outside one’s body, and of being conscious but unable to move.

Spiritual Influences

While the findings suggest that REM intrusion contributes to the phenomenon known as near- death experience, Nelson says he isn’t trying to prove that spiritual influences aren’t involved.

“We consider this research to be spiritually neutral,” he says. “People who have had this experience report that it has great personal and spiritual meaning, and we don’t mean to take away from that at all. We are simply focusing on the how of the experience and not the why.”

University of Virginia professor of psychiatry Bruce Greyson, MD, has studied near-death experience for many years. He remains convinced that there is more to the events than medical science can explain.

“People who have had this experience do seem to be changed in very profound ways,” he tells WebMD. “That is the most consistent thing that we hear, even more consistent than the phenomenon itself is the after-effect of feeling changed.”

Bjork agrees that the experience was transforming.

“I had a very strong sense that I wanted to do everything perfectly from then on -- to read only important books and do something important with my life,” she says.

By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Nelson, K.R., Neurology, April 11, 2006; vol 66; pp 1003-1009. Kevin R. Nelson, MD, clinical neurophysiologist, professor of neurology, University of Kentucky, Lexington. Bruce Greyson, MD, division of personality studies, department of psychiatric medicine, University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Kay Bjork, Franklin, Tenn.