White Light of Death? Or Bright Light of Rebirth?

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
What happens after you die? It's one of life's greatest questions, and a topic for constant debate, discussion and disagreement. There are plenty of 'life after death' theories out there, with accounts of 'Near Death Experiences' providing lots of inspiration. But what conclusions can we really draw?

White Light of Death? Or Bright Light of Rebirth?

The white light is one of the most well-known and widely discussed aspects of death. It permeates popular culture and fictional representations of dying, and it’s a notable recurring feature in tales of near-death experiences – or NDEs. It’s clear, then, that the white light must represent something. And, naturally, different people and cultures have different beliefs on what it signifies.

Perhaps the most obvious and popular suggestion is that the white light represents Heaven, or at least a version of the afterlife. Heaven is often shown in literature and film as a bright and welcoming place, so the light could be the entrance coming into view – according to some groups, anyway. This belief is bolstered by the accounts of some near-death experiences, where people claim to feel a sense of peace, as well as a sensation of floating or weightlessness – which advocates claim is your transporting soul. Others have even reported seeing ‘beings of light’ – or angels, perhaps – that go so far as to talk to them. So, the stories do stack up.

Of course, the belief is strengthened further still by the steady flow of books and literature to support it. Todd Burpo wrote “Heaven Is for Real” in 2010 – telling of his son’s near-death experience – which sold over ten million copies and inspired a movie adaptation that grossed over $100 million at the box office. There have been other, seemingly more scholarly works aiming to provide evidence, too. Books like “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife” and “To Heaven and Back” are written by qualified doctors – leading many to label them as legitimate proof. With works like those, and the often surprisingly consistent NDE depictions of peacefulness, angelic beings, and a white glow – there is at least food for thought. But, not every theory is heaven-centric. Because, some say the white light is actually the beginnings of reincarnation.

Reincarnation is the popular belief that a deceased individual is reborn into a new physical body. It’s a major component in some religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, while many otherwise non-religious – or not strictly religious – people believe in the concept of a rebirth. Famously, the classic philosophers like Socrates and Plato believed in some form of reincarnation, showing that it is one of the world’s oldest ideas, and also one of the most prevalent, as it’s found even amongst secluded tribal societies.

So, perhaps the fabled white light is actually the beginning of a new life altogether? As with the idea of Heaven, the white light in this case signifies new beginnings. But this belief has been built on further still, notably by the Birth Model. The Birth Model says that we re-experience the process of birth upon dying, or upon having a near-death experience. According to the theory, humans travel from their mother’s womb into the light of the world and are greeted with instant care (in the case of the doctors) and love (in the case of our parents). When the brain is dying, it recreates this feeling of instant affection as a defense mechanism. In the case of the birth model, the white light represents a metaphorical rebirth, and it gives us feelings of satisfaction immediately prior to death. If subscribers to the theory wanted to go one step further, they might even suggest that it’s more than metaphorical, and that you really are ‘born again’ once you die. After all, no baby is able to adequately explain their experience, and our personal memories don’t begin forming until a couple of years after we’re born…

So, clearly the white light provides some basis for ideas on Heaven, life after death and reincarnation. But there’s also something else to consider – biology. Many scientists feel that the white light of death is a perfectly natural and explainable phenomenon. However, most also concede that there are still a lot of grey areas and unknowns to work out.

Take Olaf Blanke and Sebastian Dieguez, two Swiss scientists who believe that the brain holds the key. They’ve suggested that the incurring of significant damage to the brain’s occipital cortex, the area known for visual processing, may result in visions and the seeing of lights… while damage to the hippocampus and amygdala may result in intense emotional experiences and feelings of peace. Blanke and Dieguez admit that further research is needed, but they firmly believe that by studying the human brain, especially if it’s damaged in certain areas, we may one day be able to clinically understand NDEs.

Similarly, other researchers have suggested that the strangeness of a near-death experience is simply the result of a misfiring brain. Dean Mobbs, a Cambridge University neuroscientist, argues that NDE visions are more like complex hallucinations, and that reported feelings of peace are linked to the brain’s opioid system – which activates when under extreme stress. And the white light? That can be explained by simple tunnel vision – which is essentially the loss of your peripheral vision, brought on by the absence of both blood and oxygen.

Further still, a 2013 University of Michigan experiment also links brain activity to the reported white light – though this time less specifically. In the experiment, scientists induced lab rats into cardiac arrest and found that their brain activity greatly increased in the moments before death. So, perhaps NDEs are often so inexplicable because the brain is rarely – if ever – in a comparable situation… meaning that it just doesn’t function as expected. While the white light may inspire hope for heaven or a completely new life, it might simply be our vision shutting down, or our brains going haywire in its final moments.

Yet another explanation may lie with one of Earth’s other most significant gases. A 2010 study published in “Clinical Care” suggests that many aspects of a near-death experience are simply prompted by high levels of carbon dioxide. Analysing blood samples from a group of heart attack survivors, researchers found that many of the patients who reported NDE symptoms also had higher levels of CO2 in their blood, when compared to the patients who reported no significant effects. And these findings do correspond with other studies matching carbon dioxide to visual hallucinations, feelings of weightlessness, and – you guessed it – the witnessing of bright lights.

The inarguable consistency of NDE stories does indicate that the white light, feelings of peace and even angelic visions are all to be expected – although not guaranteed. But the question of what these experiences are, mean or symbolise is still yet to be proven beyond doubt. Some believe that they’re the beginning of an afterlife, and evidence of Heaven. Others feel like they represent a brand-new life or a re-emergence from the womb. Most scientists suggest that these experiences can be biologically explained, although the experts still can’t agree on the specifics.

Whatever your feelings, it seems clear that something happens – a divine and holy passage, or an inevitable offshoot of when the human body shuts down for good. While various religious beliefs have existed for millennia, shaping our fundamental ideas on life and death, modern science could well be solving the mystery. Either way, we can all take some comfort in how soothing and painless the white light experience appears to be – even if it does occur at the most traumatic of times.