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Dying In A Brain Scanner, Sort Of

The Holy Grail for near-death researchers is a physical marker, like a stamp in a passport that testifies that Mrs. Brown crossed into sacred territory and returned. In thirty years of focused research, scientists have never located such a marker. Perhaps a marker exists, perhaps it doesn't — but until recently, scientists lacked both the technology and the funding to even try.

Neurologist Peter Fenwick believes those markers do lie somewhere in the folds of the brain or the rhythm of its electrical current. Any major neurological event registers in the brain and then manifests itself in behavior. The brain images of people with post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, show cerebral changes.

"So it's likely that people who have a transcendent experience will also have changes in their brain as well," Fenwick speculated. "This is shown really because they then have changes in behavior. With post-traumatic stress, it's increased anxiety. In near-death experiences, it tends to be more social awareness, more spirituality, and so on. So these will in fact be accompanied by some cerebral markers. I'm sure we'll find them when we start looking for them."

Which brings us to the University of Montreal, where the hunt for a spiritual marker is in full cry.

Jorge Medina winced slightly as I shook his hand in the entryway of the University of Montreal Medical Center. We exchanged halting hellos — Jorge in his shy, stuttered English, his third language, after Spanish and French. I searched his face for some signature of trauma, and found wide brown eyes, a hearty black mustache, a face smooth and coppery and completely unmarred.

I unclasped Jorge's hand, and let my gaze fall to his forearm. There lay a tapestry of mottled brown-and-white skin, as shiny and inflexible as vinyl. His arm was a partial road map of his journey through the flames. Fire had left ninety percent of Jorge's body with third-degree burns, mercifully leaving his face unscathed.

"I'm sorry," I murmured. Now it was my turn to wince.

"No problem." He smiled, and we turned to the task at hand — one of the most controversial studies ever conducted at Montreal's illustrious medical center. We were about to scan Jorge's brain as he relived the moment he died.

Our guide was Mario Beauregard, a forty-something French Canadian neuroscientist. Beauregard was conducting cutting-edge research on the brain in mystical states.

Why, I asked him, would a promising young researcher risk his career by studying spiritual states and near-death experiences?

"Oh, that's easy," Mario had replied in his soft accent. He smiled shyly. "I'm a mystic."

During my visit to Montreal, Beauregard elaborated. "When I was eight years old," he said, "I had a kind of vision, and the vision became a certainty for me — that the brain was not the same as the mind and the soul. These things were different. And I decided then to become a scientist to demonstrate later on that this was the case indeed. That you cannot reduce a human being to a batch of chemicals and bones. And that became" — he searched for a word, almost getting it — "the motor, the starting point of the research that I'm doing right now."

Courtesy of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA)

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.