When researchers at the University of South Hampton in the UK published the results of their near-death experiences study, the Internet lit up with headlines like “Scientists prove life after death!”

But, the question is, what do these studies really show? Do reports of near-death experiences prove that the afterlife exists? Or, are we simply not defining “death” precisely enough?

Let’s take a step back and look at the problem of near-death experiences objectively.

What is a Near Death Experience?

A near death experience is typically thought of as the recollections of a person who has been declared clinically dead and then brought back to life through resuscitation. In other words, a near death experience focuses on the memories that a person makes while their heart is not beating.

The fact that people relate similar types of experiences – tunnels, white lights and interactions with relatives – is seen as evidence that life after death really exists. These experiences are often powerful and, even if they do not prove that there is an afterlife, there is no denying that they feel real.

There is one problem with the traditional view of near-death experiences though. A reasonable person can ask if a person really dead just because their heart stops. Or is there still activity in the brain?

In other words, are near death experiences simply a function of activity in the brain after our heart stops? Or are they recollections of the afterlife that we bring back with us?

Are We Using the Right Definition of “Death” in “Near Death Experience?”

For most of human history, the border between life and death was fairly simple. People were “alive” for as long as their heart was beating. Once a person’s heart stopped, there was little hope that a person would “come back from the dead.” If they recovered, it would have been interpreted as the result of divine intervention.

As we know today, the heart is not where our consciousness lives. That honor goes to our brains, which manage our emotions and thoughts. Despite this fact, we still like to think of death as the point at which our bodies stop working to an outside observer. The truth is that we really don’t know what is going on in the brain of a person whose heart has stopped.

So, is it Possible that Near Death Experiences Are “All in Our Heads?”

Maybe. We just don’t know for sure. Like so many spiritual topics, whether you believe that near-death experiences prove the existence of the afterlife is a matter of faith.

There is nothing illogical or “wrong” about believing in near-death experiences. But, do they “prove” that the afterlife exists or that it takes a certain form? This seems like a stretch given the current evidence.

Maybe, one day, we will be able to revive patients with no brain activity. If these patients are able to share memories from the time that their brains were not functioning, this would provide stronger evidence for the afterlife. Until then, the afterlife will remain a matter of faith.

Do you believe that near-death experiences prove that the afterlife exists? Why or why not? Have you or anyone that you know ever had a near death experience?