What Happens in Your Brain When Your Life Flashes Before Your Eyes?

Have you ever had an accident or adverse moment in which your whole life flashed before your eyes? It's a really frequent phenomenon that's explained by several hypotheses. We explain them here.
What Happens in Your Brain When Your Life Flashes Before Your Eyes?

Last update: 08 September, 2022

There are many people who, at critical and threatening moments, have seen different fragments of their life flash before them. It’s like a carousel of snapshots of their life cycle. Some see this phenomenon as supernatural and unscientific. However, science has been investigating these types of events for decades.

In fact, there are thousands of testimonials in existence regarding these occurrences. One of the first on record was that of the Swiss geologist, Albert Heim. In 1892, he fell off a cliff while climbing a mountain. During that spectacular fall, he had the feeling of being far away from the real-life situation in which his body was taking a battering. At the same time, he began to see a whole succession of images relating to his own life.

This incident, from which he was fortunately rescued, resulted in him becoming a pioneer in the study of near-death experiences of mountaineers. In fact, his work remains a reference today.

Our vision of time is altered when we go through experiences in which our lives are threatened.

Woman running in fear because life passed before my eyes
Life review experiences are related to cortical disinhibition.

People who change after a borderline experience

The kinds of experiences in which people see their life flash before them can be extremely diverse. For example, suffering an accident, being in an operating room or some other kind of threatening situation can cause the brain to enter this type of trancelike state. Furthermore, those who experience these kinds of events are always changed for life.

Indeed, there are certain aspects of the personality that tend to change as a result of these experiences. For instance, there are those who stop being afraid of death and become aware of the beauty of life. They might also make profound changes such as leaving their profession and looking for another or completely changing their priorities. They usually become more ethical, humane, and simple.

This is perfectly understandable after having survived a traumatic event. However, what generates countless questions are the mental flashbacks. Those moments when people find themselves in that twilight moment between life and death.

Let’s take a look at some of the likely responses.

Brain stress and time disturbance

In 2017, a group of Israeli scientists from the Hadassah Hebrew University in Jerusalem published a study in which they reviewed existing cases on the subject. People who claimed that “my life flashed before my eyes” experienced the effect of a situation of extreme stress at the brain level.

It seems that, in those moments, time ceases to exist in the mind. It dissolves, almost like Dalí’s watches. Past and present occupy the same plane and overlap. Therefore, our past lives are intermingled with immediate reality. It’s a theory that fits perfectly with the ideas of Immanuel Kant.

According to Kant, time is a construction of the human mind. As far-fetched as this may seem, many neurologists accept this idea as valid. Indeed, they believe that the perception of time and its organization are nothing more than products of our own consciousness.

Cortical disinhibition between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus

Imagine a brain at a moment of great threat. It’s facing death and its level of activity is so intense, chaotic, and excessive, that cortical disinhibition occurs. Consequently, the prefrontal cortex (key for cognition or decision making) and the hippocampus (responsible for memory) suffer an alteration in the correct release of GABA.

This neurotransmitter inhibits multiple functions of the central nervous system. However, in situations of extreme danger, it stops working. Therefore, the hippocampus ‘dumps’ a large number of memories in the prefrontal cortex. This explains why they’re so vivid, real, and intense.

There are those who, during experiences when their life flashes before them, come into contact with scenes from the past that they didn’t even previously remember.

Man doing therapy explaining that the My life passed before my eyes
Many people need psychological support after these near-death experiences.

The experiences of when your life flashes before you need attending to

The famous neurologist, Oliver Sacks, pointed out that experiences in which you see your life flash before you are ‘extremely complex’ types of hallucinations. The psychiatrist, Bruce Greyson, one of the figures who’s studied this type of phenomenon in depth, mentioned another aspect.

In fact, Dr. Greyson pointed out that, to date, neurological hypotheses haven’t offered a clear explanation of why this phenomenon occurs. Clearly, there’s a border with our mental universe that eludes us. Furthermore, as well as trying to figure out why, it’s worth focusing on the ‘what for?’.

The first thing you must do, if you’ve experienced this type of event, is to validate it. It’s not a paranormal phenomenon, nor are you facing a mental disorder. It’s a real and concrete experience that’s difficult to understand.  Sometimes, you might require psychological support.

This isn’t only because of the trance-like state itself, but because of what comes after. Indeed, Dr. Greyson has treated former military and police officers who were forced to leave their jobs because the idea of hurting or having to physically confront someone became suddenly abhorrent to them.

Professional support in these cases is always recommended. These events happen on a daily basis, yet almost always have a considerable effect on those who experience them.

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  • Bast T, Pezze M, McGarrity S. Cognitive deficits caused by prefrontal cortical and hippocampal neural disinhibition. Br J Pharmacol. 2017 Oct;174(19):3211-3225. doi: 10.1111/bph.13850. Epub 2017 Jun 7. PMID: 28477384; PMCID: PMC5595754.
  • Nahm, Michael. (2016). Albert Heim (1849–1937): The Multifaceted Geologist Who Influenced Research Into Near-death Experiences and Suggestion Therapy. EXPLORE The Journal of Science and Healing. 12. 10.1016/j.explore.2016.04.007.