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I'll start by invoking a century-old account of drowning from dr James Lowson. Many stories of people rescued from drowning follow a similar pattern.

After what appeared to be ten or fifteen seconds, the effort of inspiration could no longer be restrained, and pressure on the chest began to develop. (...) The pressure after these ten (circa) rapid "gulps" seemed unbearable, but gradually the pain seemed to ease up as the carbonic acid was accumulating in the blood. At the same time the efforts at inspiration with their accompanying "gulps" of water occured at longer and longer intervals. (...) Before finally losing consciousness, the chest pain had completely disappeared, and sensation was actually pleasant.

Lowson J. A. (1903). Sensations in Drowning. Edinburgh Medical Journal, 13(1), 41–45.

I am curious to know what could account for the peaceful sensations prior to losing consciousness. Could it be the carbonic acid, as described? An effect on the respiratory drive, hypoxia, shock, or simply a stage of fading consciousness?

Edit: Thank you for the replies so far! Yes, the NDE explanation can't be discounted either, but I also see this as a state of progressive sedation (decreasing pain, breathing rate and consciousness level). What accounts for it - I don't know. Perhaps all cases of fatal respiratory failure would ultimately follow a similar course?

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  • The full story is an interesting read. I like how he explained that the gag reflex wouldn't let him inhale water, so he ended up swallowing all the water he tried to inhale. That made him sick later but it saved his life. That's my understanding of how a drowning proceeds, but I've never read a first-hand account. – Carey Gregory Jun 15 at 0:48
  • This sort of thing is exceedingly difficult to study ethically. It's possible there is work out there that I am not aware of, but otherwise answers to this question and others in the realm of "near-death experiences" tend to be based on conjecture (albeit sometimes quite informed conjecture) and anecdote, rather than any substantial neuroscience. Wikipedia has a few mentions you could follow up on: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Bryan Krause Jun 15 at 1:41
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    @BryanKrause I don't think anecdotal near-death experiences are necessary to answer this question. I think it can be answered with established science. – Carey Gregory Jun 15 at 5:16
  • @CareyGregory Happy to see that answer then. – Bryan Krause Jun 15 at 5:30

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