As the series progresses, Prairie tells a group of high-school misfits the story of how she ran away from her adoptive family to find her Russian father, only to be captured and experimented on by a scientist obsessed with near-death experiences (NDEs).
She explains that along with her fellow captives, she was killed over and again in a drowning machine to induce NDEs, during which she met a mystical woman named Khatun who gave her five movements that could unlock a new form of travel.
Brit Marling, who plays Prairie and co-wrote the show with Zal Batmanglij, said that she first came up with the idea of the show after speaking to a young woman who had experienced an NDE.
She told US radio station KPCC: “When she described her experience, I was really riveted by the idea.
“She described leaving her body and the sensation of being above herself.
The OA tells the story of a woman who claims to have had many near-death experiences
“All concerns and preoccupations went away and the only thing that remained in her mind was this question: ‘Did I tell the people I love enough how much I love them?’
She has a kind of vividness and self possession and ferocity that's uncanny
“It became that simple. Then she rocketed back into her body.
“When you meet this woman, she has a kind of vividness and self possession and ferocity that's uncanny. It seems like she's really in control of her life.
“I was thinking it would be interesting to explore near-death experiences more and talk about somebody who's been to this other space and has returned.”
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Throughout the series Prairie travels to an worldly place
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Although the premise of the show seems like science fiction, NDEs are a recognised if disputed phenomena which dates back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks.
The term is generally used to describe experiences reported when a person has come close to dying or has died and been resuscitated.
Natasha Tassell-Matamua of Massey University, New Zealand, says that 20 per cent of cardiac arrest survivors and between four and nine per cent of the general public are estimated to have had an NDE.
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Prairie is killed over and over again in an experiment
Writing in The Independent, she explained: “Those reporting NDEs often describe a profound psychological event that is mystical, transcendental, or even spiritual in nature; where the boundaries between space, time, and normal perceptual awareness become blurred.”
Some who have survived an NDE describe an “out-of-body” experience and have been able to accurately describe resuscitation efforts.
Others have described seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel, strange and other-worldly landscapes, or claim to have seen their lives flash before their eyes.
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The very concept of NDEs is highly contested but a range of explanations have been proposed.
Some think that they are hallucinations caused by chemicals in the brain as it dies, while others believe that they are caused by a loss of blood flow or a form of REM sleep.
Religious and spiritual believers have linked NDEs to the concept of an afterlife.