A near-death experience (NDE) is a personal experience associated with death or impending death. When positive, such experiences may encompass a variety of sensations including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of a light. When negative, such experiences may include sensations of anguish and distress. NDEs are a recognized part of some transcendental and religious beliefs in an afterlife.
Different models have been described to explain NDEs. Neuroscience research suggests that an NDE is a subjective phenomenon resulting from “disturbed bodily multisensory integration” that occurs during life-threatening events.
The equivalent French term expérience de mort imminente (experience of imminent death) was proposed by French psychologist and epistemologist Victor Egger as a result of discussions in the 1890s among philosophers and psychologists concerning climbers’ stories of the panoramic life review during falls. In 1892 a series of subjective observations by workers falling from scaffolds, war soldiers who suffered injuries, climbers who had fallen from heights or other individuals who had come close to death (near drownings, accidents) was reported by Albert Heim. This was also the first time the phenomenon was described as clinical syndrome. In 1968 Celia Green published an analysis of 400 first-hand accounts of out-of-body experiences. This represented the first attempt to provide a taxonomy of such experiences, viewed simply as anomalous perceptual experiences, or hallucinations. In 1969, Swiss-American psychiatrist and pioneer in near-death studies Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy, and their own families. These experiences were also popularized by the work of psychiatrist Raymond Moody, who in 1975 coined the term “near-death experience” (NDE) as an umbrella term for the different elements (out of body experiences, the “panoramic life review,” the Light, the tunnel, or the border). The term “near-death experience” had already been used by John C. Lilly in 1972.
Researchers have identified the common elements that define near-death experiences. Bruce Greyson argues that the general features of the experience include impressions of being outside one’s physical body, visions of deceased relatives and religious figures, and transcendence of egotic and spatiotemporal boundaries. Many common elements have been reported, although the person’s interpretation of these events often corresponds with the cultural, philosophical, or religious beliefs of the person experiencing it. For example, in the US, where 46% of the population believes in guardian angels, they will often be identified as angels or deceased loved ones (or will be unidentified), while Hindus will often identify them as messengers of the god of death.
Common traits that have been reported by NDErs are as follows:
A sense/awareness of being dead.
A sense of peace, well-being and painlessness. Positive emotions. A sense of removal from the world.
An out-of-body experience. A perception of one’s body from an outside position, sometimes observing medical professionals performing resuscitation efforts.
A “tunnel experience” or entering a darkness. A sense of moving up, or through, a passageway or staircase.
A rapid movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light (or “Being of Light”) which communicates with the person.
An intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance.
Encountering “Beings of Light”, “Beings dressed in white”, or similar. Also, the possibility of being reunited with deceased loved ones.
Receiving a life review, commonly referred to as “seeing one’s life flash before one’s eyes”.
Approaching a border or a decision by oneself or others to return to one’s body, often accompanied by a reluctance to return.
Suddenly finding oneself back inside one’s body.
Connection to the cultural beliefs held by the individual, which seem to dictate some of the phenomena experienced in the NDE and particularly the later interpretation thereof.
Kenneth Ring (1980) subdivided the NDE on a five-stage continuum. The subdivisions were:
Seeing the light
Entering the light
Charlotte Martial, a neuropsychologist from the University of Liège and University Hospital of Liège who led a team that investigated 154 NDE cases, concluded that there is not a fixed sequence of events.
Kenneth Ring argues that attempted suicides do not lead more often to unpleasant NDEs than unintended near-death situations.
NDEs are associated with changes in personality and outlook on life. Ring has identified a consistent set of value and belief changes associated with people who have had a near-death experience. Among these changes, he found a greater appreciation for life, higher self-esteem, greater compassion for others, less concern for acquiring material wealth, a heightened sense of purpose and self-understanding, desire to learn, elevated spirituality, greater ecological sensitivity and planetary concern, and a feeling of being more intuitive. However, not all after-effects are beneficial and Greyson describes circumstances where changes in attitudes and behavior can lead to psychosocial and psychospiritual problems.
Historical reports, incidence and prevalence
NDEs have been recorded since ancient times. The oldest known medical report of near-death experiences was written by Pierre-Jean du Monchaux, an 18th-century French military doctor who described such a case in his book “Anecdotes de Médecine.” In the 19th century a few studies moved beyond individual cases – one privately done by the Mormons and one in Switzerland. Up to 2005, 95% of world cultures are known to have made some mention of NDEs.
A number of more contemporary sources report the incidence of near death experiences as:
17% amongst critically ill patients, in nine prospective studies from four different countries.
10-20% of people who have come close to death.
Bruce Greyson (psychiatrist), Kenneth Ring (psychologist), and Michael Sabom (cardiologist), helped to launch the field of near-death studies and introduced the study of near-death experiences to the academic setting. From 1975 to 2005, some 2,500 self-reported individuals in the US had been reviewed in retrospective studies of the phenomena with an additional 600 outside the US in the West, and 70 in Asia. Additionally, prospective studies had identified 270 individuals. Prospective studies review groups of individuals (e.g., selected emergency room patients) and then find who had an NDE during the study’s time; such studies cost more to perform. In all, close to 3,500 individual cases between 1975 and 2005 had been reviewed in one or another study. All these studies were carried out by some 55 researchers or teams of researchers.
Melvin Morse, head of the Institute for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, and colleagues have investigated near-death experiences in a pediatric population.
Clinical research in cardiac arrest patients
Parnia 2001 study
In 2001, Sam Parnia and colleagues published the results of a year-long study of cardiac arrest survivors that was conducted at Southampton General Hospital. 63 survivors were interviewed. They had been resuscitated after being clinically dead with no pulse, no respiration, and fixed dilated pupils. Parnia and colleagues investigated out-of-body experience claims by placing figures on suspended boards facing the ceiling, not visible from the floor. Four had experiences that, according to the study criteria, were NDEs but none of them experienced the out-of-body experience. Thus, they were not able to identify the figures.
Psychologist Chris French wrote regarding the study “unfortunately, and somewhat atypically, none of the survivors in this sample experienced an OBE”.
Van Lommel’s study
In 2001 Pim van Lommel, a cardiologist from the Netherlands, and his team conducted a study on NDEs including 344 cardiac arrest patients who had been successfully resuscitated in 10 Dutch hospitals. Patients not reporting NDEs were used as controls for patients who did, and psychological (e.g., fear before cardiac arrest), demographic (e.g., age, sex), medical (e.g., more than one cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)), and pharmacological data were compared between the two groups. The work also included a longitudinal study where the two groups (those who had had an NDE and those who had not had one) were compared at two and eight years, for life changes. One patient had a conventional out of body experience. He reported being able to watch and recall events during the time of his cardiac arrest. His claims were confirmed by hospital personnel. “This did not appear consistent with hallucinatory or illusory experiences, as the recollections were compatible with real and verifiable rather than imagined events”.
Awareness during Resuscitation (AWARE) study
While at University of Southampton, Parnia was the principal investigator of the AWARE Study, which was launched in 2008. This study which concluded in 2012 included 33 investigators across 15 medical centers in the UK, Austria and the US and tested consciousness, memories and awareness during cardiac arrest. The accuracy of claims of visual and auditory awareness was examined using specific tests. One such test consisted in installing shelves, bearing a variety of images and facing the ceiling, hence not visible by hospital staff, in rooms where cardiac-arrest patients were more likely to occur. The results of the study were published in October 2014; both the launch and the study results were widely discussed in the media.
A review article analyzing the results reports that, out of 2,060 cardiac arrest events, 101 of 140 cardiac arrest survivors could complete the questionnaires. Of these 101 patients 9% could be classified as near death experiences. Two more patients (2% of those completing the questionnaires) described “seeing and hearing actual events related to the period of cardiac arrest”. These two patients’ cardiac arrests did not occur in areas equipped with ceiling shelves hence no images could be used to objectively test for visual awareness claims. One of the two patients was too sick and the accuracy of her recount could not be verified. For the second patient, however, it was possible to verify the accuracy of the experience and to show that awareness occurred paradoxically some minutes after the heart stopped, at a time when “the brain ordinarily stops functioning and cortical activity becomes isoelectric.” The experience was not compatible with an illusion, imaginary event or hallucination since visual (other than of ceiling shelves’ images) and auditory awareness could be corroborated.
As of May 2016, a posting at the UK Clinical Trials Gateway website described plans for AWARE II, a two-year multicenter observational study of 900-1500 patients experiencing cardiac arrest, which said that subject recruitment had started on 1 August 2014 and that the scheduled end date was 31 May 2017. The study was extended, and it is currently expected to end in 2020.
A three year longitudinal study has revealed that some Buddhist meditation practitioners are able to willfully induce near-death experiences at a pre-planned point in time. Unlike traditional NDEs, participants were consciously aware of experiencing the meditation-induced NDE and retained control over its content and duration. The Dalai Lama has also asserted that experienced meditators can deliberately induce the NDE state during meditation, being able to recognize and sustain it.
In a review article, psychologist Chris French has grouped approaches to explain NDEs in three broad groups which “are not distinct and independent, but instead show considerable overlap”: spiritual theories (also called transcendental), psychological theories, and physiological theories that provide a physical explanation for NDEs.
Spiritual or transcendental theories
French summarizes this model by saying : “the most popular interpretation is that the NDE is exactly what it appears to be to the person having the experience”. The NDE would then represent evidence of the supposedly immaterial existence of a soul or mind, which would leave the body upon death. An NDE would then provide information about an immaterial world where the soul would journey upon ending its physical existence on earth.
According to Greyson some NDE phenomena cannot be easily explained with our current knowledge of human physiology and psychology. For instance, at a time when they were unconscious patients could accurately describe events as well as report being able to view their bodies “from an out-of-body spatial perspective”. In two different studies of patients who had survived a cardiac arrest, those who had reported leaving their bodies could describe accurately their resuscitation procedures or unexpected events, whereas others “described incorrect equipment and procedures”. Sam Parnia also refers to two cardiac arrest studies and one deep hypothermic circulatory arrest study where patients reported visual and/or auditory awareness occurring when their brain function had ceased. These reports “were corroborated with actual and real events”.
Five prospective studies have been carried out, to test the accuracy of out of body perceptions by placing “unusual targets in locations likely to be seen by persons having NDEs, such as in an upper corner of a room in the emergency department, the coronary care unit, or the intensive care unit of a hospital.” Twelve patients reported leaving their bodies, but unfortunately none could describe the hidden visual targets. Although this is a small sample, the failure of purported out-of-body experiencers to describe the hidden targets raises questions about the accuracy of the anecdotal reports described above.
Psychologist James Alcock has described the afterlife claims of NDE researchers as pseudoscientific. Alcock has written the spiritual or transcendental interpretation “is based on belief in search of data rather than observation in search of explanation.” Chris French has noted that “the survivalist approach does not appear to generate clear and testable hypotheses. Because of the vagueness and imprecision of the survivalist account, it can be made to explain any possible set of findings and is therefore unfalsifiable and unscientific.”
French summarises the main psychological explanations which include: the depersonalization, the expectancy and the dissociation models.
A depersonalization model was proposed in the 1970s by professor of psychiatry Russell Noyes and clinical psychologist Roy Kletti, which suggested that the NDE is a form of depersonalization experienced under emotional conditions such as life-threatening danger, potentially inescapable danger, and that the NDE can best be understood as an hallucination. According to this model, those who face their impending death become detached from the surroundings and their own bodies, no longer feel emotions, and experience time distortions.
This model suffers from a number of limitations to explain NDEs for subjects who do not experience a sensation of being out of their bodies; unlike NDEs, experiences are dreamlike, unpleasant and characterized by “anxiety, panic and emptiness”. Also, during NDEs subjects remain very lucid of their identities, their sense of identity is not changed unlike those experiencing depersonalization.
Another psychological theory is called the expectancy model. It has been suggested that although these experiences could appear very real, they had actually been constructed in the mind, either consciously or subconsciously, in response to the stress of an encounter with death (or perceived encounter with death), and did not correspond to a real event. In a way, they are similar to wish-fulfillment: because someone thought they were about to die, they experienced certain things in accordance with what they expected or wanted to occur. Imagining a heavenly place was in effect a way for them to soothe themselves through the stress of knowing that they were close to death. Subjects use their own personal and cultural expectations to imagine a scenario that would protect them against an imminent threat to their lives.
Subjects’ accounts often differed from their own “religious and personal expectations regarding death” which contradicts the hypothesis they may have imagined a scenario based on their cultural and personal background.
Although the term NDE was first coined in 1975 and the experience first described then, recent descriptions of NDEs do not differ from those reported earlier than 1975. The only exception is the more frequent description of a tunnel. Hence, the fact that information about these experiences could be more easily obtained after 1975, did not influence people’s reports of the experiences.
Another flaw of this model can be found in children’s accounts of NDEs. These are similar to adults’, and this despite children being less affected by religious or cultural influences about death.
The dissociation model proposes that NDE is a form of withdrawal to protect an individual from a stressful event. Under extreme circumstances some people may detach from certain unwanted feelings in order to avoid experiencing their emotional impact and suffering associated with them. The person also detaches from one’s immediate surroundings.
The birth model suggests that near death experiences could be a form of reliving the trauma of birth. Since a baby travels from the darkness of the womb to light and is greeted by the love and warmth of the nursing and medical staff, and so, it was proposed, the dying brain could be recreating the passage through a tunnel to light, warmth and affection.
Reports of leaving the body through a tunnel are equally frequent among subjects who were born by cesarean section and natural birth. Also, newborns do not possess “the visual acuity, spatial stability of their visual images, mental alertness, and cortical coding capacity to register memories of the birth experience”.
Physiological explanations (organic theories)
A wide range of physiological theories of the NDE have been put forward including those based upon cerebral hypoxia, anoxia, and hypercapnia; endorphins and other neurotransmitters; and abnormal activity in the temporal lobes.
Neurobiological factors in the experience have been investigated by researchers in the field of medical science and psychiatry. Among the researchers and commentators who tend to emphasize a naturalistic and neurological base for the experience are the British psychologist Susan Blackmore (1993), with her “dying brain hypothesis”.