AIPR Information Sheet: Near-Death Experiences
A near-death experience (NDE) is a striking state of consciousness undergone by persons who are either at the point of death, for whatever reason, but recover.
Death-bed vision (or experience) is an older term for aspects now included under the term NDE, in particular, the dying person feels exalted, sees visions of dead relatives who they had not known were dead (1A,14A).
Clinical observations by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the 1975 book by Moody stimulated recent research (11), but reports go back centuries (13, 26, 27, 29). Recent changes in society have also helped; improved medical technology means that relatively more people are experiencing NDEs; discussion about death is no longer taboo; simple religious views of the afterlife are being questioned; and people find it easier to take charge of their life rather than rely on the authority viewpoint (10A). NDEs arguably provide the best current evidence, though inconclusive, for survival of death (11A, 27A). On the other hand, theories based entirely on brain chemistry and psychology also have strong support (2A).
The features below are typical of NDEs (4, 5, 11, 19, 23). However, the perfect composite NDE is rarely reported. Analysis of individual reports is more fruitful (1).
The person is convinced he or she has died, for example, a doctor is heard pronouncing the death.
A loud ringing or buzzing is heard, and the person moves rapidly through a long dark tunnel.
The physical body is seen from a distance (an out-of-body experience or OBE).
The spirits of dead relatives and friends and a loving warm “being of light” are seen.
Rapid panoramic play-back of one’s life.
Feelings of joy, love and peace are overwhelming.
The person approaches a barrier, decides to return, suddenly finds the self back inside the physical body, and wakes up.
Subjective impressions include distortion of space and time (slowing of time, a sense of detachment) as well as faster thoughts. The experience is difficult to describe. Precognitive and prophetic visions sometimes occur.
The NDE usually produces personal growth and healing, increased spiritual awareness or rebirth (5, 6, 11, 11A, 23, 27D).
Subsequent to their NDE, subjects often report an increased incidence of a wide range of psychic phenomena (27B, 27D).
Paradoxically, suicide victims who report an NDE, despite their romanticisation of death, are less likely to attempt suicide again compared to non-NDE suicide victims (7).
A few NDEs are atypical. In a few reports, the NDE is distressing; the person senses an existential void or an evil force, or suffers a hell-like experience (5, 8A, 18). A drug-induced NDE pushed the man into a semi-permanent mystical-like state of “shining darkness” (28). A Jungian therapist, meditating upon archetypes, reported many features of the NDE without being near death (4). A man jailed for murder, when reliving the murder from the victim’s point of view, was thrust into a “universe of bubbles” (an NDE by proxy) (27C).
About 15% of the US population have been close to death; about 35% of these reported an NDE (4A). Other surveys support a figure about 30%, from both unselected (7) and selected samples (19, 23).
Children report much the same experiences as do adults, and these reports are unlike visions of seriously ill children (10B, 11B). Children are not subject to cultural conditioning; thus, conditioning is not a major factor in many NDEs.
NDEs have been reported from many cultures and centuries, but detailed comparisons are few. Zaleski (29) found that both medieval Christian and modern NDEs involve exit from the body, a guide, a journey, obstacles, a judgement, and re-entry to the body; the NDEs displays increased humanity and spirituality. These features are culture-free, and thus definitive. However, medieval Christian NDEs also contain fiery rivers, torments of purgatory, and doom, reflecting a punitive God. Modern NDEs are coloured by terms such as energy, magnetism and vibrations, reflecting our scientific society. These latter features are culturally conditioned.
One or several types?
Ring considers the NDE to be a unitary experience (19,21). He has tested an index that measures the “depth” of this unitary experience (7,19). However, other studies question a unitary model.
Sabom (23) analyzed 71 cases, and split them into two types; autoscopic (visualizing one’s body from a height) (30% of cases); and transcendental (apparent passage of consciousness into a “higher” realm) (54%). The other 14% had elements of both.
Noyes statistically found three components of the NDE; hyperalertness (heightened arousal); depersonalisation (dissociation of consciousness); and a deeper rarer mystical consciousness (7, 14).
NDEs arguably provide the best current evidence, though inconclusive, for survival of death.
Greyson (8) analysed 89 NDE reports. The statistical procedure (cluster analysis) split the NDE into three components.
Cognitive: time distortion, thought acceleration, life review and sudden insight.
Emotional: feeling of joy, peace and cosmic unity.
Transcendental: encounter with mystical beings or spirits in an apparent unearthly realm.
A fourth expected paranormal component – enhanced vision or hearing, precognition, out-of-body experiences – did not separate into a fourth cluster, but was spread over the other three clusters.
In this sample, sudden near-death events, as in accidents and cardiac arrests, were more closely associated with the cognitive component than were anticipated near-death events, as in suicide attempts and complications of surgery. This suggests that the psychological state of subjects before the NDE affects the content of the experience (8).
Hallucinations resulting from anaesthetics differ from NDEs in being generally more vague, and inconsistent from account to account (11). Hallucinations from medical drugs are more variable and idiosyncratic in both content and structure (23). Persons taking hallucinatory drugs are, in fact, less likely to have an NDE than those on no drugs (19). Persons who have encountered both drug hallucinations and an NDE can distinguish the two (23, 28). Moreover, persons who have had no anaesthetics or drugs also report NDEs.
Modern NDEs are coloured by terms such as energy, magnetism and vibrations, reflecting our scientific society.
Temporal lobe model
NDEs are not simply hallucinations produced by a seizure of the brain’s temporal lobe (TLS). Electrical stimulation of the lobes produces hallucinations, distorted perceptions, and feelings of detachment, fear, sadness and loneliness (16). Past experiences – sights, sounds, thoughts – are recalled in great detail; yet the patient is still conscious of the present. The recall stops when the electric current ceases. The imagery content depends on the fears and hopes of the patient (22). However the NDE differs from the TLS as follows:
The TLS distorts the visual environment, but NDEs do not – though perhaps viewed from an unusual angle near the ceiling.
The TLS replays a single audio and visual memory in real time. The NDE has a rapid panoramic memory review of life’s highlights.
The TLS has smell and taste sensations. NDEs do not.
NDEs generate calm, joy and warmth. The TLS causes sadness, fear and loneliness.
Forced thinking occurs during the TLS but not during NDEs.
Some (NDEs) display features of the typical mystical experience.
Dying is a gradual process; the heart produces electrical activity for 20 minutes after breathing ceases. The final mechanism of death is anoxia (lack of oxygen), which kills brain cells. An early effect is increased sense of wellbeing and power. Then follows loss of critical judgement, delusions and unconsciousness (22). Because of their clarity of thought, NDEs are unlike these delusions (26). NDEs also occur in the absence of anoxia (20). The content of NDEs differs from that of toxic psychosis. Some NDEs when in the out-of body state, watch attempts at resuscitation, at times providing accurate detail, not expected during the semi-conscious state of anoxia (23).
Blackmore (2A) combines anoxia with a memory model. Anoxia first produces excess brain activity (thus excess mental activity) by disinhibition. The tunnel effect with a bright light at the centre is produced by noise in the visual cortex of the brain. An OBE occurs as the unstable sensory model of reality is replaced by a memory model constructed in a bird’s eye view (thus, out of body). The life review, perception of other worlds, and ineffable feelings, all occur as the normal model of the self falls apart.
More physiological views
The chemical beta-endorphin injected into patients with intractable pain from cancer produces complete relief for up to 70 hours (15). By contrast, pain returns at once at the end of an NDE (23).
Siegel (24, 25) believes several factors combined cause NDEs. Bright lights, colours and tunnel imagery are caused by firing of neurones in the eye. The imagery content is controlled by personal beliefs. The voices are similar to patients recovering from anaesthesia after an operation. The beings are similar to the imaginary companions of sailors and children. This model is reductionist; similarity need not imply cause and effect, and the model does not explain why all effects occur at one time near death (4).
Birth memory model
Sagan and Grof have suggested that the NDE is an archetypal birth experience (6, 10, 23A). Perhaps arousal induced by threat of death invokes suppressed memories of previous events of intense arousal, such as being born. This early experience could explain the journey down a tunnel (birth canal), and the bright light and a locale populated by beings (the hospital delivery room). However, the nervous system of newborn babies is considered incapable of seeing and storing the birth process in sufficient detail. This prejudice is driven by the opinions of many neurologists and paediatricians, but birth trauma studies suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, the birth process does not contain all the same kinds of details as the NDE (2). Women having difficult or Caesarean births do not have horrifying NDEs (4). Neither paranormal nor positive transformative effects are explained (6).
Depersonalisation is a defence against the threat of death. When faced with death, a person becomes afraid, and the mind replaces the real world with pleasing fantasies (13). Altered attention and time perception, lack of emotion, feelings of unreality, detachment, loss of control and ineffability are found in both NDEs and depersonalisation (13). However, the NDEr had more heightened perception, speedier mental activity, and revival of memories. Depersonalisation cannot handle paranormal elements and the positive personality transformation (6,20). Noyes (12) argued that the NDEs foresees imminent death; but this is not met by some of Sabom’s cases (27). Noyes dealt with persons psychologically near death, whereas NDEs are physically near death – two different populations.
Mystical experience model
Pennachio (17) searched through NDE anecdotes and showed that some, at least, display features of the typical mystical experience. The statistical study of Noyes (7, 14) separated out “mystical consciousness” as one of the three components of the NDE. The statistical study of Greyson (8) also split the population of NDE reports into three groups. The cognitive group contained “cosmic unity” as a part. On occasions, an NDE-like event is known to trigger a lasting mystical experience (28).
Ring puts forward a “paranormal holographic model”, similar to the mystical experience model (19, 20), interpreted as a higher level of consciousness. The feelings of peace, lack of pain, out-of-body experiences suggest disembodied consciousness (19). The tunnel indicated a move towards a higher level of consciousness. The light represented the energy level of this new state, associated with a “being of light” (one -self or total self).
The “being of light”, sometimes encountered and identified as Christ, may radiate strong feelings of love, warmth and light. However, a strong religious belief is not necessary, though religious beliefs do influence the interpretation (19). The Christian sees Christ, and the Buddhist sees Buddha.
The NDE is multi-faceted. The “deeper” experiences are similar to sudden-onset mystical experiences. Overlaid on this experience, at a more superficial level, are psychological aspects of the experience, such as depersonalisation and the mind set or cultural conditioning of the subject.
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