Most NDEs are felt as peaceful and loving, but some are disturbing. Each near-death experience is unique, but as a group NDEs display common features.

  • Intense emotions: commonly of profound peace, well-being, love; others marked by fear, horror, loss
  • A perception of seeing one's body from above (called an out-of-body experience,  or OBE), sometimes watching medical resuscitation efforts or moving instantaneously to other places
  • Rapid movement through darkness, often toward an indescribable light
  • A sense of being "somewhere else," in a landscape that may seem like a spiritual realm or world
  • Incredibly rapid, sharp thinking and observations
  • Encounter with deceased loved ones, possibly sacred figures (the Judges, Jesus, a saint) or unrecognized beings, with whom communication is mind-to-mind; these figures may seem consoling, loving, or terrifying
  • A life review, reliving actions and feeling their emotional impact on others
  • In some cases, a flood of knowledge about life and the nature of the universe
  • Sometimes a decision to return to the body

The same elements appear in both pleasant and disturbing near-death experiences, but with different emotional tones. PMH Atwater, one of the most prolific NDE researchers, in her book Coming Back to Life, described a peaceful experience this way:

  • A sensation of floating out of one's body. Often followed by an out-of-body experience where all that goes on around the "vacated" body is both seen and heard accurately.
  • Passing through a dark tunnel. Or black hole or encountering some kind of darkness. This is often accompanied by a feeling or sensation of movement or acceleration. "Wind" may be heard or felt.
  • Ascending toward a light at the end of the darkness. A light of incredible brilliance, with the possibility of seeing people, animals, plants, lush outdoors, and even cities within the light.
  • Greeted by friendly voices, people or beings who may be strangers, loved ones, or religious figures. Conversation can ensue, information or a message may be given.
  • Seeing a panoramic review of the life just lived, from birth to death or in reverse order, sometimes becoming a reliving of the life rather than a dispassionate viewing. The person's life can be reviewed in its entirety or in segments. This is usually accompanied by a feeling or need to assess loss or gains during the life to determine what was learned or not learned. Other beings can take part in this judgment like process or offer advice.
  • A reluctance to return to the earthplane, but invariably realizing either their job on earth is not finished or a mission must yet be accomplished before they can return to stay.
  • Warped sense of time and space. Discovering time and space do not exist, losing the need to recognize measurements of life either as valid or necessary.
  • Disappointment at being revived. Often feeling a need to shrink or somehow squeeze to fit back in to the physical body. There can be unpleasantness, even anger or tears at the realization they are now back in their bodies and no longer on "The Other Side."

Whether the NDE was beautiful or terrifying, near-death experiencers commonly say it was unlike a dream, "more real than real," the most powerful event in their lives. They struggle to find words to describe it, but insist they now know something new about reality, that "there's more than what's here" (in the physical world). Most feel deeply changed in their attitudes toward life, work, and relationships.

After a wonderful NDE, people almost always report losing their fear of death and believing that the essential purpose of human life is to develop our capacity to love. After a disturbing NDE , a person will almost always look for an explanation for having had the experience; because many interpret it as a threat or warning, they may try to change habits or behaviors, or to take up a new religious practice, hoping to avoid a recurrence. However experiencers adjust to these personal transformations, they often have difficulty finding someone they trust to tell about the event. They usually feel in great need of information and support.

Nearly identical experiences may also occur when people are nowhere near death, or not in any health crisis at all-perhaps during prayer or meditation, under deep emotional stress, or at the bedside of a dying person. Rarely, they seem to happen spontaneously. The general elements and aftereffects are the same as in the true "near death" experiences.

For more informationabout the characteristics of NDEs:

For a presentation on this subject, go to the webpage of the 2006 IANDS conference at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center titled "Pleasurable Western Adult NDEs: Circumstances and Contents" presented by Scott Taylor, PhD, and Pim van Lommel, M.D. (scroll down to see the details).

For several books with detailed descriptions of NDEs, please see the IANDS Bibliography.