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Definition of an NDE

A near-death experience (NDE) is a profound psychological event  that may occur to a person close to death or, if not near death, in a situation of physical or emotional crisis. Because it includes transcendental and mystical elements, an NDE is a powerful event of consciousness; it is not mental illness.

Whether happening “truly near death” or under benign circumstances, the near-death experience contains powerful images and emotions, usually of peace and love though sometimes terror, despair, guilt. An NDE may include an out-of-body experience and vivid perceptions of movement, light, darkness; encounters with deceased loved ones, unfamiliar entities and/or spiritual presences; sometimes a life review, a landscape, a sense of overpowering knowledge and purpose. The aftereffects of an NDE or related experience are enduring, often powerful, and may be life-altering.

The NDE belongs to a larger family of experiences that go beyond the usual limits of space and time and can transform a person's life and beliefs. They may be called spiritually transformative, conversion, mystical, religious, or transpersonal experiences.

One-fourth of the 800 people who have submitted an account of their experience to the IANDS online NDE archives reported they were not close to death or clinically dead at the time.  Instead, they were in emotionally intense situations, praying or meditating, sleeping, or in ordinary states of consciousness when this phenomenon occurred. IANDS refers to these as “near-death-like experiences” or NDLEs.  Seventy-five percent of those who sent their accounts had a sense of being close to death, were in a life-threatening situation, or believed they were clinically dead.2 

Features in the NDE 

More than 15 common characteristics of an NDE have been reported by near-death experiencers.  An NDE may include only one or two of these elements, and, in a few cases, all of them. These include: a sense of being outside one’s physical body, sometimes perceiving it from an outside position; a sense of movement through darkness or a tunnel; intense emotions;  heightened perceptions; experiencing a great light or darkness; perceiving a spiritual realm, which may include vividly memorable landscapes; encounters with deceased loved ones, spiritual beings and/or religious figures; knowledge of the nature of the universe; a life review; a sense of oneness and interconnectedness; a border of no return; a sense of having knowledge of the future; messages regarding life’s purpose.3,4

  • No two experiences are identical and no single feature is found in every NDE.5
  • The most commonly reported type of NDE involves intense feelings of peace, joy and love, often an encounter with an unconditionally loving light.
  • Harrowing experiences are sometimes reported involving similar common elements but with opposite emotional states—extreme fear, isolation, non-being, confusion, occasional torment or guilt. Two substantial studies have reported the percentage of these NDEs as 17% and 18%,6,7 although smaller studies have found as many as 30%8;  two online NDE sites report incidences of 8.6% and 15%.9,10