What is a Near-Death Experience?

A near-death experience, or NDE, is a profound psychological event that may occur to a person close to death or who is not near death but in a situation of physical or emotional crisis. Being in a life-threatening situation does not, by itself, constitute a near-death experience. It is the pattern of perceptions, creating a recognizable overall event, that has been called “near-death experience.”

Across thousands of years and in cultures around the world, people have described powerful experiences that follow this general pattern with its common features. At its broadest, the experiences involve perceptions of movement through space, of light and darkness, a landscape, presences, intense emotion, and a conviction of having a new understanding of the nature of the universe.

An NDE may begin with an out-of-body experience—a very clear perception of being somehow separate from one’s physical body, possibly even hovering nearby and watching events going on around the body. An NDE typically includes a sense of moving, often at great speed and usually through a dark space, into a fantastic landscape and encountering beings that may be perceived as sacred figures, deceased family members or friends, or unknown entities. A pinpoint of indescribable light may grow to surround the person in brilliant but not painful radiance; unlike physical light, it is not merely visual but is sensed as being an all-loving presence that many people define as the Supreme Being of their religious faith.

A near-death experience may include few or several of the common features. Many accounts of experiences include only one or two of the common features, but those were so powerful they created permanent changes in people’s lives.

The emotions of an NDE are intense and most commonly include peace, love and bliss, although a substantial minority are marked by terror, anxiety, or despair. Most people come away from the experience with an unshakable belief that they have learned something of immeasurable importance about the purpose of life. Overall, the entire experience is ineffable—that is, it is beyond describing; even art and metaphor cannot capture it. The effects of an NDE are often life-changing, and its details will typically be remembered clearly for decades.

What causes a near-death experience

In a scientific age, it is only natural that people want to understand the biological or psychological origins of experience, and a variety of neurological and chemical explanations have been proposed as the cause of NDEs: lack of oxygen, excess of carbon dioxide, seizure activity in the temporal lobe, the effect of drugs such as DMT or ketamine, hallucination, psychological avoidance of death, normal shutting down of brain activity, and a dozen or more other possibilities.

No scientific explanation so far has satisfactorily accounted for all aspects of NDEs or their effects. For example, numerous patients who were being clinically monitored and were known to be well oxygenated have later reported having an NDE during that time; drugs are not a factor in all NDEs; the characteristics of sleep disorders and NDEs are not identical. Hallucinations are highly individual and produce confusion and hazy memories, exactly the opposite characteristics of near-death experiences, which tend to share characteristics and be remembered vividly for decades as being "realer than real." For every medical cause that has been put forward, there are reasons the NDE researchers say, “Not quite right.”

Further, despite reports that scientists have been able to induce NDEs through the use of drugs or electrical stimulation to the brain, none of the reports has been altogether convincing. The reports have been based on a partial similarity to a limited aspect of NDE, or they have involved very few people—sometimes only a single individual—in an experiment that does not really replicate a full NDE, or the aftereffects do not coincide with those of a true NDE. After decades of investigation, researcher and psychiatrist Bruce Greyson, MD, has reported, “No one physiological or psychological model by itself explains all the common features of NDE.”*

Thousands of documented NDEs challenge mainstream Western thinking and belief systems. Expectations about an afterlife may be challenged, and some people abruptly develop radically new interests and abilities after an NDE. One subject of debate is whether consciousness (mind) resides exclusively in the physical brain. For example, many people who have had an NDE accurately report events that occurred around their bodies when they were unconscious or even clinically dead—in at least one case, when clinical monitoring clearly showed no brain activity. Some NDEs have revealed family secrets, such as the existence of a never-mentioned sibling.  According to the prevailing belief system of industrialized societies, these things are scientifically impossible.

Although no relationship has been found between religious orientation and the likelihood of having an NDE, numerous studies have reported a significant correlation between the depth of an NDE and the importance a person subsequently places on religion or spiritual activity. For some, this is because they believe they have had a glimpse of Heaven and now believe absolutely in the existence of God and life after death. For others, it is because the NDE convinced them beyond question of the purpose of life as expressed in religious or spiritual teachings about love, service, and the reality of “something more” beyond physical existence.

Curiously, there has been no major study of the relationships between near-death experiences and the origins and teachings of the major religions.  

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*Greyson, B. (2001). Posttraumatic stress symptoms following near-death experiences. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 71, 368-373.

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