What is a Near-Death Experience?

The term “near-death experience” (NDE) was coined in 1975 in the book Life After Life by Raymond Moody, MD. Since then, many researchers have studied the circumstances, content, and aftereffects of NDEs. The following material summarizes many of their findings.

An NDE is a distinct subjective experience that a minority of people report after a near-death episode. In a near-death episode, a person is either clinically dead, near death, or in a situation where death is likely or expected. These circumstances include serious illness or injury, such as from a car accident, military combat, childbirth, or suicide attempt. People in extreme conditions such as profound grief, deep meditation, or extreme physical exertion—or sometimes people just going about their normal lives—have described experiences that seem just like NDEs—near-death-like experiences (NDLEs)—even though these people were not near death. Many near-death experiencers (NDErs) have said the term “near-death” is not correct; they are sure that they were in death, not just near-death. Nevertheless, because they were not permanently, irreversibly dead, the term “near-death” can be understood to mean “actually in the first moments of death though not permanently dead.”
 
NDErs have reported two types of experiences. Most NDErs have reported pleasurable NDEs. These experiences involve mostly feelings of love, joy, peace, and/or bliss. A small number of NDErs have reported distressing NDEs. These experiences involve mostly feelings of terror, horror, anger, isolation, and/or guilt. Both types of NDErs usually report that the experience was hyper-real—even more real than earthly life. NDEs range from relatively simple, with few and/or less emotionally intense features, to relatively complex, with many and/or more emotionally intense features.
 

Four Aspects of Pleasurable NDEs

The “classic” pleasurable NDE includes four phases that tend to happen in a certain order. However, each NDE is unique. It can include any combination of phases, and the phases can occur in any order. The phases can even overlap, seeming to occur at the same time. Any two people describing the same general phase will describe differences between their two experiences.

The phase that often occurs first can be termed disassociated, because pleasurable NDErs no longer feel associated with their physical bodies or with any particular perspective. They feel detached and completely peaceful, without seeing, hearing, or feeling anything in particular. They sometimes describe a floating sense of freedom from pain and of complete wellbeing.

In the naturalistic phase, NDErs say they became aware of the “natural” surroundings—typically their bodies and the surrounding area—from a perspective outside their bodies. They usually say things looked and sounded like normal but unusually clear and vivid. They also often say they had unusual abilities, such as being able to see walls and also see through them, and being able to “hear” the unspoken thoughts of the people nearby.

In the supernatural phase, the pleasurable NDEr meets beings and environments that they do not consider to be part of the “natural” world. They may meet deceased loved ones or other non-physical entities. They say communication with these beings is “mind to mind” rather than spoken. They say they went to extremely beautiful environments in which objects appeared lit from within. They sometimes say they heard beautiful music unlike any worldly music they’d ever heard. They often say they moved rapidly through a tunnel or void toward a light, and then entered the light, only to discover that the light was actually a being. They say they felt completely known and completely loved by this being. They sometime say they experienced a “life review”: All at the same time, they re-viewed, reexperienced, and experienced being on the receiving end of, all their actions throughout life. Some pleasurable NDErs say they went beyond the light, seeing cities of light and knowledge.

The final phase of the pleasurable NDE is a return to the physical body. About half of pleasurable NDErs say they chose whether or not to return. When they chose to return, it was because of a love connection with one or more living people. The other half say they didn’t choose to return: They either were told or made to return, or they were just suddenly “back” in their bodies.

The Four Types of Distressing NDE

People describe distressing NDEs much less often than pleasurable NDEs. The following four types of distressing NDE appear in order from most to least often reported. Distressing NDErs most often describe the powerlessness type as having the same phases as a pleasurable NDE, but they say they felt powerless while this experience was “happening to” them, so they resisted, were afraid, or were angry. In the nothingness type, they say they felt as though they did not exist, or they were completely alone in a total and eternal void. In the torment type, they say they were in ugly or scary landscapes, sometimes with evil beings, annoying noises, frightening creatures, and/or other human spirits in great distress. Only a couple of people have described the worthlessness type in which they felt negatively judged by a Higher Power during a life review.

Some distressing NDErs said that once they “gave up” fighting the distressing NDE and surrendered to it, or once they sincerely asked for help from a loving Higher Power, their distressing NDE became a pleasurable NDE. Only very, very rarely have NDErs said their pleasurable experiences turned into distressing ones.

Who Has NDEs

Available literature, from ancient texts through modern publications, reveals that people have had NDEs throughout history and across cultures. It seems likely that NDEs have been happening much more often in the last few decades because of medical advances, as more people are being brought back from the brink of death. Also, as public acceptance has grown, more people are willing to tell their own stories. Depending on how restrictively the NDE is defined, studies have indicated that between 12% and 40% of people who go through a near-death episode will later say they had an NDE. It is clear that in the United States alone at least several million people have had NDEs.
 
NDEs are “equal opportunity” experiences. People from many cultures and backgrounds, and of all ages—from infants (describing their NDEs once they could talk) to elderly people—have had NDEs. NDEs have been reported by males and females, people from all levels of education, of all religions as well as people not involved in any religion or spiritual practice, people of all social/wealth levels, heterosexuals and homosexuals, people with a variety of belief systems including various beliefs about life and death, people with a life history of “good” or “bad” actions, and people with and without mental illness. None of these aspects of a person has made it possible to predict who will or won’t have an NDE, or whose NDE will be pleasurable or distressing.
 
Research also has shown that no personality traits predict the likelihood of having an NDE or which type a person will have. One exception involves a characteristic called “absorption”—the ability to focus attention on something without being distracted. However, it is unclear whether higher levels of absorption contribute to the greater occurrence of NDEs or whether NDEs contribute to higher levels of absorption. Research also shows that an NDE is not, in itself, an indication of mental disorder. Most NDErs—like most people in the general population—are mentally healthy.

NDEs in Special Populations

NDEs in Western cultures such as Europe and Australia seem similar to those in the US. Studies in non-Western cultures have shown some differences but also some underlying similarities. For example, spiritual beings and encountering a border between the earthly and spiritual domains are common features in NDEs worldwide. On the other hand, in countries where tunnels have been constructed as part of the infrastructure, NDE descriptions may include mention of movement through a tunnel; in countries without such infrastructure, people do not mention tunnels--but they may describe moving through the neck of a gourd or the funnel of a plant.  A person’s culture and personal experiences almost certainly influence the exact form that those features take and the experiencer’s interpretation of them. It is now generally understood that NDEs have a deep structure—general features that occur to people across cultures; a cultural surface structure—specific forms that those general features take which relate to the NDEr’s culture; and a personal surface structure—a version of a specific form that is unique to each NDEr.
 
Children’s NDEs are especially interesting because the younger the child, the less the child’s NDE has been influenced by culture. Children’s NDEs do, however, have the same features as adults’ NDEs—just in a simpler form. Child NDErs say they felt different from most other children while they were growing up.
 
People who have had an NDE during a suicide attempt also are of particular interest. An important finding from research is that, although ordinarily a person who has attempted suicide is more likely to try again, suicide attempters who had an NDE are much less likely to try again. They say they have learned that their lives have purpose. They see life as a gift. They have learned that when they face hard times, their job is to deal with the problem constructively. They see all life experiences as opportunities to deepen their ability to love and to increase their knowledge.
 
Also of interest are NDEs that involve veridical perception—accurate description of specific, unique events happening around the NDEr’s unconscious physical body that the  person could not have seen or heard, and that the NDEr could not have figured out through reasoning and logic. Most often these descriptions involve the presence, physical appearance, or activities of people nearby or of family members even at a distance. There are also reports of NDE vision in persons blind from birth. One case of veridical perception involved NDE vision and hearing in a woman undergoing brain surgery who was fully anesthetized, whose eyes were taped shut, and whose ears were plugged with a small speakers emitting loud noise. Nevertheless, from the material aspect of her NDE, she correctly described instruments used by the doctors and conversations held between the doctors and nurses conducting the operation. So NDEs are subjective experiences, but they also may be objective—“real” in terms of physical, earthly reality. Researchers around the world would like to find the funding to conduct more systematic study of veridical perception in NDEs.
 
Most NDErs say their NDEs have changed them. Some changes happened right away, others more gradually over time. Many people who have had NDEs need time to integrate the experience. Some people need months; others need years. People who have had distressing NDEs may feel especially challenged to make sense of their distressing experiences. Research shows that the great majority of people who have had NDEs, whether pleasurable or distressing, sooner or later come to see them as beneficial. Often they think their NDEs were the most profound and helpful experiences of their lives. For more detailed information about NDE aftereffects, visit this page

What Causes NDEs

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 NDEs, 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. Readers interested in such cases can find them compiled in the book The Self Does Not Die: Verified Paranormal Phenomena Associated With Near-Death Experiences.

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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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