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.
- Four Aspects of Pleasurable NDEs
- The Four Types of Distressing NDE
- Who Has NDEs
- NDEs in Special Populations
- What Causes NDEs?
- What are "related experiences?"
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
NDEs in Special Populations
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.
What are "Related Experiences"?
Please see this document.
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*Greyson, B. (2001). Posttraumatic stress symptoms following near-death experiences. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 71, 368–373.