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Important Research Articles

Dr. Peter Fenwick, M.D.: Science and Spirituality

Retrospective Studies on NDEs

What has been learned from the retrospective studies? We learned about the phenomena of NDEs. We learned how often they occur: in about 10 percent of people who come close to death or who survive actual clinical death. We learned a little bit about the circumstances, and, most important, we learned about cultural differences, which are huge.

I want to mention a survey which my wife and I did in 1987 and published in our book, The Truth in the Light (Fenwick and Fenwick, 1996). The study followed a television program – the first in the U.K. on the topic of NDEs – after which we received 2,000 letters. The majority of the letters said, ‘‘Thank you so much for the program, because I have never been able to talk about near-death experiences before, and now I can, for the first time, actually discuss my experience with people.’’ It was a landmark.

Of those letters, we took 500 which we thought described core NDEs: what Kenneth Ring (1980) defined as including the subjective sense of being dead; a feeling of peace, painlessness, pleasantness; a sense of separation from the body; a sense of entering a dark region; encountering a presence/hearing a voice; taking stock of one’s life; seeing, or being enveloped in, light; seeing beautiful colors; entering into the light; and/or encountering visible ‘‘spirits.’’ We sent those 500 a questionnaire, and had 450 replies. Now, we can never find this sort of sample again, because 98 percent of those people knew nothing about NDEs, they had no preconceived ideas about them, and were simply describing exactly what they had experienced. The knowledge that people now have about the NDE has so changed the expectations of people that it is now difficult to say whether people’s accounts are what they expect would happen or what actually did happen. So this is now a disadvantage as regards retrospective research: public knowledge of NDEs has inextricably contaminated our research participant pool. So our sample will remain an important one.

Among those 450 participants, 76 percent were women. Does this finding mean that women are really spiritual and that men have a long way to go? No, I do not think so. I think it is simply that women are much better letter writers than men. The age distribution of those who experienced NDEs was interesting: there were equal numbers in each decade. In other words, the number of people who reported having had their NDE sometime in their first decade of life, age 0–10, was very similar to those who reported having it in their second decade, and so forth. So our findings indicate that there is no privileged age range for having an NDE.

The religious affiliation of our respondents was 54 percent Church of England, 12 percent Roman Catholic, 19 percent other Christian, 1 percent Jewish, 8 percent Agnostic, and 2 percent Atheist, with 41 percent of respondents indicating that religion was not important. This profile of religious affiliation is quite similar to the overall English religious profile, so we were able to say that religious belief at the time of the NDE played no part in it. Indeed, some of the atheist respondents wrote some really cross letters saying that they had not wanted this experience and they found it quite difficult to incorporate into their lives.

The multiplicity of circumstances of our respondents’ NDEs was interesting, and it was the varied nature of the circumstances in which the NDE occurred that led me to the belief that we have to be very, very focused in our research if we are going to find proper answers. Thirty-seven percent of our respondents reportedly were receiving drugs at the time of their NDEs, and 63 percent were not. So the theory that NDEs are all drug induced could not be correct. About two thirds had their NDEs during illness, operations, childbirth, or accidents. Two percent occurred in suicide attempts and 20 percent in other circumstances that included anxiety states, dreams, relaxation states, or quite spontaneously in the normal course of life.

Now, it is impossible to postulate the same mechanism for all of those very diverse states. If you are going to do any worthwhile NDE research, you have to target a specific group of people who, as far as possible, have their NDE in similar circumstances and under similar conditions. Fortunately, nine percent of NDEs were said to have occurred during a heart attack, and that is hopeful from a research standpoint, because most people during a heart attack have the same physiological state, which will allow some conclusions to be drawn about those who do or do not have NDEs.

The phenomena reported during NDEs included 66 percent who reported an out-of-body experience, 76 percent pastoral landscapes, 38 percent seeing deceased friends and relatives, 12 percent life reviews, 24 percent a barrier of some sort, and 72 percent a decision to return. Only 4 percent had hellish experiences. Why so few? Understandably, someone might be reluctant to write a letter to a perfect stranger saying, ‘‘There I was in this pit with sulfurous smoke and devils poking me.’’ So that reluctance might account for the low report rate. But in light of all the research we have done, I feel that distressing experiences are, in fact, quite different, and truly occur much less frequently, than the pleasurable NDEs. They have a strong confusional component seen much less often in the positive NDEs.

I was particularly interested in the pastoral landscapes, because they are also reported by terminally ill patients in approaching-death experiences. The landscapes have always been described as very beautiful, and usually include wonderful flowers. We had one or two botanists among our respondents, and they said that the colors were most exciting, but, interestingly, that they saw no new species, only species they already knew. Of course, the main focus of the respondents was the incredible beauty of all those vibrant colors.

I was interested to know whether there were any spiders, gnats, snakes – anythingthat bites. We found nothing; none was reported. And what about other animals? Our respondents did reportanimals, but only very seldom, and only dogs. One man saw all the dogs of his life come bounding over the hill towards him. So all in all, it was a very pleasurable experience to be in this land, and if the many NDErs who assert that we allwill have this experience at death are correct, our data indicate that it is not going to be awful. You will be able to stroll around the garden, and you will nothave to worry about what’s going to bite you.

I was also particularly interested in the heavenly music and wonderful birdsong reported by some of our participants, because of my interest in how the brain works with music. Our respondents reported mainly concordant music, strong emotional music. At that time, neuroscientists thought that music was mainly a phenomenon involving the right hemisphere of the brain; since then, the neuroscience of music has progressed and indicates that the whole brain is involved in music. Nevertheless, the strong emotional quality of this music indicated a strong involvement of the right hemisphere.

Whom did our respondents meet in their NDEs? Well, this seemed to be culturally determined. In the West, we mostly meet dead relatives and occasional strangers who always behave toward the NDEr in a welcoming way. Now, here is an interesting thing thatwe found also in the approaching-death experiences: The dead tend to be seen in the prime of life, even though they may have died ill or damaged by accidents or in ripe old age. All injuries had been healed. We were told of a lovely near-death experience by a man who had had meningitis. Jesus came into his third-floor room by the window, took him by the hand, and walked with him out of the window, straight into this lovely landscape, and, coming from all directions, there were people who were taking off bandages, dropping their crutches, and being healed by the process of going toward the garden and the light. Some of our respondents reported meeting people whom they did not know were dead, but who were later confirmed to have been dead at the time of the NDE. It was usually the relatives they met, though sometimes it was the Being of Light, who sent the NDErs back to earthly life.

Another phenomenon that particularly interested me was the tunnel. Why a tunnel? I told you about the experience involving Jesus: it was a lovely day, and they went out through the window, which seems logical. But another of our respondents had an out-of-body experience, again on a beautiful day outside. She went up to the ceiling, and knew she was going to go through the window – but she did not. Instead, a tunnel opened up in the ceiling, and she went through the tunnel. We all know Hieronymous Bosch’s painting as the prototypical NDE tunnel, but in our study very different kinds of tunnels were described. The commonest one was a void, a blackness: a floating, a moving, a going towards the light. The structure of the tunnel, if anything, was minimal. One person had a ‘‘tunnelly tunnel,’’ like one ofthose great big pipes that leads the hot air away from a clothes dryer. Other people had swirling, whirling tunnels, but they themselves did not turn; the tunnel simply turned around them, while they themselves floated through it.

The data available suggest that NDE phenomena are described differently in different cultures. Tunnels, for example, seem to be a particularly Western feature. Take, for example, the journey from this dimension to an otherworldly dimension. Japanese NDErs do not report tunnels. Instead, they have caves. People will walk towards a cave, which will be the entrance to the new reality. Quite often, they report having come up to a dark river where there was a boatman. This feature is absolutely inherent in their culture. Among hunter-gathers, the transitional journey most often involved a river. They reported going on journeys, most commonly by getting into a boat and paddling for three days before arriving at an otherworldly area.

How many of you NDErs in the audience had a journey back? A couple of you had journeys back, but it is unusual. None of the participants in our study described such a journey; usually they say they just ‘‘snappedback’’ into their body. Why? Why do NDErs so rarely report a journey back?

And then, of course, there is transformation. Particularly notable was the finding that 72 percent of our respondents reported being more spiritual and having less fear of dying. Some findings from other studies provide some very interesting things to think about. For example, in Bruce Greyson’s (2003b) study of 272 patients who had a brush with death, 22 percent had NDEs, and they were found to be less psychologically disturbed than those who did not have NDEs. So that is extremely good news in that it goes against the idea that those who have NDEs have some mental pathology.

Willoughby Britton and Richard Bootzin’s 2004 study is interesting, but unfortunately the data set is too limited to draw any conclusions. They suggested that near-death experiences are a manifestation of temporal lobe epilepsy. This suggestion has been made on previous occasions by other authors, and it is always made by those who do not deal with epilepsy on a daily basis and who do not have a comprehensive understanding of the features of an epileptic seizure. No epileptic seizure has the clarity and narrative style of an NDE. And this is because all epilepsy is confusional. Epileptologists all agree that one thing that near-death experiences are not is temporal lobe epilepsy. Britton and Bootzin’s paper is, I think, going to bias the near-death literature in a way that is quite unjustified by the data of the study.

However, within that study there were some interesting points. They had 23 NDErs and 20 controls, so the numbers are small, but the NDErs scored more highly on a scale of their ability to cope. They were better, active copers; they were able to plan; they had positive reinterpretations of their experiences, and they had positive growth. There were no differences in posttraumatic stress scores with the control group. The study is important in that it suggested that NDErs have good coping strategies.

Greyson (1986) found that 26 percent of a group of patients who attempted suicide had NDEs. Of the people who wrote in to us, only 2 percent had their NDEs during suicide attempts. Greyson (1981, 1991, 1992–93) has published additional studies on suicide attempters who had NDEs, finding that their likelihood of attempting suicide again was dramatically lower, compared to nonNDE suicide attempters. But if any of you want a Ph.D. topic, this is an area on which we still need more data. I had one patient who after her NDE wanted to get back to the experience so badly that she always carried a ligature around with her; she was in the hospital a year before we managed to get her better. She would take any chance she could to put the cord around her neck and hang herself. But that is very unusual. I would like to know more about the effect of an NDE on future suicidal behavior.

That is all I want to say about retrospective studies, so let me turn now to the cutting edge of NDE research. This is a new and very exciting developing area: prospective studies. Just to remind you, these are studies in which the researcher begins studying the participants before they have their NDEs, and thus has information about the circumstances in which the near-death experience occurs and can start to ask focused scientific questions about it.

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