Foundation for Near-Death Studies

Near Death Experience




What is a near-death experience?

A near-death experience (NDE) is a lucid period where one perceives consciousness separate from their physical body occurring at the time of actual or threatened imminent death or severe psychological stress. It is an experience that has transcendental properties and dramatically alters a person’s life and beliefs. For many it represents a spiritual dimension to the dying process. This is not an attempt to answer the age-old question, “Is there life after life”, but rather an effort to understand the event in order to better support those who have had the experience and to learn from them.

Dr. Raymond Moody, a renowned psychiatrist and philosopher, brought NDEs to the attention of the medical community in 1975 with his book “Life After Life”. His work described 50 patients who reported one or more common elements of an NDE. He found the patients to be rational rather than delusional or psychiatrically impaired. Some had great difficulty understanding the phenomena and needed a sympathetic ear and support. Since Moody’s ground breaking work 30 years ago, an explosion of information has hit the media but, unfortunately, it is often with a sensationalist, rather than scientific, slant. Slowly, this experience is slowly being integrated into the medical community, thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated researchers.

What are triggers for an NDE?

As mentioned, an NDE can occur in a person who is either clinically dead, near death, or death is likely or expected (IANDS, 2008). These circumstances include serious illness or injury, such as a motor vehicle crash, drowning, childbirth, or attempted suicide. Many accounts are from those who survived military combat. In addition, people in profound grief, deep meditation have also described NDE-like experiences. Fighter pilots have also reported the phenomenon during training while under intense G-forces in aerial combat maneuvering.

Although the true incidence of NDEs is unknown, a Gallop poll estimated that 12-15 million people in the U.S. had experienced an NDE (Gallop, 1993). Studies suggest that 11-18% of people who have a cardiac arrest (no breathing and no heart rate) have an NDE. According to the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF), 774 NDEs occur every day in the U.S. These experiences may be reported with increasing frequency today because patients are more likely to survive critical illnesses and injuries given vastly improved resuscitation techniques. The true numbers, though, may be underestimated because of the persons’ feeling of insecurity in talking with others about their paranormal experience for fear of ridicule.

What are the core elements of an NDE?

More than 15 elements have been reported by NDE’ers. An NDE may include only one or two of these elements, or, in some cases, all of them. The core experience seems to be similar across cultures, but specific details vary; how a person interperts the experience varies as well.

Part of the difficulty in describing NDEs is the struggle experiencers have in finding adequate words to describe this event. They commonly say it is the most profound experience of their lives and, unlike a dream, "it was more real than real." They also possess accurate recall of the event for decades afterwards.

Common elements include:

  • Out-of-body experience: Following a brief period of disorientation, people often describe an out-of-body experience (OOBE), a sensation of rising up and floating above their own body, feeling comfortable watching the activities below them. They often report being in a spiritual body that appears to be a living energy field. There is no pain. It is at that point they may think, “I must be dead”. Their thoughts are clear and rational, and sensory perception seems to be heightened. Vision and hearing are extremely accurate. Patients accurately recall resuscitation efforts and conversations during this time. An interesting study done by Ring and Cooper (1997) conducted on 31 blind people claiming to have an OOBE found that 24/31 had visually-based knowledge that could not have been obtained by normal means, such as watching doctors operate on them and recognizing physical objects, such as a ring.
  • Tunnel: The next experience is that of being drawn into darkness through a tunnel at an extremely high speed. The tunnel itself can look like anything from tiny stars or spirals of light, to the inside of a sewer pipe, underground cave, cylinder or void. Sometimes this is accompanied by noises, such as buzzing, humming, or vibrations that may be unpleasant. Recent studies suggest that Eastern cultures only rarely report tunnels during their experiences.
  • Meeting Family/Friends: Experiences also talk of meeting with deceased loved ones, spiritual beings and/or religious figures who are also composed of light or energy fields.
  • Being of “Light”: After meeting the people of light, the experiencer may meet a powerful spiritual being some have identified as God, Jesus, or some religious figure. Identifying this being seems to be a function of one’s religious background, training, or prior; there is a cultural component present. Experiencers have a strong sense of interconnectedness during the encounter. They may gain knowledge of future events and receive messages regarding life’s purpose, although they have difficulty verbalizing this afterwards. Regardless of their prior beliefs, whether agnostic, somewhat skeptical or deeply religious, most of these people are convinced that they had been in the presence of some supreme and loving power and were given a brief glimpse of a life yet to come.
  • Boundary or Barrier: Experiencers may report arriving at some kind of barrier and have to decide whether or not to return. The boundary could be a valley, mountain ridge, river or buildings.
  • Life review: A less common element of an NDE is the life review. Experiencers may describe the ‘Being of Light’ present while a panoramic review of their life unfolds around them. They relive their actions and can understand the repercussions of their actions from another point of view. The life review is presented in a very loving, rather than judgmental, manner.
  • Returning: Deceased family, friends or the Being of Light sometimes tells the dying that they must return to life. Other times, they are given a choice of staying or returning. In either case, most are reluctant to return. The people who choose to return do so only because of loved ones they need to care for or to complete an unfinished project.

Are all NDE’s positive?

Not all near-death experiences are blissful although just how many are negative is hard to estimate. Experiencers may be less likely to report them and more anxious to forget. There are three types of negative experiences that have been described in the literature. The first one is known as the “inverse” experience. This experience has many of the same elements as a positive NDE, such as a beautiful valley, but because they are unable to understand and control the event, it is frightening for them. The second type is known as the “dark void”. The experiencer is immersed in total darkness and isolation, which is terrifying. The last type is known as a “hellish” experience because the person may see frightening animals, hear annoying loud noises and witness others in distress.