The near-death experience (NDE) occurs when a person is technically dead for a brief period and is then revived. During this brief interval, a person can step into an intense, and usually joyful, experience of a transcendent existence that can be at once confusing, scary, and inspiring. When adults or children experience an NDE, it can change how they think and feel about death. An NDE experience has been associated with long-term positive changes in psychological well-being, greater concern for others, and increased appreciation for nature. NDEs have also been shown to reduce interest in social status and possession, as well as increase feelings of self-worth and zest for life.
Somewhere near 20% of people who die and are revived experience NDEs—about 9,000,000 in the U.S. alone. Although there is no universally accepted definition of NDE, common features include feelings of inner-peace, out-of-body experience, and the vision of a long tunnel or “void.” Most NDEs include the perception of moving toward a bright light, and entering a different dimension in which they can communicate with other sentient beings, including people that have died. Typical stories include moving through the tunnel, toward the light, and being greeted by sentient “beings,” that may be described as angels or “guides.” Some people see Jesus or Mary when they have strong religious beliefs; others see friends and family who have died. Sometimes, there is literally a stairway to heaven. Sometimes, there is the experience that a party is being held by loved ones for a person who has just arrived.
NDEs have been reported throughout history. They are described in literature from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and India as early as 5000 B.C., but scientific research on the phenomenon has only appeared in the last 40 years or so. Many case studies and qualitative work on interviews with people who have experienced NDEs have been described in the research so far, and while the vast majority of these have been positive, even joyful, there are also reports of negative experiences and well as experiences that contain both positive and negative elements, but no one has shown any relationship to personality or life events. Saints have reported negative NDEs. Felons and criminals have described positive ones.
A distressing NDE may include entering a purposeless, meaningless existence in an eternal void. Such experience can be disturbing, terrifying, and even hellish, and researchers have not been able to identify any factors associated with positive vs. negative experiences. The person’s history, personality, socioeconomic status, health, etc. do not help predict who will have a negative experience. According to the most recent research on negative NDEs, the main difference between negative and positive experiences is “emotional tone.” A person can interpret the tunnel, the light, and the appearance of otherworldly elements as upsetting and even terrifying. People who experience negative NDEs often report the ancient shamanic pattern of suffering/death/resurrection, finding in it an invitation to self-examination and a message to turn one’s life around. The main effect of both negative and positive NDEs is the awareness that the physical reality of everyday life is not the full extent of reality. People consistently report that the NDE was “more real,” than ordinary reality.
This is also true, however, of people who experience certain mystical experiences after taking DMT, or Ketamine. Both of these substances evoke an outpouring of endorphins, the same thing that happens when someone dies. So, while the scientific explanation is developing, the fact that endorphins are released in both types of situations does not account for the similarity of these experiences over time and people. We know that these experiences are shaped by cultural and religious differences, but regardless of the content of the NDE, whether it is good or bad, NDEs are likely to lead to a new awareness of universal connectedness and increased compassion for the human race.
We also know that these experiences are stored in the same part of the brain as “real” experiences and they should not be interpreted as signs that someone is having a mental breakdown or is hallucinating. Hallucinations involve different storage than NDEs and other mystical experiences when taking psychedelics, DMT, or Ketamine. NDEs are stored in the same way as regular memories of concrete events. Other arguments for the “reality” of NDEs are based on statistics showing that not all patients who are critically ill and near death have them. If NDEs are produced chemically as a person approaches death, we would expect all patients to have them. To date, we have no fundamental explanation for the origin of our consciousness. The brain, with all of its intricacy, doesn’t create consciousness. Neurons alone don’t give rise to personhood. We simply cannot say whether consciousness exists because the brain manifests it or if it exists independently of the brain
To complicate matters, all kinds of phenomena are reported to surround both death and dying. In Santa Barbara, a group called “Shared Crossings,” has collected case studies and statistics on some of these events. They offer the following graph:
A shared death experience occurs when someone experiences the transition of a dying person to a benevolent afterlife, including NDEs and visitations. Pre-death premonitions vary from the intuition that the dying person has about when they might die, to loved ones having the experience of “knowing” someone is going to die. Pre-death synchrony occurs when random events or coincidences are seen as presaging an impending death. Terminal lucidity refers to an unexpected surge of vitality and clarity, even improved physical function in the last few days or hours of life. Post-Death visions and visitations occur when loved ones report “seeing” or “communicating” with a dead person moments, hours, weeks, or even months after the person has died.
Of course, all of these phenomena raise questions about the origins of consciousness, the nature of reality, and the existence of other dimensions. We shall not soon answer those questions, but to know that these experiences can bring relief from anxiety and depression, lessen one’s fear of death, and increase one’s ability to feel compassion for others may be enough.