Near-death Experience

heaven help us by Alex Eben Meyer

Near-death experiences (NDE) are associated with several common phenomena such as feelings of detachment from the body, levitation, serenity, security, warmth, dissolution, and bright light. These sensations are usually reported after an individual has been pronounced clinically dead or has been very close to death. With recent developments in cardiac resuscitation techniques, the number of reported NDEs has increased. According to a 1992 Gallup poll, approximately eight million Americans claim to have had a near-death experience. Popular interest in the topic was initially sparked by psychiatrist Raymond Moody’s 1975 book ‘Life After Life,’ in which he interviewed 150 people who had undergone NDEs.

In 1981, the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) was founded and the following year began publishing the ‘Journal of Near-Death Studies,’ the only peer-reviewed journal in the field. Research from neuroscience considers the NDE to be a hallucination resulting from one or more of several conditions including cerebral anoxia (insufficient oxygen to the brain), hypercarbia (elevated carbon dioxide in the blood), or damage to the temporal lobes (which are responsible for giving meaning to events). Spiritual thinkers and an parapsychologists have long pointed to NDEs as evidence for an afterlife and mind-body dualism.

The earliest accounts of near-death can be traced to the concluding story in Plato’s ‘Republic,’ the ‘Myth of Er,’ wherein a soldier tellis of his many brushes with death. The legend includes an account of the cosmos and the afterlife that greatly influenced religious, philosophical, and scientific thought for many centuries, particularly the idea that moral people are rewarded and immoral people punished after death.

The cognate French term ‘expérience de mort imminente’ (‘experience of imminent death’) was proposed by the French psychologist and epistemologist Victor Egger as a result of discussions in the 1890s among philosophers and psychologists concerning climbers’ stories of the panoramic life review during falls. In 1968, Celia Green, a British writer on philosophical skepticism, published an analysis of 400 first-hand accounts of out-of-body experiences. This represented the first attempt to provide a taxonomy of such events, viewed simply as anomalous perceptual experiences, or hallucinations.

Psychiatrist Bruce Greyson also catalogues features of NDE’s and describes visions of deceased relatives and religious figures, and transcendence of egotic and spatiotemporal boundaries (often tunnels). He notes that many different elements have been reported, though the exact elements tend to correspond with the cultural, philosophical, or religious beliefs of the person experiencing it. For example, a Christian may see Jesus, while a Hindu may see Yamaraja, the Hindu king of death. The classic experience, however, follows a pattern: First there is an unpleasant sound or noise, followed by an awareness of being dead, which leads to a sense of peace, well-being and painlessness, and a sense of removal from the world. This feeling builds until the ‘spirit’ finally leaves the physical world entirely, creating a perception of one’s body from an outside position (sometimes observing others performing resuscitation efforts).

The next sensation is a ‘tunnel experience,’ a sense of moving up, or through, a dark passageway or staircase, and a rapid movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light at the end of the tunnel. The spirit ‘communes’ with the light and experiences an intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance. They encounter the ‘beings of light’ directly, who reunite them with deceased loved ones. At this time they experience a life review (commonly referred to as ‘seeing one’s life flash before one’s eyes’) and receive knowledge about one’s life and the nature of the universe. Eventually the light fades and they approach a border and feel the physical world calling their body back, often accompanied by a reluctance to return.

Psychologist Kenneth Ring subdivided the NDE on a five-stage continuum: Peace, Body separation, Entering darkness, Seeing the light, and Entering the light. He stated that 60% experienced the first stage (feelings of contentment), but only 10% experienced final stage. In contrast to common belief, Ring argues that attempted suicides do not lead more often to unpleasant NDEs than unintended near-death situations.

Some NDEs have elements that bear little resemblance to the ‘typical’ near-death experience. Anywhere from one percent (according to a 1982 Gallup poll) to 20 percent of subjects may have distressing experiences and feel terrified or uneasy as various parts occur, they visit or view dark and depressing areas or are accosted by what seem to be hostile or oppositional forces or presences. Persons having bad experiences were not marked by more religiosity or suicidal background. According to Greyson there is little association between NDEs and prior psychiatric treatment, prior suicidal behavior, or family history of suicidal behavior. There is also little association between NDEs and religiosity, or prior experiences with near-death, suggesting the occurrence of NDEs is not influenced by psychopathology, religious denomination, religiosity, or experiencers’ prior expectations of a pleasant dying process or continued postmortem existence. Greyson also found that the long term recall of NDE incidents was stable and did not change due to embellishment over time.

Nancy Bush, a counselor, and board member and former Executive Director to the International Association for Near-Death Studies, holds that not all negative NDE accounts are reported by people with a religious background, and argues that frightening NDEs have been ignored too long, in favor of only positive reports: ‘In fact, because contemporary metaphysical thought has so strongly emphasized the belief (or certainly the hope) that only the light is real and has value, it has by and large denied or ignored the ‘dark night’ aspects of spirituality.’

A 1981 study of unpleasant NDEs defined a ‘negative’ near death experience as one that contains extreme fear, panic or anger. It may also contain descriptions of demonic creatures or embittered human-like voices that mock or taunt the subjects, often suggesting that they never even existed, leading to feelings of being trapped, with all they had known before gone, and a sense of trying to prove existence, that now seemed meaningless in the endless gloom. Such negatives may only form part of the overall NDE incident. Like the standard NDE, distressing experiences also tend to follow five stages: fear and panic, out of body experience, entering a black void, sensing an evil force, and entering a hellish environment. Few explicit accounts of horned imps, devils, pitchforks, physical torture or other such elements of hell from popular culture appear however. In some cases, supposedly trapped souls endure tormenting ‘fire’ in the form of remorse or anguish at their own choices, behaviors or attitudes, agony or regret at being separated from the Light or Light Being, or frustration at the inability to satisfy earthly obsessions brought into death.

A number of writers on Near Death Experiences identify a dark zone or ‘void’ in association with negative or malignant spiritual beings, or a zone of despair, depression or despondency connected with the actions persons have committed in earthly life or their moral character. These negative elements may not be isolated but may blend with other standard NDE features. Individuals who have viewed a ‘dark’ void of depressed or trapped ‘souls’ for example, may still go on to have a Life Review, feeling of warmth and love, and other such elements. The Life Review NDE accounts detail is usually a time of searching exposure and affirmation, having moral implications that the NDE traveler had to confront, including his or her actions and the negative or positive impact they had on others. Some New Age writers like Edgar Cacye and Emmanuel Swedenborg also identify a dark or negative area brought about by the dead person’s own behavior, state or obsessions in their earthly physical life. According to Swedenborg: ‘All who are in the Hells are in evils and in falsities therefrom derived from the loves of self and of the world.’

This aspect of the Life Review is sometimes described as humbling with inward character, thoughts and outward actions laid bare, and the subject invited to examine how wrong (or right) they were through the eyes of the Divine/Light Being, and how others were affected. While the exposure was felt as distressing in some aspects, the Review is generally in a larger context of being unconditionally loved, though regret and guilt may be experienced. Individuals under the full moral exposure of the Review almost always agreed with the Divine Being as to rightness or wrongness of their actions, as seen through the Being’s moral perspective, and the rightness of that perspective. The Being of Light or others may later make clear to the person that they are in a temporary transitional not permanent state and must choose to ‘go back’ or ‘stay.’ Sometimes they are told that ‘work’ or life must be completed. The final moral destiny or fate of the individual is thus pushed back to some future time.

A small percentage of subjects report a prophetic vision that reveals to them the fate of earth and humanity. This is generally an apocalyptic vision showing the end times, but some report visions of humanity evolving into higher beings. Although some claim to have specific forecasts such as the time of a big natural disaster, most who allege messages or prophecies do not proffer specific information on future world events, save in a general way: such as warning mankind that it is accountable on the other side, a vague coming period of war and chaos, or to turn from environmental destruction or mistreatment of one another. Some prophecies are of a personal nature, such as children that will be born in the future, or the pending death of a relative.

Psychologist Chris French proposes that the NDE is a dissociative defense mechanism that occurs in times of extreme danger. In the 1970s professor of psychiatry Russell Noyes and clinical psychologist Roy Kletti suggested the NDE is a form of depersonalization experienced under emotional conditions such as life-threatening danger and that the NDE can best be understood as a fantasy based hallucination. In the early 1980s neuropsychologist Daniel Carr proposed the NDE has characteristics suggestive of a limbic lobe syndrome and it can be explained by the release of endorphins and enkephalins in the brain, noting how the release of endorphins can lead to blissful or emotional NDEs, whilst naloxone (prevents opioids from working) can produce ‘hellish’ NDEs. The first formal neurobiological model for NDE was presented in 1987 by Chilean scientists Juan Sebastián Gómez-Jeria and Juan Carlos Saavedra-Aguilar. Their model included endorphins, neurotransmitters of the limbic system, the temporal lobe and other parts of the brain.

The research of psychiatrist Karl Jansen has revealed how the effects of an NDE can be induced by the drug ketamine. In 1996 he published a paper on the subject which concluded ‘mounting evidence suggests that the reproduction/induction of NDE’s by ketamine is not simply an interesting coincidence… ketamine administered by intravenous injection, in appropriate dosage, is capable of reproducing all of the features of the NDE which have been commonly described in the most cited works in this field.’

A 1997 study revealed the similarities between NDEs and G-LOC (G-force induced Loss Of Consciousness), which also often involve ‘tunnel vision and bright lights, floating sensations, automatic movement, autoscopy, OBEs, not wanting to be disturbed, paralysis, vivid dreamlets of beautiful places, pleasurable sensations, psychological alterations of euphoria and dissociation, inclusion of friends and family, inclusion of prior memories and thoughts, the experience being very memorable (when it can be remembered), confabulation, and a strong urge to understand the experience.’

In the 1990s, psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted research on the psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT) at the University of New Mexico. He advanced the hypothesis that a massive release of DMT from the pineal gland (a hormone excretion organ in the brain) prior to death or near-death was the cause of the phenomenon. Only two of his test subjects reported NDE-like aural or visual hallucinations, although many reported feeling as though they had entered a state similar to the classical NDE. His explanation for this was the possible lack of panic involved in the clinical setting and possible dosage differences between those administered and those encountered in actual NDE cases. All subjects in the study were also very experienced users of DMT or other psychedelic/entheogenic agents.

NDE subjects have increased activity in the left temporal lobe. Stimulation of the temporal lobe is known to induce hallucinations, out-of-body experiences and memory flashbacks. In an experiment with one patient, electrical stimulation at the left temporoparietal junction lead to an illusion of another person close to her. In 2011, Alexander Wutzler and his colleagues at the Charité University of Medicine in Berlin suggested that near-death experiences may be triggered by an increase of serotonin in the brain. Charles Q. Choi in an article for ‘Scientific American’ concluded ‘scientific evidence suggests that all features of the near-death experience have some basis in normal brain function gone awry.’

It is suggested that the extreme stress caused by a life-threatening situation triggers brain states similar to REM sleep and that part of the near death experience is a state similar to dreaming while awake. People who have experienced times when their brains behaved as if they were dreaming while awake are more likely to develop the near death experience. Some sleep researchers have noted that NDE experiences are similar to many reports of lucid dreaming, in which the individual realizes he is in a dream. Often these states are so realistic as to be barely distinguishable from reality. In a study of fourteen lucid dreamers performed in 1991, people who perform wake-initiated lucid dreams (WILD) reported experiences consistent with aspects of out-of-body experiences such as floating above their beds and the feeling of leaving their bodies. Due to the phenomenological overlap between lucid dreams, near-death experiences, and out-of-body experiences, researchers say they believe a protocol could be developed to induce a lucid dream similar to a near-death experience in the laboratory.

NDEs are also associated with changes in personality and outlook on life. Kenneth Ring has identified a consistent set of value and belief changes associated with people who have had a near-death experience. Among these changes one finds a greater appreciation for life, higher self-esteem, greater compassion for others, a heightened sense of purpose and self-understanding, desire to learn, elevated spirituality, greater ecological sensitivity and planetary concern, and a feeling of being more intuitive. Changes may also include increased physical sensitivity; diminished tolerance of light, alcohol, and drugs; a feeling that the brain has been ‘altered’ to encompass more; and a feeling that one is now using the ‘whole brain’ rather than a small part. However, not all after-effects are beneficial and Greyson describes circumstances where changes in attitudes and behavior can lead to psychosocial and psychospiritual problems. Often the problems are those of the adjustment to mundane life in the wake of an extremely meaningful NDE.

Recent research into afterlife conceptions across cultures by religious studies scholar Gregory Shushan analyzes the afterlife beliefs of five ancient civilizations (Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, Sumerian and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, Vedic India, pre-Buddhist China, and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica) in light of historical and contemporary reports of near-death experiences, and shamanic afterlife ‘journeys.’ It was found that despite numerous culture-specific differences, the nine most frequently recurring NDE elements also recur on a general structural level cross-culturally, which tends to suggest that the authors of these ancient religious texts were familiar with NDE or similar. Cross-cultural similarity, however, can be used to support both religious and physiological theories, for both rely on demonstrating that the phenomenon is universal. Others dispute in favor of cultural similarities; and others suggest that the experience is essentially universal, but altered in detail by cultural bias.

Many individuals who experience an NDE see it as a verification of the existence of life after death, and some parapsychologists and researchers in the field of near-death studies see the NDE as evidence that human consciousness may continue to exist after physical death. The survivalist interpretation of the NDE contends that the experience is evidence for an immaterial mind or soul separating from the physical body and visiting an afterlife or spiritual realm. According to Chris French the survivalist interpretation would be supported if ‘it could be shown that information gained during the OBE component of an NDE was veridical and could not have been obtained in any conventional way… to date no such evidence has been forthcoming.’ Susan Blackmore has written that the alleged cases involving paranormal acquisition of information during an NDE are based on anecdotal evidence and do not stand up under scrutiny. Blackmore describes a number of different ways information could be acquired by the subject without resorting to any paranormal explanation ‘information available at the time, prior knowledge, fantasy or dreams, lucky guesses, and information from the remaining senses. Then there is selective memory for correct details, incorporation of details learned between the end of the NDE and giving an account of it, and the tendency to ‘tell a good story.”

In opposition to the survivalist interpretation, Professor of neurology Terence Hines noted that during unconsciousness the brain can still register sensory impressions. He gives the example of a study performed in 1983 in which the memories of a group of anesthetized patients were tested by a tape-recorded list of words. After recovery the patients recognized the words which had been presented to them significantly above chance. Hines concluded that even under anesthetic ‘the brain does retain some capacity to store new information…this is very likely the source of the snippets of conversation that sometimes turn up in deathbed visions.’

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