"What are near-death experiences and are they some kind of OBEs?"


Much publicity has recently been given to research on near-death experiences (NDEs), experiences of those who survive a close encounter with death. More people now survive close brushes with death. The near-death experience has been defined as the 'experiential counterpart of the physiological transition to biological death' [Sab82]: it is the record of conscious experience from the inside rather than the outside, from the point of view of the subject rather the spectator.

Raymond Moody [Moo75, 77] interviewed many people who had been resuscitated after having had accidents and he then put together an idealized version of a typical near-death experience. He emphasized that no one person described the whole of this experience, but each feature was found in many of the stories. Here is his description:

A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment, and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval.

After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notices that he still has a 'body,' but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving, warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before -- a being of light -- appears before him. This being asks him a question, non-verbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet, he finds that he must go back to the earth, that the time for his death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with his experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return. He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love, and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives.

Later he tries to tell others, but he has trouble doing so. In the first place, he can find no human words adequate to describe these unearthly episodes. He also finds that others scoff, so he stops telling other people. Still, the experience affects his life profoundly especially his views about death and its relationship to life.

The parallel between this kind of account and many OBEs is clear. There is the tunnel traveled through as well as the experiences of seeing one's own body from outside and seeming to have some other kind of body, and the ineffability is familiar. One is tempted to conclude that in death a typical OBE, or astral projection, occurs, and is followed by a transition to another world, with the aid of people who have already made the crossing, and that of higher beings in whose plane one is going to lead the next phase of existence. Although Moody's work gave a good idea of what dying could be like for some people, it did not begin to answer questions such as how common this type of experience is.

George Gallup Jr. in his extensive study Adventures of Immortality [Gal82] come to the conclusion that one person in twenty or 5 per cent of the population has had at least one NDE. Kenneth Ring [Rin84] estimates that in the USA alone there are over 8 million NDEers. Therefore, in his opinion, we are dealing with a significant and quite common phenomenon.

After Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Raymond Moody, who has lately researched past life regressions [Moo90], there have been studies by cardiologists Rawlings and Sabom. The most detailed research has been carried out by Kenneth Ring, a psychologist from Connecticut [Rin79, 80]. From hospitals there he obtained the names of people who had come close to death, or who had been resuscitated from clinical death. Almost half of his sample (48%) reported experiences which were, at least in part, similar to Moody's description. Of Ring's subjects, 95 per cent of those asked stated that the experience was not like a dream (the same result appears in Sabom): they stressed that it was too real, being more vivid and more realistic; however some aspects were hard to express, as the experience did not resemble anything that had happened to them before.

One of Ring's most interesting findings concerned the stages of the experience. He showed that the earlier stages also tended to be reported more frequently. The first stage, peace, was experienced by 60% of his sample, some of whom did not reach any further stages. The next stage, of most interest to us here, was that of 'body separation,' in other words, the OBE. Thirty-seven per cent of Ring's sample reached this stage and what they reported sounds very similar to descriptions of OBEs. Not all the 'body separations' were distinct. Many of Ring's respondents simply described a feeling of being separate or detached from everything that was happening.

Ring tried to find out about two specific aspects of these OBEs. First he asked whether they had another body. The answer seemed to be 'no': most were unaware of any other body and answered that they were something like 'mind only.' There was a similar lack of descriptions of the 'silver cord.' We can see that an OBE of sorts forms an important stage in the near-death experience.

After the OBE stage comes 'entering the darkness' experienced by nearly a quarter of Ring's subjects. It was described as 'a journey into a black vastness without shape or dimension,' as 'a void, a nothing' and as 'very peaceful blackness.'

For fifteen per cent the next stage was reached, 'seeing the light.' The light was sometimes at the end of the tunnel, sometimes glimpsed in the distance but usually it was golden and bright without hurting the eyes. Sometimes the light was associated with a presence of some kind, or a voice telling the person to go back.

Finally there were ten per cent experiencers who seemed to 'enter the light' and pass into or just glimpse another world. This was described as a world of great beauty, with glorious colors, with meadows of golden grass, birds singing, or beautiful music. It was at this stage that people were greeted by deceased relatives, and it was from this world that they did not want to come back.

A completely different kind of analysis was applied by Noyes and Kletti [Noy72, NK76] to accounts collected from victims of falls, drownings, accidents, serious illnesses, and other life-threatening situations. They emphasized such features as altered time perception and attention, feelings of unreality and loss of emotions, and the sense of detachment. They found that these features occurred more often in people who thought they were about to die than in those who did not. This fitted their interpretation of the experiences as a form of depersonalization (i.e., the loss of the sense of personal identity or the sensation of being without material existence) in the face of a threat to life; that is as a way of escaping or becoming dissociated from the imminent death of the physical body.

Two other aspects have yet to be dealt with. First, there is the absence of any trips to 'hell.' Neither Moody nor Ring obtained any accounts of hellish experiences. However, cardiologist Maurice Rawlings [Raw78] has suggested that the reason for there being no such reports is that although patients may recall such hellish experiences immediately afterwards, they tend to forget them with time. In other words, their memories protect them from recalling the unpleasant aspects. According to Rawlings it is only because they have been interviewed too long after the brush with death that all the experiences are reported as pleasant. It does seem to be the 'good' side of experiences which makes the greater impact.

Another feature which needs mention is the 'life review.' It has often been found that a person close to death may seem to see scenes of his past life pass before him as though on a screen, or in pictures. Ring found that about a quarter of his core-experiencers reported a life review, and that it was more common in accident victims than others.

The general effects of undergoing an NDE are of two kinds: philosophical and ethical. The main philosophical changes are in attitudes towards death and afterlife. Sabom's figures are extremely interesting in this respect: he asked those who had and those had not had an NDE when unconscious whether there was any change in their views of death and the afterlife. Of the 45 who had not had any conscious experience, 39 were just as afraid of death as before, 5 more afraid and 1 less afraid; while of the 61 with an NDE none were more afraid, 11 just as afraid and 50 less afraid. The patterns were similar concerning belief in an afterlife: of the non-experiencers, none had any change of attitude; while of the experiencers, 14 found their attitude unchanged and 47 stated that their belief in the afterlife had increased [Sab82]. Ring [Rin84] found a correlation between loss of fear of death and what he called the core experience, broadly that with a positive transcendental element in it. Moody comments that there is remarkable agreement about the 'lessons' brought back from NDEs: 'Almost everyone has stressed the importance in this life of trying to cultivate love for others, a love of a unique and profound kind' [Moo75]. And he adds that a second characteristic is a realization of the importance of seeking knowledge, of not confining one's horizon to the material.

A number of reductionist physiological explanations have been advanced to account for NDEs: the two most common are 'cerebral anoxia' and 'depersonalization.' Cerebral anoxia accounts for the experience by saying that it is a hallucination due to an oxygen shortage in the brain. We have seen that such 'hallucinations' frequently turn out to correspond to the physical events actually occurring -- can the NDE therefore be labelled a hallucination? Perhaps it can, but certainly not as a delusion. Ring and Moody both point out that patterns of experiences are no different when there is clearly no shortage of oxygen. Noyes starts by pointing out that none of the subjects can really have been dead if they were resuscitated, so that their reported experiences cannot be taken as 'proof' of survival of consciousness. Moody never actually states such a position, but rather confines himself to asserting that the experiences have a suggestive value; even if for the subjects themselves the experience is proof.

The common factor underlying all the physiological explanations of the NDE is the attempt to avoid the prima facie interpretation of the experience as an OBE. Sabom concludes that this hypothesis is the best fit with the data, while Ring concludes that 'there is abundant empirical evidence pointing to the reality of out-of-body experiences; that such experiences conform to the descriptions given by our near-death experiencers; and that there is highly suggestive evidence that death involves the separation of a second body -- a double -- from the physical body' [Rin80].

Just as many different interpretations have been presented for all aspects of the near-death experience. The most important of them have been usefully summarised by Grosso [Gro81]. Most people seem to agree that the near-death experience presents remarkable consistency varying little across differences in culture, religion, and cause of the crisis; what is in dispute is why there should be such a consistency. Rawlings steeps all his findings in the language of Christianity, involving heaven and hell and the possibility of being saved. Noyes interprets NDEs in terms of depersonalization; Siegel in terms of hallucinations, and Ring, within a parapsychological-holographic model. But broadly speaking there are two camps. On the other side are those who see the near-death experience as a sure signpost towards another world and a life after death; on the other, those who have, in various different ways, interpreted the experience as part of life, not death, and as telling us nothing whatsoever about a 'life after life.'


  • Next section
  • Previous section
  • Contents
  • References



  • Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

    Custom Search