Copyright © 2007-2018 Russ Dewey
Near-death experiences can leave a lasting imprint. "There's a host of people who speak about being horrified, traumatized, who talk about a distortion in time afterwards, almost as though the accident or experience happened moments ago," said Kenneth Manges, a clinical psychologist in Cincinnati who has treated survivors of floods, fires and armed robberies.
"But others come through the trauma re-energized, with new sense of living and vitality. They're very grateful and feel blessed to have survived." (Carey, 2009)
Corsini (2010) notes that near-death experiences are neither new nor rare:
The phenomenon was first described as a clinical syndrome by Heim in 1892, although isolated cases appeared in medical journals throughout the 19th century. Once thought to be rare, NDEs have been documented to occur in 10% to 20% of cardiac arrest survivors. (Corsini, 2010)
People report a common pattern of experiences during near-death events, especially those involving oxygen deprivation: bright lights, expanded awareness, ancestors or religious figures waiting, or a sense of great peace.
What are typical "afterlife" or near-death experiences?
A report from one of my students is typical:
My father had a really unusual experience last fall. He had gone to Houston on a business trip and was sitting in a conference when he started having sharp chest pains.
He thought he was having heart burn so he left the meeting. He was actually having a heart attack. If one of his associates hadn't followed him out he would have died. He passed out in the hallway.
They rushed him to St. Mark's hospital. His heart stopped for several minutes while he was in the Emergency Room. Afterwards, he said that he could see himself lying on the table and could describe all the actions of doctors and nurses. It was as if he were standing up above himself looking down.
Then he was walking down a dark tunnel toward a bright yellow light. As he got closer to the light he could see a man robed in a brilliant white robe who was motioning him to come.
When Dad looked back, he saw my family waiting for him at the other end of the tunnel. Then the doctors brought him "back to life." I guess it was like he was going before God for Judgment. [Author's files]
Raymond Moody, in the book Reflections on Life after Life (1975), described the common themes of near-death experiences:
–ineffability (impossibility of describing the experience)
–hearing doctors or spectators pronounce them dead
–feelings of peace and quiet
–a loud ringing or buzzing noise
–a dark tunnel through which the person moves
–meeting others, including guides, spirits, dead relatives or friends
–a glowing light with a human shape
–a panoramic review of one's life
–a border or limit beyond which there is no return
–visions of great knowledge
–cities of light
–a realm of bewildered spirits
–supernatural rescues from real physical death by some spirit
–a return or coming back with changed attitudes and beliefs
Moody claimed that near-death experiences proved the existence of an afterlife. His claims received wide publicity. However, Moody's credibility in the scientific community was not enhanced when he published Elvis After Life (1987).
What was Siegel's theory about NDEs?
Siegel (1980) pointed out that psychedelic drugs can create all the experiences described above. For example, Siegel offers the following descriptions of psychedelic hallucinations:
"I'm moving through some sort of train tunnel. There are all sorts of lights and colors."
A different subject reports a drug-induced "bright light" hallucination:
"...It seems like I'm getting closer and closer to the sun, it's very white..."
Siegel noted that near-death experiences often occur in situations of oxygen deprivation. Oxygen deprivation occurs when the heart stops, lots of blood is lost, someone nearly drowns, or someone nearly chokes to death. Siegel suggested that anoxia (absence of oxygen) causes NDEs.
What percentage of people reporting NDEs were actually near death?
Owens, Cook and Stevenson (1990) reviewed records of 58 patients who reported "unusual experiences" when they thought they were near death. Medical records showed that 28 of these patients were genuinely near death (would have died without medical intervention). 30 more were not in danger of dying but thought they were.
Patients in both groups reported very similar experiences. One difference was that the genuinely dying group reported more "enhanced perception of light" and "enhanced cognitive powers."
Final thoughts, defined as "what people think when they expect they are about to die," are often ordinary or humorous, rather than profound. Gwynne Nettler, a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, spent 40 years collecting "firsthand accounts by people who knew they were in a disaster—the kind of event that can end life or make it unalterably worse."
He was looking for reports of "moments of truth" such as those reported by the psychiatrist Russell Noyes. Noyes reported near-death experiences such as these:
[From a young poet who nearly drowned] "A dazzling prismatic effulgence cleared my vision. Not only did I see and hear harmony, but I understood everything."
[From a Swiss professor of Geology who dropped 66 feet during a mountain climb] "Elevated and harmonious thoughts dominated and united individual images and, like magnificent music, a divine calm swept through my soul." (Nettler, 1985)
Nettler wanted to collect data systematically, so he went in search of every possible report of a near-death experience, great and small. He interviewed 56 people who survived death-threatening situations, and he collected 211 secondary reports including final statements by people who actually died.
To his disappointment, Nettler discovered mostly very ordinary–even banal–final thoughts. For example:
"Bullfighter Carlos Arruza, hoist on a bull's horn, thinks, 'Now the bastard's ruined my whole afternoon.'"
A sailor, "bleeding to death on a California highway beside his wrecked car, mumbles before closing his eyes, 'This would have to happen on my birthday.'" (Nettler, 1985)
What sorts of "final thoughts" did Nettler discover?
How often did Nettler come across great truths, new meanings, and inspiration in the moments before death? "Almost never," he says.
As a result, Nettler is skeptical of articles and books reporting profound thoughts in the moments before death. He suggests, "...Interviewers, looking for the 'critical flashes,' may have led their crisis survivors to 'remember' them."
Most research on near-death-experiences has the disadvantage of being entirely retrospective (after the fact). This makes it difficult to estimate how common NDEs might be in the general population.
What were findings from prospective research on 344 consecutive cardiac patients?
Van Lomme, van Wees, and Elfferich (2001) decided to do a prospective study of NDEs. They studied 344 consecutive cardiac patients who were resuscitated in Dutch hospitals. This sampling technique was specified before the collection of experiences.
NDEs (near-death experiences) were defined in this research as "reported memory of...a special state of consciousness...including specific elements such as out-of-body experience, pleasant feelings, and seeing a tunnel, a light, deceased relatives, or a life review." All patients had been clinically dead as defined by electrocardiogram records (i.e. no spontaneous heartbeat).
Of the 344 patients, 18% reported a near-death experience, and 12% reported the classic triad of (1) life-
During the pilot phase of the study, a nurse reported a classic NDE:
When we want to intubate the patient, he turns out to have dentures in his mouth. I remove these upper dentures and put them onto the 'crash car'. Meanwhile, we continue extensive CPR...
Only after more than a week do I meet again with the patient, who is by now back on the cardiac ward. I distribute his medication. The moment he sees me he says: 'Oh, that nurse knows where my dentures are'. I am very surprised.
Then he elucidates: 'Yes, you were there when I was brought into hospital and you took my dentures out of my mouth and put them onto that car, it had all these bottles on it and there was this sliding drawer underneath and there you put my teeth.'
I was especially amazed because I remembered this happening while the man was in deep coma and in the process of CPR. When I asked further, it appeared the man had seen himself lying in bed, that he had perceived from above how nurses and doctors had been busy with CPR.
He was also able to describe correctly and in detail the small room in which he had been resuscitated as well as the appearance of those present like myself. At the time that he observed the situation, he had been very much afraid that we would stop CPR and that he would die.
And it is true that we had been very negative about the patient's prognosis due to his very poor medical condition when admitted. The patient tells me that he desperately and unsuccessfully tried to make it clear to us that he was still alive and that we should continue CPR.
He is deeply impressed by his experience and says he is no longer afraid of death. 4 weeks later he left hospital as a healthy man. (Van Lomme, van Wees, and Elfferich, 2001).
At two-year follow up, the group who reported NDEs differed from a control group in several ways:
- Social attitude (more loving, empathetic, better able to show feelings, accepting of others, involved with family)
- Religious attitude (more interest in spirituality, a sense of inner meaning of life, a feeling of understanding the purpose of life)
- Attitude to death (less fear of death, more belief in life after death)
- Interest in life (interest in meaning of life, understanding oneself, appreciating ordinary things)
How were people who had NDEs affected, in a two year follow-up interview?
One unexpected finding from the Dutch study was that "the seriousness of the crisis was not related to occurrence or depth of the experience." That is similar to the finding of Owens, Cook and Stevenson (1990) that half their sample of people reporting NDEs did not actually have a life-threatening medical emergency, but they thought they did.
Both these results suggest a psychological cause for NDEs rather than anoxia. Apparently a necessary and sufficient condition for an NDE is belief that one is about to die, not anoxia.
What are hints that NDEs are due to psychological factors rather than anoxia?
The story from the nurse, about the man who remembered having his dentures removed, is particularly impressive. It was presumably the most impressive story from the whole set of 344 cardiac cases, because it was singled out for re-telling in a research article.
The usual caveats about that type of data apply. It is a retrospective self-
The Van Lomme, van Wees, and Elfferich (2001) study has the distinction of being the only prospective study of NDEs. The statistic of 1 in 8 cardiac patients having a classic NDE is significant in itself.
Twelve percent sounds like a small number at first, but it actually represents a substantial number of people over time. It gives creedence to the idea that classic near-death experiences happen on a reliable basis.
Carey, B. (2009, January 17) The afterlife of near-death. New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/
Greyson, B. (2010) Near-death experiences. In: Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. New York: Wiley and sons.
Lommel, P. van., Wees, Ruud van., & Elfferich, I. (2001) Near-death experiences in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. Lancet, 358, 2039-2045. doi:https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(01)07100-8 .
Moody, R. (1987) Elvis After Life. New York: Random House.
Moody, R. (1975) Reflections on Life After Life. New York: Harper.
Nettler, G. (1985, April). The quality of crisis. Psychology Today, pp.54-55.
Owens, J., Cook, E. W., & Stevenson, I. (1990) Features of "near-death experience" in relation to whether or not patients were near death. Lancet, 336, 1175-1177. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0140-6736(90)92780-L .
Siegel, R. K. (1980) The psychology of life after death. American Psychologist, 35, 911-931.
Write to Dr. Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org.