A near-death experience (NDE) is a term covering a range of phenomena, some paranormal, that are reported by many individuals who have come, or believe they have come, close to death. The term “near-death experience” was coined in the 1970s by the American physician Dr. Raymond Moody, who heard his patients talk about the phenomena. The first person to describe such cases, however, was a Swiss geologist named Heim who in 1892 recorded more than 30 cases, mostly from Alpine mountain climbers who had suffered falls.
NDEs are popularly believed to occur to those who are clinically dead, yet studies have found that many experiencers— even the majority—were not even near death at the time of the NDE, though these persons believed that their lives were threatened.
NDEs have been recorded throughout history and in cultures around the world, but with the advent of increasingly sophisticated technology that saves lives in crisis, they have become more common. A Gallup poll in 1982 showed that in the United States alone approximately 8 million adults reported having NDEs.
Common NDE phenomena include a sense of being dead; having an Out-of-Body Experience (OBE) in which the person experiences floating above his or her body and looking down at it; a cessation of pain and a feeling of bliss; travelling down a tunnel toward a light at the end; meeting Apparitions of nonphysical beings dressed in glowing white or of dead friends and relatives; coming in contact with a guide or Supreme Being, such as an Angel, who shows the person a review of his or her life; and returning reluctantly to life.
Although negative experiences occur, the majority of NDEs are positive, influencing individuals to become more spiritual or develop a belief in God. Most lose their fear of death and begin believing in Survival After Death. In some cases, experiencers acquire psychic or mediumistic abilities. Most experiencers have some difficulty readjusting to daily life. Religious beliefs seem to have no bearing on whether a person has an NDE, or what phenomena are experienced. On the other hand, the phenomena vary to some extent from culture to culture, suggesting that beliefs about what will happen when we die help shape the experiences.
An NDE may enable an individual to access higher realms of consciousness. There are similarities to the experiences of shamans (see Shamanism).
NDE accounts are anecdotal, meaning that the phenomenon eludes Scientific proof. Cardiologist Michael Sabom, however, has collected cases in which patients under anesthesia reported seeing things or overhearing conversations that they should not have been privy to. More than any other work on the NDE, Sabom’s suggests that some part of consciousness may separate from the body. However, like OBEs, NDEs offer no direct evidence for survival after death.
Other researchers have identified characteristics of NDEs that point toward survival after death. These are en hanced cognitive abilities, paranormal perceptions, and a sense that one is viewing one’s body from a different position in space.
Natural explanations for the NDE are similar to those put forward to explain deathbed visions: hallucinations brought about by a lack of oxygen, the release of endorphins (natural painkillers) or increased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. NDE-like phenomena can be in duced in laboratory experiments with hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, but subjects do not report the same ineffable mystical quality that subsequently changes their lives.
- Atwater, P. M. H. Coming Back to Life: The After-Effects of the Near-Death Experience. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1988.
- Blackmore, Susan. Dying to Live. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993.
- Cook, Emily Williams, Bruce Greyson, and Ian Stevenson. “Do Any Near-Death Experiences Provide Evidence for the Survival of Human Personality after Death? Relevant Features and Illustrative Case Reports.” Journal of Scientific Exploration 12 (1998): 377–406.
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- ———. Heading Toward Omega. New York: William Morrow, 1984.
- Sabom, Michael B. Recollections of Death. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
- Ian, Emily Williams Cook, and Nicholas McClean- Rice. “Are Persons Reporting ‘Near-Death Experiences’ Really Near Death? A Study of Medical Records.” Omega 20 (1989–90): 45–54.
- Zaleski, Carol. Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.