On occasion, after a person whose heart has stopped beating is revived, he or she recalls remaining conscious during the experience. Such claims are part of what is called a near-death experience (NDE), and the stories people tell of their experiences tend to be similar throughout the world. NDErs, as experients are called, tell of travelling through a dark tunnel to a place of light that many people believe is some form of afterlife. This idea was promoted in such works as Life After Life by Raymond Moody (1975) and The Tunnel and the Light by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1999).
As reported by those who have had one, the NDE typically begins with a sudden feeling of peace and the perception that one’s consciousness has floated out of the body and is looking down on it. Many NDErs give detailed descriptions of what doctors and nurses were doing and saying while trying to revive them. Sometimes NDErs report attempting to speak to the doctors, but they say they could not make themselves heard. After this point, most say, a strange noise began—usually a buzzing, a loud ringing, or a roaring wind—and then got louder and louder until they felt themselves being drawn into a dark place, typically a tunnel or cave, then moving through this place toward a bright light. After emerging from the dark into the light, they saw and perhaps also talked to (either via speech or telepathy) deceased relatives, angelic beings, and/or a being they perceived as a deity, such as God or Jesus. Of interest to researchers in paranormal phenomena are studies that have suggested that people whose NDE was part of a long illness typically recall seeing more deceased relatives than do people whose NDE was unexpected. The implication, some researchers into the phenomenon say, is that the relatives have been expecting the arrival of their loved one.
Some NDErs recall only their interactions with the beings in the light, but a few describe their surroundings. Typically, they tell of an unusually beautiful landscape with brilliant colors. A few NDErs, however, report that they found themselves in a horrible place with gruesome images and demonic beings. Interestingly, many of these people have committed serious crimes or what they and/or society consider to be immoral acts, and after their NDE they vow to amend their ways. In fact, even NDErs who have led good lives usually say that the place of light made them review their previous behavior. Many also report that one of the beings in the light showed them images from their life, as though in a movie and without passing judgment, as if to give them the opportunity to review everything they have done.
At this point, a majority of NDErs say they had to decide whether to move forward into the land of light, usually by passing some sort of barrier. For example, they might have faced a choice of whether to cross over a stream, river, or bridge, to climb over a fence, or to walk through a gate. Some recall making a definite choice not to move forward—often after thinking about the friends and family they would be leaving behind—and then immediately beginning a return to normal consciousness. Others recall actually choosing to move forward only to feel themselves being yanked back to consciousness. In either case, the majority recall feeling at least some disappointment over not being able to stay in the beautiful place, which most interpret as being the afterlife.
Research into NDEs
The first person to write extensively about the commonalities of NDEs was Raymond Moody, whose book Life After Life brought the concept to other researchers’ attention. One of these was cardiologist Michael Sabom, who subsequently interviewed more than three hundred hospital patients who had been revived after experiencing clinical death. Forty percent of them reported NDEs, and their stories were similar to those Moody had uncovered. Moreover, Sabom studied hospital records in order to determine whether his NDErs were accurately describing what they saw while their consciousness was supposedly floating over the doctors trying to revive them. Sabom discovered that on many occasions, the NDErs’ descriptions matched what was going on at the time. For example, some of his patients who had died while undergoing open-heart surgery were able to describe what their hearts and their incision had looked like. As a result of his study, and additional ones, Sabom has concluded that the mind does separate from the body after death, and that NDEs might be glimpses into the afterlife.
Another NDE researcher, Dr. Kenneth Ring, agrees that this might be the case. However, he has also theorized that the place of light might instead be a realm where all imaginative thought has accumulated. He calls this the imaginal realm and explains that although the components of this realm were created by thought, the beings that exist there—including those seen by NDErs and interpreted as deceased loved ones—are real. He further suggests that it can be accessed by certain people when they are in an altered mental state, such as occurs during an NDE or, he theorizes, a supposed case of alien abduction. Ring sees many comparisons between the experiences of NDErs and people who claim to have been abducted by extraterrestrials, and this has led him to conclude that abductees are really seeing beings within the imaginal realm instead of aliens.
Some people dismiss Ring’s theories as being too complex, arguing that it makes more sense to accept NDErs position that they have actually seen a glimpse of the afterlife. Sceptics, though, say that there is another, more logical and scientific explanation: NDEs are the result of changes in the brain during the dying process, which trigger visions of bright lights, sensations that the spirit is floating away from the body, and memories of childhood experiences, religious teachings, and deceased loved ones. Scientists cannot prove this, however, because there is no way to completely simulate an NDE, short of actually stopping the heart altogether.
Still, some researchers have managed to reproduce some of the elements of an NDE by enveloping the head in a magnetic field, others by stimulating the temporal lobe of the brain with electricity, and still others by subjecting the brain to certain drugs. In fact, people who have ingested a hallucinogenic drug called ketamine report experiences that can be very similar to NDE stories. However, researchers have been unable to find a natural substance in the body that, during the dying process, would act like ketamine to produce all aspects of NDEs. The failure to find this NDE “substance,” then, fuels ongoing speculation that the views of some sort of afterlife are somehow genuine.
- Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
- Raymond A. Moody
- Kenneth Ring
- Michael Sabom
The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning