When Raymond Moody’s groundbreaking book Life after Life hit the market in 1975, with its accounts of life-after-death/near-death experiences, it created a cultural phenomenon.  The book described account after account of individuals who, either on the verge of death or actually clinically dead, survived and revived, bringing with them vivid memories of an existence outside their physical bodies. Suddenly, the idea that some people may have actually had a view into what happens after death didn’t seem quite so crazy.  Since that time, accounts of near-death experiences (NDEs) have filled the bookshelves and television talk shows to the point that I think most people (in the US, anyway) are familiar with them, at least in passing.

If you’ve read my post on miracles, you know that while I love a good theological or philosophical discussion, I’m even more interested in direct encounters with the divine.   I like the idea of going straight to the source.  It seems to me that the accounts of near-death experiences (NDEs) have a lot of potential for that sort of thing — assuming, of course, they’re the real deal and not just manifestations of brain malfunction.  So just like with miracles, I think it’s fair to approach the topic with a fair amount of skepticism.  But the criteria for evaluating whether they’re real or not needs to be objective.  We can’t just dismiss them simply because they don’t match up with our pre-conceived ideas, whether Mormon, atheist, or anything else.

The “average” account of an NDE, as popularlized in books and on TV, would go something like this:  the person is in severe physical travail; she finds herself outside her body, looking down on herself and realizes “this is it — I’m dead”;  she feels pulled away, possibly through a tunnel into another plane or spiritual existence;  her fear dissipates and she feels tremendous love and peace;  she sees a light and desires to move toward the light;  she’s met either by another being (possibly a deceased family member) or she hears a voice;  she’s told she can come no farther and that she must go back;  she wants so much to remain;  she wakes up in her body, having had the most real and lucid experience of her life.  You’ve probably all heard it before — it’s almost cliché at this point.  But actually, my impression of NDEs (having read dozens) is that they’re all very unique.  So different, in fact, that it seems pretty impossible to jam more than a few into the description just given, and even those will have details that seem way too significant to leave out.  Also, that “average” account is actually more involved than most, and could be considered a “deeper” experience.

Another thing I found interesting:  NDEs just aren’t that rare.  They’re common enough and widely reported enough that various doctors and psychiatrists have started researching them — real science! — and publishing their results in peer-reviewed journals.  In fact, they’ve even started their own journal.  But when I say real science, I mean as real as it gets for psychiatry.  Just like psychiatry, researchers are mostly dependent on people’s responses and descriptions, not things they can directly measure.  It would be fascinating to run an electroencephalogram (EEG) on the brain of someone who was experiencing an NDE, for example, but it’s hard to arrange that experiment in a way that wouldn’t be unethical.  Consequently, researchers are mostly reduced to using surveys.

I recently listened to Evidence of the Afterlife (on audiobook) by Jeffrey Long, M.D. who started the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation, which is essentially a web page inviting people who have experienced an NDE, to describe it and answer a fairly extensive questionnaire.  At the time he published his book (2010), which contains the results of several studies based on the answers to the questionnaire, he had about 1600 respondents on his NDERF website.  Now, he has collected over 4000 such experiences which he has categorized as NDEs, probable NDEs, and possible NDEs.  They come from all over the world, and he has a small army of volunteer translators (some better than others) to help with communication.  While every account is unique — some dramatically so — he’s still been able to identify 12 elements that seem to create a common thread, based on 617 of the first accounts to his website:

  1. Out-of-body experience (OBE) —  75.4% of respondents report observing events from a vantage point outside of their bodies, usually from above.  They can report seeing doctors or emergency personal attempting to save their lives or relatives grieving over them, although their body is clearly unconscious and their eyes are closed.
  2. Heightened Sense of Awareness — 74.4% said they felt more conscious/alert than normal
  3. Intense and generally positive emotions — 76.2% said they experienced incredible peace or pleasantness, 52% said they experienced incredible joy
  4. Passing into or through a tunnel — 33.8% said they passed through a tunnel
  5. Encountering a mystical or bright light — 64.6% said they’d seen a mystical/bright light
  6. Encountering other beings or relatives or friends — 57.3% said they’d encountered other beings
  7. Sense of alteration of time or space — 60.5% said time/space was different
  8. Life Review — 22.2% reported seeing the events of their lives played out before them
  9. Encountering unworldly, heavenly realms — 50.2% said they entered some other unearthly world
  10. Special Knowledge — 56% reported having a sense of knowing special knowledge, and 31.5% felt like they suddenly seemed to understand everything
  11. Encountering a Boundary or Barrier — 31% reported reaching a boundary or limiting physical structure that prevented them from proceeding further.
  12. Return to the Body, either voluntary or involuntary — 58.5% said they involved in or aware of a decision for them to return to their bodies

Dr. Long feels that the prevalence and consistency of these elements showing up across all NDEs, and especially the fact that they show up with essentially the same frequency across ethnicity, culture, age, and religious backgrounds (he’s done studies) is strong evidence that NDEs are the real deal.  I find that somewhat persuasive, but just a quick calculation using his own numbers (assuming no correlation, which probably isn’t accurate) shows the likelihood of a single NDE including all 12 elements at less than 0.04%.  Even if you take out the less common elements (ie., Tunnel, Life Review, Barrier) the odds of all the remaining elements occurring within a single NDE are only 1.6%.  To me, this implies as much inconsistency as consistency.

I would guess that most doctors dismiss NDEs as simply manifestations of a highly distressed brain.  Once the heart stops beating, it only takes about 20 to 30 seconds for the brain’s oxygen supply to decrease to the point where electrical activity in the neocortex (where higher cognitive functions occur, including consciousness) stops entirely.  During the transition, it seems neurons could fire all sorts of random shots, and when the brain reawakens, its highly interpolative nature [1] could create whole stories from them.

A neuro-surgeon by the name of Eben Alexander admits he would say such things to his patients too, until he had his own NDE.  In his book Proof of Heaven, A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, Dr. Alexander describes how he came down with an extremely rare bacterial meningitis which put him in a coma for 7 days.  During that time, he says had the most vivid, lucid, and conscious experience of his life, in which he moved between planes of existence and interacted with other beings, including God.  His account is fascinating and well-written, and he agrees with Dr. Long that there’s no way to dismiss NDEs as simply manifestations of a misfiring brain.  Dr. Alexander points out that he also experienced the psychosis common to people whose brains are coming out of coma, including delusions, paranoia, and extremely realistic and terrifying dreams (in which his wife was trying to kill him).  But he points out that afterwards he could look back on that period and recognize those memories and thoughts for the psychosis they were.  On the other hand, his NDE memories, he says, remain the most real he has.  He points out that when he was in coma, his neocortex was entirely shut down.  It was physically impossible for him to be processing visual or auditory images or creating memories, especially those as rich and complex as he had during his NDE, without some higher functioning brain activity.  Furthermore, he points out that the symptoms of hypoxia (low oxygen in the brain) include disjointed and indistinct images and thoughts, not the highly lucid narratives that accompany NDEs.

One topic that’s attracted a lot of research is the out-of-body experience (OBE).  OBEs are rather common in contexts other than NDEs [2] — one estimate says that 1 in 10 people will have an OBE at least once in their lives.  An OBE is basically having a sense that one’s self is located outside of one’s body, and there are claims they can be caused by meditation, sensory deprivation, sensory over-stimulation, rapid changes in blood pressure (such as in astronaut training), disassociative hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, artificial stimulation of particular parts of the brain, and even from achieving a body asleep / mind awake state (Thomas Edison and Salvador Dalí are said to have deliberately put themselves in this state for their work).  However, as both Dr. Long and Dr. Alexander point out, the OBEs described during NDEs tend to be qualitatively different than those induced in other ways.  For example, those experiencing NDEs (NDEers) often describe seeing things that they simply couldn’t, as they were unconscious and their eyes were closed.  Skeptics don’t find descriptions of doctors using a defibrillator or paramedics doing CPR all that convincing, though, because the NDEer’s brains could construct those things from images on television.  However, there have been several cases in which NDEers reported seeing things that could be verified.  In one account I read, a woman found herself at the ceiling looking down on her grieving husband and her inert body, and she happened to see an important document on the top of a cabinet.  When she awoke, she told her husband where it was.  She couldn’t have seen it without the OBE.  Another time a man flatlined and they were trying to intubate him.  They removed his dentures, as they were getting in the way, and someone put them in the drawer of the crash cart.  Later, when he’d revived and they’d wanted him to eat, nobody knew where the dentures were.  Since he’d been outside his body watching the whole event from above, he could tell them not only that the dentures were in the crash cart, but in which drawer.  In yet another case, a woman described seeing a shoe on a window ledge as she passed out of the hospital, and she described it in detail (color, styling) upon her revival.  A researcher went from window to window of the hospital’s upper floors and actually found the shoe.

Since OBEs seem like something that could actually be checked out, Dr. Sam Parnia initiated the AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) study.  Shelves were placed in hospital rooms in which resuscitations were likely to occur, and on each shelf was placed an image that could only be viewed from above.  The idea was that if the patient experienced an OBE in which they were looking down from the ceiling, they would be able to describe the image, but otherwise would be unable to see them.  Seems like a good test, right?  Well, the results of the study have been published, and they produced no new evidence of a real OBE.  Of 2060 patients, only 101 both survived and achieved a good enough health for a stage 2 interview, and of those, only 9 were identified as having had an NDE.  Of those 9, only 2 were deemed to have had an OBE (a lower percentage than Dr. Long’s study would have predicted), and one of them was too ill for a stage 3 interview.  The remaining guy’s cardiac arrest happened in a room that hadn’t had the shelves, so all he could do was describe the doctors working.  There’s some noise about trying the study again (AWARE II).

Dr. Long, however, is thoroughly convinced that NDEs occur, and he has several reasons besides OBE evidence (his book lists a dozen).  For example, people who have been blind from birth and had an NDE describe what they’ve experienced very much like a sighted person would, which is remarkable, considering they’ve no real concept of what sight is.  They may not call it sight, but they described being able to investigate things and gathering information about their surroundings in a way a sighted person would call “seeing”.  Another example is that those reporting an NDE from early childhood (age 5 or younger) would describe their NDEs in much the same ways as adult NDEers would, before they were at an age to know anything about NDEs, tunnels, bright lights, or anything that would have prejudiced their account.

Personally, I have two different points of view when it comes to NDEs.  First, I’m hesitant to draw conclusions from too little data, and I’m not convinced there are as many NDEs as claimed.  It’s impossible to know how close to death most NDEers really were.  Somebody passing out from lack of blood, or from drowning, or from a car accident isn’t necessarily brain dead.  Short of an EEG to verify the brain is truly not functioning, it’s really hard to rule out that something funny isn’t going on in there.  Our sense of time, place, context, and every other perception our earthly body has, resides in some circuit in the brain.  There are cases, such as those of Dr. George R. Ritchie (Return from Tomorrow) and Dr. Eben Alexander where the evidence is pretty strong they were brain dead, but these cases are rarer [3], and even then it seems quite possible the brain constructed those experiences as it was shutting down or firing back up.

On the other hand, the thing that I find most compelling is how absolutely transformative the near-death experience is for so many who’ve had one.  I haven’t gone into this at all yet (next installment! — you can’t wait, I know!), but for me, it’s the most marvelous and wonderful part of the whole discussion [4].  Reading some of those accounts, it’s like listening to a convert at church who will bear testimony of the spiritual witness she’s received, that the church is true, or the Book of Mormon is the word of God.  She can describe her experience as absolutely real, and you can easily put it down to her emotional state or whatever, but you can’t deny that whatever she claims to have experienced seems to have dramatically influenced her life.

Next post we’ll dive into some of the content of these NDEs, how they line up with Mormon Doctrine, and how they influence the lives of those who experience them.

But first, has anybody out there had a near-death experience, or even an out-of-body experience?

Do you believe the phenomena is actually real, or do you think NDEs are simply the results of fevered minds and a fad promoted by Oprah?

 

 

[1]  The brain doesn’t store every detail of a memory, but rather stores bits and pieces and interpolates between them to make a whole picture.  That’s part of why eye-witnesses of abrupt events are so notoriously unreliable, even when they’re so sure of what they saw.  Their brain remembers just a couple parts to what happened and fills in the gaps in a way that makes sense, even if it doesn’t line up with reality.  The biarn si prtaliacurly gdoo at aranrgign the wlhol pticure from sctatered pntois, as yuo cna tlel by how esialy adn qukcliey yua cna raed tihs snteenec.

[2]  My mother might have had an OBE.  When I was quite young, she was involved in a serious car accident.  She said that just as impact was imminent, she found herself outside the car looking down as the accident happened.  After things came to rest, she found herself back in the car, entirely unhurt.  I think she thought her whole body had been removed from the car, because I remember her saying that when she found herself back in the car, there was glass everywhere, but not on her.

[3]  Dr. Long would argue this point strenuously, given all the NDEs that occur during anesthesia, or from an overdose of anesthesia, which would completely shut down the neocortex.

[4]  In the sense that they make me marvel and wonder — and are generally really good.