A Near-Death Experience (NDE) is a form of non-ordinary experience that can be summarised as:
“the reported memory of a range of impressions during a special state of consciousness, including a number of special and universal reported elements such as an out-of-body experience, pleasant feelings, seeing a tunnel, a light, deceased relatives, a life review, and a conscious return into the body.” — Source.
These experiences are often reported following extreme trauma such as cardiac arrest, hemorrhagic shock, near-drowning, traumatic brain injury and other imminently life-threatening events. But it has also been experienced during meditation, prolonged isolation, or even without any obvious prodrome.
A prospective study published in The Lancet in 2001 (Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands) looked at 344 patients across 10 Dutch hospitals who had survived cardiac arrest.
After extensive interviews of those patients, 62 (18%) reported some form of NDE. With 5% reporting ‘deep’ NDE and 2% reporting a ‘very deep’ NDE.
The study group was then re-interviewed 8 years later using a life-change inventory as well as completing medical and psychological questionnaires.
Many theories to explain NDE’s have been proposed. Often they involve the state of cerebral anoxia or another physiological insult at the time of dying. I will talk more about this in upcoming posts.
But one would think that if these explanations were valid there would be a much higher experience of NDE’s reported.
|Elements||Frequency (n=62)||Elements||Frequency (n=62)|
|Awareness of being dead.||31 (50%)||Observation of colours||14 (23%)|
|Positive emotions||35 (56%)||Observation of a celestial landscape||18 (29%)|
|Out of body experience||15 (24%)||Meeting with deceased persons||20 (32%)|
|Moving through a tunnel||19 (31%)||Life review||8 (13 %)|
|Communication with light||14 (23%)||Presence of border||5 (8%)|
Other theories suggest that the ‘shutting down’ of brain function during the dying process may allow consciousness to access a reality that is filtered/constrained by normal brain function (brain as a limiting valve). The NDE access a state of transcendent consciousness in which identity, perception and emotion are functioning independently from the unconscious body.
During one of the experiences (a young American woman who had complications during brain surgery for a cerebral aneurysm) the patient happened to be connected to an EEG which showed no electrical activity in her cerebral cortex or brain stem. She should not have been able to have any complex experiences at all. Following her successful resuscitation and recovery, “this patient proved to have had a very deep NDE, including an out-of-body experience, with subsequently verified observations during the period of the flat EEG.”
At the 8 year follow-up, the surviving patients still had a strong recall of their NDEs. ALL the patients (including those who did not experience NDE) reported being more self-assured, socially aware with a decreased fear of death, however, those who did have an NDE strongly believed in an afterlife.
The authors found that any process of transformational change following an NDE occurred gradually over the 8 year period, and suggested that this might be due to difficulty integrating the experience in the setting of society’s skeptical opinions of NDE and subsequent fear of rejection of ridicule.
Regarding causes of NDEs, the authors of the study note:
Similar experiences can be induced through electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe (and hence of the hippocampus) during neurosurgery for epilepsy, with high carbon dioxide levels (hypercarbia), and in decreased cerebral perfusion resulting in local cerebral hypoxia as in rapid acceleration during training of fighter pilots, or as in hyperventilation followed by valsalva manoeuvre. Ketamine-induced experiences resulting from blockage of the NMDA receptor, and the role of endorphin, serotonin, and enkephalin have also been mentioned, as have near-death-like experiences after the use of LSD, psilocarpine, and mescaline. These induced experiences can consist of unconsciousness, out-of-body experiences, and perception of light or flashes of recollection from the past. These recollections, however, consist of fragmented and random memories unlike the panoramic life-review that can occur in NDE. Further, transformational processes with changing life-insight and disappearance of fear of death are rarely reported after induced experiences.
The authors encourage further studies into this phenomenon and conclude that NDE “pushes at the limits of medical ideas about the range of human consciousness and the mind-brain relation.”
Pirn van Lommel, Ruud van Wees, Vincent Meyers, Ingrid Elfferich,
Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands, The Lancet, Volume 358, Issue 9298, 2001,
Featured image: by Christopher Campbell