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What to Know About Near-Death Experiences

Getty Images / Ismail Can Tüfekci

What are they, when do they happen, how do they feel, and what do they mean?

A near-death experience (NDE) occurs when a person is temporarily clinically dead, close to death, or in imminent danger of death.

While the specifics of NDEs vary from person to person, some common themes include seeing events unfold from a perspective outside one’s body (also known as an out-of-body experience), feeling a sense of calm and well-being, and moving through a tunnel or void toward a light.

NDEs are commonly described by people who have had them — known as NDErs — as hyperreal or “more real than real,” easy to remember and recount. When it’s suggested that they might be remembering a hallucination or dream, NDErs tend to argue that the experience didn’t have the disjointed quality of a dream. Some are able to describe details and events that happened around them while they were unconscious or clinically dead.  

People have been reporting and describing NDEs for centuries — at least since the Middle Ages, and some point to accounts from ancient times that are remarkably similar to NDEs. But the term “near-death experience” was first coined, and modern research initially applied to the phenomenon, in 1975 by Raymond A. Moody, Jr. The philosopher-turned-psychiatrist did a series of interviews with NDErs and published the book “Life After Life” about their experiences. 

The idea of NDEs is a divisive one. While some people fully believe that NDEs prove that our consciousness lives on after death, others consider this to be unproveable pseudoscience and insist that the body sensations felt in an NDE are entirely attributable to physical processes in the brain. But many people exist somewhere in between the two views, unsure what the truth is but tempted to believe that some who are near death catch a glimpse of an afterlife before returning to life. 

According to the International Association for Near Death Studies, there are two types of NDE. Most people will be familiar with the common descriptions of the pleasurable NDE, featuring warm feelings and benevolent beings. Less well known is the distressing NDE, which is reported by a smaller percentage of NDErs. 

Four phases of a pleasurable NDE 

While everybody who has experienced an NDE describes it in their own individual way, pleasurable NDEs tend to progress in four phases: 

Disassociated phase. The NDE begins with a feeling of being separate from one’s body. The NDEr may feel like they’re floating. This comes with a feeling of wellbeing and freedom from pain. They don’t report seeing or hearing anything in particular. 

Naturalistic phase. This is the classic out-of-body experience, in which the NDEr can see their surroundings from a perspective outside their body, as if they’re floating in space above their own body. Some say they can see through walls and understand the thoughts of those around them. 

Supernatural phase. The NDEr moves away from their physical body and encounters things that don’t belong in the natural world. Some report moving through a tunnel toward a light. Some report encounters with deceased loved ones or with what they perceive as angels. Some hear music more beautiful than anything they’ve heard in their lives. 

Return phase. As the NDE nears its end, the NDEr returns to their body. Some report having consciously made a decision to return, some say they were told they had to return and did so reluctantly, and some simply found themselves back in their bodies without making a decision about it. 

Four types of distressing NDEs 

Not every NDE follows the familiar pattern. Some are different, and some of those can be upsetting rather than comforting. There are four general types of distressing NDE: 

Powerlessness. Some people go through the same general phases as a pleasurable NDE but find it distressing because they have no control over what’s happening. It feels like something that’s being done to them rather than something they’re doing. 

Nothingness. Some people do not see, hear, and feel things as in the pleasurable NDE. Instead, they perceive themselves as floating in a featureless void. 

Torment. In some cases, the experience is quite the opposite of the pleasurable NDE. Instead of benevolent beings and beautiful music, the NDEr perceives evil and scary creatures and annoying noises.  They may see other people in distress during their NDE. 

Worthlessness. Some people report feeling judged by a higher power and coming up short. 

When do NDEs happen? 

An NDE can happen to anybody, though most studies on them have focused on people in the Western world. They have been reported by young and old, even by people who were too young at the time of the NDE to describe it but did so later. NDEs are reported by religious and non-religious people alike.  

The NDE we see most often in popular culture happens when a person is clinically dead. This could be after they have fallen into icy water, or when surgery fails, or when they’ve been in a severe car accident. For a period of time, they stop breathing and their blood stops circulating as they are in cardiac arrest. Measurable brain activity ceases after 20 to 40 seconds of clinical death. 

In some cases, physicians can revive people who are clinically dead. In fact, this is becoming more common than it once was as medical science advances. If the patient has been cold — as in a fall into icy water — they may be able to survive longer while clinically dead and still be revived with full brain function. 

Some of these patients, once revived, tell stories of NDEs. However, it’s not a universal thing, and many people who have been clinically dead have no NDE to report. 

There are some surgical procedures in which doctors artificially lower the body’s temperature and/or stop the heart in order to do complex operations that they would be unable to do while the body was functioning normally. With the heart not beating, the body can be considered clinically dead. Some people who have been through these procedures have reported NDEs. 

NDEs are also reported by people who were never clinically dead but were simply near death. This means they were in a very dire circumstance, but their breathing, heart, and brain function didn’t all stop. 

In rare cases, an NDE-like experience has been reported from someone who was not near death or clinically dead, but was in an extreme situation such as severe grief or deep meditation. 

What does science say about NDEs? 

There have been a number of attempts to study NDEs and determine once and for all what is happening during an NDE. However, it’s not an easy thing to study. This is in part because of the random nature of an NDE; not everyone who is clinically dead and later revived will have an NDE.  

Another reason is that conditions that could lead to an NDE tend to happen suddenly. It’s difficult for researchers to be prepared to investigate something that tends to happen after sudden accidents or illnesses taking a turn for the worse. Talking to NDErs after the fact doesn’t lend itself to scientific inquiry, because there’s no way to measure physical evidence against their recollections. 

In the absence of indisputable evidence that NDEs are journeys into the afterlife and back, scientists tend to believe that the sensations experienced during NDEs are explainable as the result of physical processes in the brain. However, science hasn’t yet identified exactly what those processes are and how they cause experiences like those common to NDEs. 

It’s getting closer, though. Scientists have worked with doctors to study surgical patients whose hearts have been deliberately stopped during surgery to try to find correlation between any NDE sensations and the readings delivered by the machines monitoring their functions. Others have studied what happens to brain waves in rats when their hearts are stopped. 

Skeptics point to a number of potential scientific explanations for NDE. One is that when oxygen flow to the brain and eyes is impeded — as happens in the process of clinical death — tunnel vision can result. This might account for the feeling of moving through a tunnel toward a bright light that many NDErs report.  

One common type of anesthesia, ketamine, can trigger hallucinations and cause out-of-body experiences. Sleep paralysis can come with vivid and scary dreams that feel real. A region of the brain can cause hallucinations when stimulated. Endorphins produced during stressful situations can account for the feeling of peace and wellness NDErs may have. A spike in brain function during clinical death has been observed in rats and could indicate the brain being briefly hyperactive as it tries to make sense of what’s happening. These are all routes the scientific community has explored as it tries to explain NDE as a physical function rather than a brush with the afterlife. 

Researchers haven’t yet been able to prove what NDEs really are. No one can say if NDErs are actually visiting an afterlife, just as we can’t say for sure that their brains are throwing certain types of images at them after being stressed by physical trauma. 

What happens after an NDE? 

Many people who have had an NDE find themselves feeling differently about their lives in the wake of their brush with death. It’s common for people to believe that what they saw and felt during their NDE was proof of an afterlife, and it’s an experience that can profoundly change the way a person thinks and feels. 

Some NDErs report that they no longer feel like they fit in after attempting to return to daily life. It’s not uncommon for an NDEr to leave their spouse or quit their job and pursue a new path. This may occur alongside a feeling of a new or renewed purpose in life. NDErs often feel more positive about life, more loving, and more generous.  

Often, NDErs report that they no longer fear death. This may be in part because they faced death and returned to life. But it also goes hand in hand with a strengthened belief in an afterlife.  

Sometimes, a person who has been through an NDE will feel reluctant to talk about it. Certainly, not all NDEs are reported. The NDEr might worry that people won’t believe them or will think they’re mentally ill. It may be that a smaller percentage of distressing NDEs is reported versus pleasurable NDEs, because the distressing NDE doesn’t fit the culturally popular narrative of NDE that we’ve seen in books and movies. It’s impossible to know just how many NDEs are experienced but never reported. 

The ramifications of NDE for grievers 

Some people believe that NDEs offer proof of an afterlife. In the majority of reported NDEs, that perceived afterlife is a lovely place where they’re reunited with deceased loved ones. This can be very comforting, both to anyone contemplating their own death and to anyone grieving the loss of a loved one.  

The belief that consciousness will carry on in a positive way after death can help alleviate some of the pain of grief. If you feel confident that your loved one is in a good place and you are likely to join them there one day, it can feel like their death is just a temporary separation. The loss is certainly still painful, but some of its sting is eliminated. So for the subset of people who are all in for NDEs, grief can be lessened somewhat. 

Many other people just aren’t sure if NDEs are proof of an afterlife — and others actively believe there’s no connection between NDE and afterlife. Yet even if you firmly believe that the sensations involved in NDE are attributable to physical processes in the brain and/or reactions to anesthesia, there can be some comfort for your grief based on what happens during an NDE.  

One of the key features of the pleasurable NDE is a feeling of peace and wellbeing. NDErs report that as they pass into a state of clinical death, they aren’t feeling pain. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: They say they feel good, both physically and spiritually. Even in the smaller percentage of distressing NDEs, physical pain tends not to be a characteristic. 

If you’re grieving a loved one’s death, one of the things that might be worrying you is the idea that their death was painful. But if we listen to what NDErs are telling us, the moment of death was not painful at all — and, if they were suffering pain prior to death because of an injury or illness, that pain disappeared at the moment of death. This can be a source of comfort to grievers. 


 

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