The term ‘near-death experience’ refers to a wide range of personal experiences reported by people who have nearly died, or thought they were going to die (Carroll, 2008, para. 1). According to the International Association for Near-Death Studies, a near-death experience is a subjective experience, and can happen to people who are clinically dead, near death, or expecting death (What is a Near-Death Experience, para. 2).
The phenomenon was first formally studied by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who drew public attention to the extraordinary experiences of the dying. Later, George Ritchie, a psychiatry professor, found himself face-to-face with Christ in “a heavenly realm”. Ritchie’s book became the inspiration for Dr. Raymond Moody to publish his book “Life After Life”, featuring cases of near-death experiences (NDE investigators section, para. 1) It was Dr. Moody who coined the term “near-death experience” to describe the phenomenon.
Moody’s accounts in turn inspired Kenneth Ring to put up the International Association for Near Death Studies, and further studies by Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson (NDE investigators section, paras. 10 and 11). Over the years, the body of literature has been growing and the number of theorists have expanded to include Bruce Greyson, P.M.H. Atwater, Melvin Morse, Peter Fenwick, Sam Parnia, Pim van Lommel, Jeff and Jody Long, Harold Widdison, Barbara Rommer, Evelyn Elsaesser-Valarino, and Susan Blackmore, among others.
A Very Bright Light
George Ritchie was pronounced dead of pneumonia in 1943. He came alive nine minutes later with an incredible story to tell. Ritchie professes to having left his body, hovering above it and watching it, although he did not know that it was his dead body. He soon flies through the air, but wondered how he gained these powers. In time, he realizes that he is dead. Then he saw a bright light, where he sees Jesus who asked him what he has done with his life. Jesus gives him a tour of the afterlife, where he sees other spirits who have died horribly and is now paying for their sins. Jesus shows him where spirits, “because of their faith” must “sleep” until Christ returns. Jesus shows him a dimension where spirits try in vain to hurt each other. And then Jesus takes him to a place where “love reigned”. Ritchie returned to his physical body after realizing that Jesus has just shown him heaven and hell, and the future of life of earth (Williams, undated, paras. 1-11).
Because NDEs are largely subjective, there are differences in the reports of NDEs experienced by different people. While most people report pleasurable NDEs, involving feelings of joy, peace, love and bliss, there is a small number of distressing NDEs, which features feelings of guilt, terror, anger, isolation, and horror (International Association for Near-Death Studies, What is a Near-Death Experience, para. 3).
While there is no universally-shared experience, Dr. Raymond Moody outlined elements that generally accompany a near-death experience. Dr. Moody recorded 150 near-death experiences, and came up with these following elements as what usually occurs during NDEs:
l an unpleasant buzzing noise;
l a sense of peace and the absence of pain, usually following intense pain;
l an out-of-body experience, wherein the dying experiences floating above one’s own body;
l being drawn up a tunnel usually at very high speeds, or the tunnel experience;
l instead of the tunnel experience, some people have reported rising into the heavens;
l the appearance of “glowing people”, often dead relatives and friends who greet the dying;
l after meeting the people of light, the dying meets a “powerful spiritual being”;
l the spiritual being gives the dying a rundown of one’s life, reviewing everything one has done in life;
l the dying feels a reluctance to return after being told to do so, or given a choice to do so (Williams, undated, paras. 1-11).
Although it may seem highly spiritual and thus rare, NDEs are expected to happen to around four to fifteen percent of people who are near death, while it was found that 774 NDEs occur daily in the United states (International Association for Near-Death Studies, Key Facts, p.2).
Effects of NDEs
The effect of undergoing a near-death experience is enduring and profound. Nearly all NDE experiences loses their fear of death, and now believes in some form of the afterlife. Most people who experienced it came out with a greater sense of inner peach and purpose in life, thereby developing a loving attitude and greater concern for others, and grows spiritually. For some, they develop the power to heal, or other psychic abilities. Those who experience NDEs after a suicide attempt do not retry (International Association for Near-Death Studies, Key Facts, p.2).
Around 80% of those who have experienced NDEs say that their lives have been “forever changed” by the experience. Most of them had a “renewed zest for life” and gained a “more spiritual outlook”. On top of both, are a bevy of psychological and physiological changes (International Association for Near-Death Studies, Pattern of Aftereffects section, para. 1).
Psychological changes include the loss of the fear of death, becoming more spiritual while being less religious, ease in engaging in abstract thinking, becoming more philosophical, can easily overcome depression, becoming more generous, forming more expansive concepts of love while being unable to develop satisfying relationships, becoming less competitive, becoming more convinced of a life purpose, increased psychic abilities, among others (International Association for Near-Death Studies, Major Characteristics of Psychological Changes section).
Physiological changes, on the other hand, includes switching from sequential and selective thinking to clustered thinking, comfort in ambiguity, increase in intelligence, becoming more creative and inventive, becoming more sensitive to light and sound, reversals in body clock, becomes younger looking, among others (International Association for Near-Death Studies, Major Characteristics of Physiological Changes section).
While most who experience NDEs have linked the experience to a higher being, sometimes ascribing the experience to some supernatural entity, some researchers are saying that these experiences could be nothing more than the responses of our bodies to the process of dying. G.M. Woerlee writes that all of these might have biological implications. Woerlee states that near-death experiences are actually a result of the structure and functioning of the brain, the eyes and other sense organs (Woerlee, 2004, Abstract).
The eyes. Woerlee explains that the bright light seen by people who experienced being near death may be because of pupil widening, which is caused by oxygen deprivation. A small widening of the pupil can increase the amount of light entering by up to 100 times (Woerlee, 2004, ‘The Lovely Brightness’ section, paras. 3-5).
Oxygen deprivation. Woerlee also explains that experiences of tunnels and darkness can be caused by oxygen starvation. with oxygen being vital to the complex chemical reactions of the body’s cells, too little of it–caused by abnormal lung or heart function, too little blood, too little oxygen in the air, and other similar conditions–can lead to the failure of all bodily organs and tissues, which in turn leads to fainting or a loss of consciousness. Fainting spells, Woerlee notes, are often associated with going black, a confirmation that people who faint loses their vision before losing consciousness. Moreover, the eyes’ retina needs more oxygen than most other organs in the body. When the oxygen supply of the retina goes too low, it will initially result in the loss of peripheral vision and then total loss of vision, explaining the tunnels and total darkness reported by people with NDEs (Woerlee, 2004, Oxygen Deprivation section, paras. 1-4).
Somatic sensations. With the decrease in oxygen levels, the brain starts to malfunction. The brain may misinterpret normal sensations into other things, thereby explaining the experience of “flying”, “moving”, or “being drawn through a tunnel”. Further, oxygen deprivation also causes muscle spindles–which are responsible for transmitting sensations of movement, weight, falling, flying and floating–to malfunction (Woerlee, 2004, Somatic Sensations section, paras. 1-4).
Other theories, as summarized by Kevin Williams (Scientific Theories of the NDE, undated) are:
Dying Brain Theory – a theory advanced by Dr. Susan Blackmore that argues that NDEs are nothing but a function of the dying brain. That the illusions seen in an NDE are nothing but a result of a series of reactions in the brain.
Charles Darwin Theory – explains that NDEs are a deliberate ploy of mankind to help those left behind adapt better to death
Hallucination Theory – says that NDEs are nothing but a result of endorphins, ketamine, and other hormones that plays on the dying brain. Also likens NDEs to LSD trips.
Temporal Lobe Theory – forwarded after studies found that some features of NDE may be replicated in a type of epilepsy, or by electrically stimulating the temporal lobe.
Depersonalization Theory – NDEs are nothing but the act of people facing the unpleasant reality of dying to replace it with incredible and lovely fantasies.
Memory of Birth Theory – explains that the dying are merely being reminded of their birth, hence the tunnel, the white light, love and warmth experiences.
The Skeptics Speak
With the varying and often supernatural elements of NDEs and the subjective experiences being reported, it is natural that skeptics would be pouncing on the topic.
On top of the various theories being advanced to demystify NDEs, outlined above, skeptics are also attacking the theorists like Kubler-Ross and Moody. Robert Carroll at the Skeptic’s Dictionary writes that the little NDE research is inconclusive and only points at biological explanations, instead of a supernatural experience. As such, NDEs are definitely not proof of the existence of life after death. And that’s being kind. Carroll also points out that other things like false memories can also come into the picture, since all the typical elements of an NDE has been widely reported in the media.
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The belief in life after death has been one of the most debated stance since time immemorial. Near-death experiences may point people to the direction that there is an afterlife, but some will always believe, no matter how difficult, that everything can be explained by science. It is important to note that none of the researchers have denied the existence of NDEs, only that NDEs is a normal and naturally-occurring phenomenon, like dying itself.
In the end, however, the disparity and variety of near-death experiences—the very same reason why skeptics find NDEs so unbelievable—is what lends it impenetrable to the various theories forwarded that aims to explain it as a purely biological phenomenon. To date, no single theory can disprove NDEs on every single element reported.
What’s important is that NDEs bring about a mostly profound and positive change in an individual that leads to a more positive attitude and outlook in life. If it takes an NDE to bring about that change, the reason for its happening becomes moot.
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