To Nearly Die is To Be Alive Again.
The Phenomenological Experience & Transformative Psychological Changes of Near Death Experiencers
“The oldest recorded English account of a near-death experience was provided by the Venerable Bede in the eighth century. It concerns a Northumbrian by the name of Drythelm who suddenly arose from his deathbed after a light-filled experience, then proceeded to give away all of his earthly possessions so he could join the monastery in service to others” (Atwater, 2011, p. 46).
In most parts of the world, death is regarded as the solemn culmination of a living being—a cessation of the biological life processes such as respiration, cognition, digestion, movement, and growth. Death should be the end-all for living organisms, including humans. It is not always the case. Currently, there are more than anecdotal instances of a global pattern of resurrection experienced by individuals who have deceased. Is this pattern simply a spiritual anomaly or is this the next evolutionary stage for humankind?
The state of (and reactions of the experiencers) NDEs are too complex and subjective to describe by using umbrella terminology. NDEs can occur instantaneously, unexpectedly, traumatically (caused by illness, injury, or coma), or be induced (such as in ancient wisdom and shamanic traditions by ritualistic use of hallucinogenic substances). Christof Koch, chief scientist of MindScope at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, states that “Modern death requires irreversible loss of brain function” that occurs when the brain loses blood and oxygen, causing the individual to faint and flatline. “Like a town that loses power one neighborhood at a time, local regions of the brain go offline one after another. The mind, whose substrate is whichever neurons remain capable of generating electrical activity” steps in, and ”it tells a story shaped by the person’s experience, memory and cultural expectations” (Koch, 2020). The American Medical Association states, “The Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) defines death as an irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions or irreversible cessation of fall functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem” (AMA, 2020). This research study follows the AMA’s definition of death in its exploration of near-death data—with the caveat that “irreversible” does not meet the criteria for the NDEers.
"I could see pulsating colors like little orbs, much brighter and sharper than any colours I’d seen in my normal life. Watching them was really relaxing and therapeutic. It was such a beautiful place, with a feeling that I was being cared for and supported. I thought that this is what it must be like to die – and then wondered if it meant that I had just died…
The sensation of love became stronger and as I looked at my feet, I saw a huge tunnel of light drawing closer towards me. I felt, and I still believe this now, that the white light was the source of all creation. I never dreamt I would ever see something so beautiful… It was the light of pure, unconditional love. Every molecule of my body was pulsating with love and light. It was the most incredible sensation. I felt more alive than I have ever done before. It felt like I was experiencing the true reality, while my old world was just an illusion. At that point, I felt certain that I was dead but I didn’t feel any fear or regret… I lay my head back and laughed because I felt so joyous. Then suddenly I was back in hospital, with an overdrive of noise and light and people and frantic voices. I was being rushed into theatre" (Taylor, 2020).
The above is an NDE account by David Ditchfield (from Cambridge, England) who fell on the rail tracks and became wedged between the rushing train above and the tracks beneath him– his left arm “severed from the elbow down,” and was subsequently transported to the hospital for surgery (Taylor, 2020).
Many ancient cultures have stories of resurrection and NDEs (although the term didn’t exist then) and these have been incorporated into their religious/spiritual narrative. NDEs were first scientifically explored in the West by a physician and psychiatrist, Raymond Moody, Jr., in his book Life After Life (1975)—a collection of first-hand accounts of near-death experiencers (NDEers). In fact, Moody is the leading researcher in the field and popularized the term Near Death Experiences (NDEs). “Moody’s book set off a steady stream of memoirs, TV shows, and articles. Since then, a small community has emerged of psychiatrists, psychologists, cardiologists, and other specialists. They share Moody’s belief that consciousness—the mind, the soul, call it what you will—may exist in some nonmaterial form, independent of but closely connected to the brain, and that NDEs may be able to provide evidence of it” (Lichfield, 2015).
Elisabeth Kubler Ross, a renowned psychologist whose career was devoted to studying the impact of death and grief, addressed NDEs at least a decade before Raymond Moody’s book. She “interviewed over five hundred terminally ill patients, sat beside countless numbers who were going through the dying process, and listened intently to the stories of many who had died and been resuscitated.” She presented one Mrs. Schwartz (NDEer who had been medically dead but resuscitated) onstage at a medical conference to share her account. Kubler Ross was strongly opposed by the attendees and medical community when she refused to label Mrs. Schwartz’s account as hallucinatory. This incident inspired Kubler Ross to start recording accounts of NDEs with her colleague Reverend Gaines and they made “certain the results contained no religious or cultural bias, they collected data from a variety of cultures including Eskimos, Hawaiians and Australian Aboriginals, and from people with various belief systems such as Hindus, Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, agnostics and atheists” (Coghlan, 2021).
Psychiatrist Bruce Greyson (internationally renowned leading authority on NDEs) has been researching this phenomenon for over forty years. He estimates that in the combined research landscape of the U.S., U.K., and other European nations, about 10-20% of the population “whose hearts stop” experience NDEs— about “5% of the general population.” His research also confirmed that most NDEers have a profound change in personality and often report changing professions to adjust to lifestyle in service of humanity. Many get divorced by their spouses who have a low tolerance for their new (post-NDE) personality style. Greyson was also concerned about potential suicidal ideation in NDEers (since a large number expressed a loss of fear of death), so he did a comparative study of suicide attempters versus NDEers and found that “those who had a near-death experience were much less suicidal than those who didn't have an NDE” (Georgiou, 2021). He attributed this to the phenomenon of the NDEers embracing their life as a part of a bigger whole and sensing a connection to a united consciousness. Author and psychologist Dan Siegel refers to this connection to the whole (ourselves, other humans, and our natural planet) as “MWe,” where “our body-based self—the origin of a Me—is not only connected to others but connected within our relational worlds themselves—a WE—forming the essence of how we belong and our identity” (Siegel, 2022).
A Developing Pattern of Psychological Transformation
Psychological transformation or changes refers to the behavioral changes observed in NDEers post their experience of nearly dying and then returning back to life (through various interventions or naturally). NDEers report a myriad of post-experience changes in behavioral and psychological makeup. Often these transformative changes leave individuals with a life-altering change of personality.
“Other common forms of altered consciousness, such as dreams or hallucinations, are much more likely to be significantly influenced by prior cultural beliefs and life experiences. The lack of significant differences in the content of NDEs around the world” confirms that “NDEs occur independently from physical brain function as currently understood” (Long, 2014). “Any close brush with death reminds us of the precariousness and fragility of life and can strip away the layers of psychological suppression that shield us from uncomfortable thoughts of existential oblivion,” instead, “... NDEs are recalled with unusual intensity and lucidity over decades” (Koch, 2020). Prominent NDE researcher Jeffrey Long (2014) reports the following recollections by NDEers (commonly reported around the world):
Out-of-body experiences while in the midst of an NDE
Blissful feeling that overtakes painful bodily sensations of death-trauma being experienced
Tunnel vision and entering into a light space
Being greeted by a Higher Being or a known (deceased) acquaintance
A feeling of all-encompassing love
Very young children experience the same events as adult NDEers
Hellish experiences (though rare) with demonic interactions
A majority of the research on NDEs so far describes the following aftereffects in NDEers:
A feeling of unity with humankind
Connection to higher consciousness
Loss of fear of death
Future sight or intuition
Detachment from materialism
Driven towards their life purpose
Physical changes for the better (better blood pressure, more energy, enhanced body homeostasis, and regularized bodily functions)
Changes in value system and personality
Author P.M.H. Atwater (2011, p. 56, p.149; 157; 167; 188; 198), a leading researcher of NDEs explains that these psychobiological and behavioral alterations observed in NDEers can be related to changes in (but not limited to)—brain waves (p149); the limbic system (p.157); the temporal lobes (p.167); the pineal gland (p.188); and the prefrontal lobes (p.198). Specific to “psychological aftereffects,” she lists that 80-99% of NDErs in her research exhibited:
a loss of fear of death
were more prone to spirituality post-NDE
developed expansive mindsets
had a shift in brain dominance
became more curious and full of awe
exhibited psychic or intuitive abilities
had depressive periods, and
felt less competitive than before
increased intelligence and creativity (in children NDEers)
Furthermore, 50-79% of the NDEers reported “vivid dreams and visions; rejection of previous limitations; and synchronicity” and were convinced of their life’s purpose (becoming less attached to materialism and more service-oriented) post their NDEs (Atwater, 2011, p. 72-74). She also lists transformative “new behaviors” patterns seen consistently in NDEers “involving millions of people” as the following (reproduced here verbatim):
Glow of some kind— usually to the eyes, skin, face
Sensitivity to light and sound
Highly intuitive, know things
Comfortable with things future—future knowing, future memory
Waking up around 3 AM for no reason, and/or having vivid dreams
Less concerned about privacy
Prefer open windows, open doors—same with closets, curtains, cupboards
Comfortable with silence, often prefer it
Acutely aware of injustice, of people hurting—want to pitch in and help
Animals, birds, and children attracted to them
Dilemmas with money and telling time—prefer “natural clock”
Challenged by contracts, criteria, rules—more open and trusting
Ecumenical, usually at home in any religion—one family, one God
Electrical sensitivity to some degree
Sensitivity to pharmaceuticals, prefer natural/alternative healing methods
Change of eating habits and food preferences—lower blood pressure
More allergies, sensitive to smells and barometric pressure changes
Can slip into depressive states, frustration, anger—yet quickly recover
Use language differently—new interests, new words, new ideas
Smarter, more curious, a hunger for learning
Affinity for nature and ecology, simple things
More loving, while challenged to make and maintain loving relationships
Hear music when no sound is present—the music of existence
Walks and talks with Divine Beings, God/Allah/Deity
Expansive views, more universal in outlook
More detached, less boredom, or no need to compete (Atwater, 2011, p. 210-211).
In further discussing the psychological aftereffects of NDEs on the IANDS (the international database site for NDE research and reporting) website, Atwater (2017) reflects on the characteristic life-changing behavioral pattern change seen in NDEers where they “... were not returning with just a renewed zest for life and a more spiritual outlook. They were evidencing specific psychological and physiological differences on a scale never before faced by them. And this was true with child experiencers, as well as with teenagers and adults.” Atwater says that these “aftereffects cannot be faked.” Adjustment to life before NDE is often an impossible mission, and a new “normal” lifestyle takes about three years to materialize.
A more detailed exploration shows that along with physiological changes like sensitivity to light and electrical energy (light bulbs going out or phone and electronics malfunctioning in the NDEers’ physical environment); biophysical energy surges in the body; and increased homeostasis (the body’s ability to heal itself), NDEers report:
a psychological detachment from the world they metaphorically left behind
a leap towards unconditional love for all
alternating between depression and euphoric feelings
a “childlike naivete” can lead to the victimization of NDErs (although, with practice and time, rehabilitative integration into the world can occur)
alignment with natural “flow” (changes in perception of time and an unwillingness to live life by the clock or calendar)
an emphasis on spirituality and natural law rather than organized religion (though most are tolerant of others’ right to choose)
the onset of enhanced intuitiveness or psychic “knowing”
become more forgiving than prior to the NDE (Atwater, 2017).
Counterpoint Ideas and Alternative Explanations
Greyson (1993) adds that “a sample of near-death experiencers acknowledged significantly more symptoms of a physio-kundalini syndrome than did control subjects” where kundalini refers to an “awakening of a biological process known in Eastern traditions.” Kundalini energy can be summed as the biophysical energy surges felt by NDEers. Additionally, Ring & Rosing (1990) found the following psychological aftereffects in NDEers:
“greater sensitivity to nonordinary realities as children and a higher incidence of child abuse and trauma”
“scored higher on a measure of psychological dissociation”
demonstrated “substantial shifts in values and beliefs”
“described far more psychophysical changes, including symptoms of kundalini activation, following their NDEs than did controls”
Discussing his initial skepticism about NDEs and the need to look for plausible biological or medical procedure-related causes for NDEs, Greyson states that NDEers “actually have more oxygen than those people who don't have near-death experiences. Same thing with people who are given drugs at the point of death or near-death” thinking that ”maybe drugs given to people were making them hallucinate. But we find that the more drugs people are given, the less likely they are to report a near-death experience” (Georgiou, 2021). Addressing the possibility of an undiscovered neurotransmitter in the brain that can cause hallucinations in the NDEers, Greyson states that there is no way to test this “hypothesis” at the current time.
Calling himself a skeptical “scientist,” even one who cannot overlook the phenomenon of NDEs not being “flights of imagination”—per the results of a study conducted at the University of Virginia (Moore & Greyson, 2017) which found that NDEers’ memories of the NDE are more real than the participants who were asked to imaging events—Koch maintains the “hypothesis that all our thoughts, memories, percepts and experiences are an ineluctable consequence of the natural causal powers of our brain rather than of any supernatural ones” and that he sees “see no reason to abandon this assumption” (Koch, 2020).
While discussing NDEs through a neuroscientific lens, neurology professor and author Kevin Nelson (2015) recalls “An excellent but seldom cited study examined the medical records of 58 people who experience near-death.2 Twenty-eight of those had a true medical crisis, while the other 30 were not medically endangered at the time” but people in both groups showed “identical results” that despite any danger, both groups went through tunnels, and had an out-of-body experience (OBE). Nelson attributes this phenomenon by labeling the OBE a “sensory illusion” that “arises in the brain’s temporoparietal region. Directly stimulating the temporoparietal cortex with a small electrical current evokes OBE,14, 15 arguably by disturbing the integration of visual, proprioceptive and motion senses into the coherent self.”
A century ago, recollections of NDEs would have launched a witchhunt. Even the NDE doubters “rarely accuse experiencers of inventing their stories from whole cloth. Though some of these stories may be fabrications, and more no doubt become embellished in the retelling, they’re too numerous and well documented to be dismissed altogether” and also, it is “hard to ignore the accounts by respected physicians with professional reputations to protect” (Lichfield, 2015). Today, it is pertinent to note that despite counterviews to the existence of NDEs, there is a movement in the modern scientific community to not discredit or devalue them—instead, there is a conscious effort by spiritualists, scientists, medical physicians, surgeons, psychologists, and researchers to search for answers, develop technology to study this phenomenon and launch research into this field of death and the lessons it can teach us how to live authentically.
Challenges and Concerns with NDE Research
Corroboration of Data
Due to the subjective nature of near-death experiences, there can be no conclusive proof that these experiences provide visions of life after death: however, the reports of out-of-body experiences, the near-death experiences of children, and the notable changes in the near-death experiencer's life following his or her experience support the possibility of the validity of this theory. Because of the transpersonal nature of near-death experiences, it is sometimes reported that it is difficult to describe the experience in words (San Filippo, 2006).
Collecting and validating NDE data and recording effective testimonials is a painfully slow process sometimes. Atwater (2011, p.12-14) admits that occasionally, people can exaggerate or lie about their NDE experiences (something she finds easy to recognize after decades of NDE research experience). She also describes a “shadow side” to some NDEers that must be acknowledged, despite most of the NDE groups exhibiting positive psychological transformations. Atwater affirms the importance of acknowledging the “downloading” of information that the NDEers receive within their NDE but later is lost. And can resurface in the interviews years later, even as short spurts and drips. This usually signals that the NDEer has “developed another form of sensitivity” and can channel “otherworldy realities”—a phenomenon that is scientifically difficult to prove with the current technology.
The Inability to Describe the NDE by the NDEer Using Known Language Systems
According to NDEers, words and semantics are not efficient enough to define what they have gone through. Their subjectively abstract experiences often involve seeing brilliant colors that are not seen on the physical plane; feelings of euphoria that cannot be translated; and a link or connection to everything known/unknown in a metaphysical manner. Additionally, there is a possibility of being misunderstood or labeled as untruthful and/or mentally ill. Greyson explains:
... we're dealing with a subjective experience. I can't know first-hand what someone else is experiencing when they tell me about a near-death experience. So, all I can rely on is what they say and how they behave afterwards. I don't know exactly what they're experiencing. And in fact, when I ask someone to tell me about his or her near-death experience, they usually start by saying that there just aren't any words to describe it. I know that when I make them describe it, I force them to distort the experience. And they usually describe it in metaphors to communicate what happened. Those metaphors are either cultural or religious. For example, there is this loving being of light [that people report seeing]—many people will use the word "God" to describe that. But they will secretly say, 'I use that word, so you'll know what I'm talking about. But it wasn't the guy I was taught about in church. It's much bigger than that. I just don't know what to call it (Georgiou, 2021).
Ketamine is an anesthetic drug that can produce similar psychological effects (loss of fear of death) as reported by NDEers and may be useful in research studies to replicate the effects of NDEs. NDEs are often described as “transformational and have profound and lasting effects on those who experience them, including a sense of fearlessness about death,” and it is possible “that ketamine could be used therapeutically to induce an NDE-like state in terminally ill patients as a “preview” of what they might experience, so as to relieve their anxieties about death… Those benefits need to be weighed against the risks of potential ketamine side effects, which include feelings of panic or extreme anxiety, effects that could defeat the purpose of the intervention” (Martone, 2019).
Conclusively, Greyson’s summary of the three most salient points (listed below) of NDE research fit well enough to launch the research and address any doubts, remove stigmatization, and spread awareness about the NDEs and NDEers:
NDEs are fairly common experiences (1 person in 20 has had an NDE)
NDEs are not mental-illness related and are “normal” experiences under “abnormal circumstances”
NDEs imply there is more to the human mind than the brain (Georgiou, 2021)
What’s more, as medical technology continues to improve, it’s bringing people back from ever closer to the brink of death. A small, lucky handful of people have made full or nearly full recoveries after spending hours with no breath or pulse, buried in snow or submerged in very cold water. Surgeons sometimes create these conditions intentionally, chilling patients’ bodies or stopping their hearts in order to perform complex, dangerous operations; recently they have begun trying out such techniques on severely injured trauma victims, keeping them between life and death until their wounds can be repaired. All of this makes NDEs perhaps the only spiritual experience that we have a chance of investigating in a truly thorough, scientific way (Lichfield, 2015).
The psychological fear of death colors all aspects of human life—it certainly helped our ancestors survive the attacks of predators and live another day. But the modern human is not in those primal dire straits anymore. A majority of the current stress and trauma experienced by current humanity is psychological and formed by the brain. Ruminating fearful thoughts need not cloud human existence as often as they do. No matter how traumatically dark their NDE might have been, NDEers collectively report a reformation of this fearful thinking pattern and return to their life ready to embrace all experiences with courage, openness, and a curious mindset. At the very least, this seems like a valid reason to shine a light on this phenomenon and harness some valuable knowledge that can help humans strive to live to their full potential— a message NDEers resonate with worldwide.
Courage is described as not an absence of fear, but a drive to face the challenges anyway. There is no better model of courage than the people who face their mortality and death-like states unabashedly and return to tell (and live) their tales.
Note: This is a personal reflection article with research-backed data as best possible. References used are listed below. Please contact me with any useful comments, corrections, and suggestions.
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