Near death experiences are wondrous experiences. They are also real experiences. People reporting these experiences are not insane. They truly have undergone a profound, and even life-changing experience. Moreover, near death experiences appear to prove the reality of an immaterial and immortal human soul, apparently provide a vision of a life after death, and even seem to provide proof of religious beliefs. But are near death experiences truly proof of life after death, the reality of a human soul, or religious beliefs? Or are they hallucinations as is suggested by the humorous statement of the angel in the picture? This website examines the near death experience to answer these questions.
This page is rather extensive, so here is an index to move to different parts of the page.
The first part of any analysis is to define what actually is a near death experience? What are the components of near death experiences? Does everyone have the same type of near death experience? What actually defines a near death experience? Clear answers to these questions are needed in order to perform any adequate study of the near death experience. To begin with, the first clear description of the general form of near death experiences was made in the book "Life after Life" published by Doctor R. Moody in 1976 (1).
A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment, and be sees his own body -from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval.
After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notices that he still has a "body" but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving, warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before "a being of light" appears before him. This being asks him a question nonverbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet, he finds that he must go back to the earth, that the time for his death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with his experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return. He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love, and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives.
Later he tries to tell others, but he has trouble doing so. In the first place, he can find no human words adequate to describe these unearthly episodes. He also finds that others scoff, so he stops telling other people. Still, the experience affects his life profoundly, especially his views about death and its relationship to life.
Moody dissected this idea of a general near death experience into its component elements, listing them:
However, do these elements really define the near death experience? After all, many of these descriptions of the component elements of the near death experience are simply lists of frequently reported phenomena. This is an unsatisfactory type of definition. It is essential to have a precise definition if any proper analysis of the causes of the near death experience phenomenon can be made. Doctor Kenneth Ring was one of the first persons to perform a serious statistical analysis of the various elements of the near death experience (2). He determined that there were five elements, most of which were always present during any near death experience. They formed part of what he called the "core near death experience".
The more of these elements that were experienced during a near death experience, the more "profound", or "deeper" Doctor Ring classified the near death experience. Unfortunately a major problem with this concept of five core elements, is that no proper statistical analysis was ever done by Doctor Ring to determine whether these elements really belonged to the near death experience. Just as with the typology of Moody, these five elements were only selected on the basis of the fact that they were most frequently encountered in the reports of persons who underwent near death experiences. But the fact that these elements are frequently encountered does not necessarily mean these elements define a near death experience.
This may sound like an exercise in "splitting hairs", but this is most definitely not the case. Such an analysis provides invaluable answers to fundamental questions raised by the near death experience. One of the main problems is that near death experiences occur as a result of a simply enormous variety of conditions. This means that many of the accepted components of near death experiences may not actually be parts of these experiences, but instead may well be products of the life-threatening events causing near death experiences. This may be illustrated with the following example.
Consider the symptoms of influenza (commonly known as "flu"). Influenza mainly occurs in winter. It nearly always occurs in epidemics. The usual clinical picture is of a person who has fever, whose body aches due to generalized muscle and joint pain, who coughs, and often has pain behind the breast bone (sternum) when they cough.
Fever is the result of the virus infection causing the body temperature to be elevated. Generalized aches and pains are due to viral invasion of muscle and joints, or due to toxic products resulting from the infection. In any case, generalized aches and pains is a common symptom resulting from infections with many different types of viruses. Influenza causes coughing because the influenza virus specifically infects the windpipe (trachea) and throat. The infection causes inflammation, (the infected parts become red, painful and swollen). So a person with influenza often has a sore throat. The inflammation also causes such irritation of the trachea that coughing occurs. Coughing is a very rapid expulsion of air out of the lungs. Rapid movement of air in an inflamed and painful trachea causes the pain felt behind the sternum during coughing.
Now many people with influenza develop bronchitis, (an infection of the tubing conducting air in the lungs caused by bacteria ). However, this bronchitis is not a manifestation of influenza. Instead, it is a result of influenza, and often comes after the episode of influenza itself. The influenza virus renders the lungs susceptible to infection by bacteria which cause bronchitis.
How does a doctor make a diagnosis of influenza? If a person only has a fever, then the doctor can make no diagnosis. There are an enormous number of conditions causing fever. If the person only has generalized aches and pains and a fever, no diagnosis of influenza can be made either. After all, fever combined with generalized aches and pains can be the product of a large number of virus infections. Likewise, coughing together with pain behind the sternum while coughing, can be due to a large number of causes of tracheal irritation. However, if the person has a fever, generalized aches and pains, a sore throat, and a cough which causes pain behind the sternum during coughing; then the diagnosis of influenza is almost certain. If there is also an influenza epidemic raging at that time, then the diagnosis is certain. However, if in addition to all the above, a person also develops bronchitis, this does not contribute any relevant additional information to the diagnosis of influenza. Bronchitis is the result of influenza, but it is not a part of the manifestations of influenza.
The same principles can be applied to determining which experiences are near death experiences, and which are not. An out of the body experience can occur without it being part of a near death experience. A person may also feel extremely peaceful or ecstatic without undergoing a near death experience. Some persons may suddenly have visions of deceased relatives without this vision being part of a near death experience. However, when these three elements occur in conjunction with one another, then it is very likely that that person has had a near death experience. It is the conjunction of two or more near death experience elements which makes the experience a near death experience. The more elements present at any one time, the more likely that the experience reported is a near death experience.
How often do people actually report undergoing each of the elements of these near death experiences? After all, not everyone reports passing through a tunnel, not everyone encounters deceased relatives, and some do not undergo an out-of-body experience. A realistic estimation of the relative frequencies of undergoing each of these different elements was revealed by the excellent prospective study of near death experiences aroused by cardiac arrest performed by Pim van Lommel (2001).
|Component of NDE||frequency|
|A feeling of peace and calm||56%|
|A sense that death was imminent or had occurred||50%|
|Entering a tunnel or darkness||31%|
|Undergo an out-of-body experience||24%|
|Meet, figures, strangers, deities, or deceased relatives||32%|
|Meet a being of light, or enter into the light||23%|
|Undergo life review||13%|
|Encounter a border or limit, the passing of which means certain death||8%|
This table is in no way different to that compiled by all other near death researchers. It implies that the popular idea of a near death experience ALWAYS contains elements such as an out-of-body experience is erroneous. It is actually very rare for a person to report undergoing ALL of these elements. Most people only report undergoing several elements, but very seldom all. So let us look more carefully at the elements of the near death experience.
There is a mathematical method in statistical science called "cluster analysis". This is a well known statistical technique used in social and medical sciences. Cluster analysis is a technique by which the relationships between various elements of a phenomenon can be precisely calculated. So if a phenomenon is composed of more than one element, then the various elements of that phenomenon will be related, because two or more elements must be present before one can say that phenomenon has occurred.
In 1983, Doctor Bruce Greyson performed just such a cluster-analysis on 74 near death experiences reported by members of International Association for Near Death Studies (3). He calculated the relationships between 33 elements of the near death experiences described by these 74 people. These calculations revealed that there were actually only 16 elements contained in these near death experience reports that were related to each other. These elements were grouped into four clusters of manifestations on the basis of further statistical analysis. The final result was a table called the "Near-Death Experience Scale", which can be used to calculate a score for a near death experience report. The higher the score, the more likely it is that the reported experience was a near death experience. This scale has been found to define near death experiences very well. The various elements of the near death experience as defined by Greyson are:
Time seems to speed up.
Thought is very rapid.
Review of scenes from the past.
Understanding of the universe, oneself and others.
A feeling of relief, peace or pleasantness.
A feeling of joy or happiness.
A sense of harmony or unity with the universe.
Seeing, or being surrounded by bright light.
Senses more vivid than usual.
Seeing scenes from the future.
Separation from the body.
Entering a mystical or unearthly world.
Encountering a mystical being or presence.
Seeing deceased relatives, friends, or religious figures.
Coming to a barrier, or point of no return.
This classification does not include the well known tunnel or darkness experience, even though this element is to be found in a large number of near death experience reports. The reason for this is that Greyson (3) found that the experience of a tunnel or darkness is not actually an element of the near death experience. Greyson found that while the tunnel experience does occur in about 32% of near death experiences, it was not related to any other element. This is a surprising result. It may well indicate that the experience of being in a "tunnel" is a product of the many disorders causing near death experiences, rather than being a true component of these experiences.
During 1985 the indefatigable Doctor Bruce Greyson published the results of a cluster analysis of another 89 near death experiences reported to International Association for Near Death Studies (4). These reports were confirmed to be near death experiences by means of the Near Death Experience-Scale. He found that near death experiences could be divided into three basic types. One group had near death experiences where predominantly cognitive elements were experienced, while another group had near death experiences composed of mainly transcendental elements, and a last group had near death experiences composed mainly of affective elements. No group could be found whose near death experiences were mainly composed of paranormal elements. The main components of these three different types of near death experiences are as follows.
COGNITIVE near death experience
Time seems to speed up
Thought is very rapid
Life review is experienced
Understanding of the universe, oneself and others
Some elements from the other near death experience components
AFFECTIVE near death experience
A feeling of relief, peace or pleasantness
A feeling of joy or happiness
A sense of harmony with the universe
Seeing, or being surrounded by light
Some elements from the other near death experience components
TRANSCENDENTAL near death experience
Entering a mystical or unearthly world
Encountering a mystical being or presence
Seeing deceased relatives, friends, or religious figures
Coming to a barrier, or point of no return
Some elements from the other near death experience components
This concept of different types of near death experiences is fascinating. It makes it possible to compare the nature of the near death experiences experienced by different persons, groups of persons and people of differing cultures. Unfortunately very few such analyses have been reported, but even one such study did reveal some surprising results.
Many persons reporting near death experiences, or who are actually undergoing death-bed experiences report seeing unearthly or earthly landscapes. Consider the example of a 34 year old woman who experienced a life-threatening episode of allergic shock as a result of taking a penicillin tablet to which she was allergic (5). She had a near death experience during which she felt "bliss" and "ecstatically happy", as well as having a vivid episode of life review. In addition to all this she had a vision of a transcendental landscape. She had a vision of the Taj Mahal , which she viewed from a static viewpoint, as if she was standing facing the front of the building. She saw the lily pond in the front of the building, and within it she saw the lilies. She saw all the colors vividly. The pond and lilies were blue and green, and the minarets and the dome were colored a beautiful cream and gold respectively.
Other people see worlds which are most definitely not from this planet upon whose surface we live. Another example of such transcendental world was provided by a woman who nearly died as a result of her dress catching fire. During the period that she nearly died as a result, she found herself to be in a landscape in which there were flowers and trees. All these were vividly colored, but the colors were not the same as on earth (6).
Curiously, socio-cultural factors do not affect the chance of having hallucinations of transcendental landscapes or worlds during near death experiences (7). People from India and the United States of America have the same chance of seeing visions of beautiful worlds, scenes or landscapes. This is not altogether surprising when viewed from a psychological viewpoint. No-one wants to go to hell when they die. No mystical explanation is required.
Visions of religious figures are quite often seen during near death experiences. However the nature of the religious imagery is very dependent upon the culture of the dying person. A Hindu has different religious imagery than a Christian. Such cultural differences have been the subject of excellent studies by Osis and Haraldsson (7), as well as Pasricha and Stevenson (8). For example, a Christian might see angels, Christian saints, Jesus and occasionally God: while a Hindu will see gods of the Hindu pantheon, Siva, Ganesh, Vishnu, Parvati, Durga, etc. But this was no more than confirmation of an already old idea expressed by Evans Wentz in the Tibetan Book of the Dead made by Evans Wentz (9).
Accordingly for a Buddhist of some other School, as for a Hindu, or a Moslem, or a Christian, the Bardo experiences would be appropriately different: the Buddhist's or the Hindu's thought-forms, as in a dream state, would give rise to corresponding visions of the deities of the Buddhist or Hindu pantheon; a Moslem's to visions of the Moslem Paradise; a Christian's, to visions of the Christian Heaven, or an American Indian's to visions of the Happy Hunting Ground. And, similarly, the materialist will experience after-death visions as negative and as empty and as deityless as any he ever dreamt while in the human body. In other words, as explained above, the after-death state is very much like a dream state, and its dreams are the children of the mentality of the dreamer.
There are sometimes very curious aspects to such religious imagery. Doctor Rawlings reports the account of a man who had a cardiac arrest during which he had an near death experience. During his near death experience this man ascended to heaven where he met and walked with his deceased parents. A most unusual aspect of this reunion with his mother and father, was the fact that his mother had regained both her legs while in heaven. This was strange, because both her legs had been amputated because of severe blood vessel disease while she was still alive. However, once in heaven both legs were miraculously restored. This man went on to describe a vision of heaven which conforms with the view of many Christian sects. His parents took him to see Jesus. On their way to see Jesus they passed a large building, which radiated a bright light. Many people were gathered around the outside of the building in an attitude of adoration and prayer. He asked his parents what was in the building, and they told him in a quite matter-of-fact manner that this was the building in which God resided (10). Unfortunately for this man, he did not get to see Jesus because he returned to his body before meeting with Jesus.
Other Christians do indeed meet Jesus, God, Mary, or other saints and holy persons. Now these are stories which conform to a view of the afterlife shared by many Christians. Many Christians think that Heaven is a place where they will be reunited with deceased family members and friends, live a life similar to that which they experienced when mortal, as well as enjoying a closer, more personal interaction with God and other religious figures. In fact this view is nothing new. It was also propagated by the ancient Egyptians at least 5000 years ago in their religious texts dealing with the afterlife. One passage in the Egyptian Book of the Dead mentions the condition in which the afterlife was to be spent. This condition is no more than a continuation of mortal existence in a Heaven closely modeled upon a form of existence they idealized while mortal, together with a closer interaction with their gods (11).
The place of the deceased in heaven is by the side of God in the most holy place, and he becomes God and an angel of God; He eats what the gods eat, he drinks what they drink, he lives as they live, and he dwells where they dwell; he wears the apparel which they wear, the white linen and sandals; he is clothed in white. The bread which he eats never decays and his beer never grows stale. He goes around heaven even as they do, and he partakes of their food of figs and wine.
Hindus view such matters a bit differently. The Hindu near death experience report often contains an account of the person being fetched and brought to the gods by messengers called "Yamdoots". They are brought before "Chitragupta", a god who has books, or scrolls on which is recorded all information about their mortal thoughts and deeds. The information contained in this record about these mortal thoughts and deeds determines the future state of the soul. Curiously, some Hindus reporting an near death experience state that they returned to life because of a trivial clerical error on the part of the assistants of Chitragupta. The Yamdoots had made a mistake and fetched the wrong person. A typical example of such an account is that of a 79 year old man (8).
I was lying down on a cot when two people came, lifted me up, and took me along. I heard a hissing sound but couldn't see anything. The I came to a gate. There was grass, and the ground seemed to be sloping. A man was there, and he reprimanded the men who had brought me; "Why have you brought the wrong person? Why have you not brought the man who was sent for?
Now this is an explanation, made by an Indian person who survived an near death experience to explain their return to life. Such an explanation would never occur to a Christian, as there is no equivalent mythology of a messenger of death who immediately transports the soul of the dead person to a place in the afterlife. The explanation that a Christian provides for the fact that they have survived a near death experience, is one where they state that they were told to return because it was not yet "time for them to die", or because they have "work to do". Usually this consists of work for a religious organization, raising children, looking after a family etc. A Christian would never say that they returned to life because of a clerical error on the part of God. After all, the Christian / Muslim / Jewish God is omniscient , and so by definition cannot make such mistakes.
Many persons report seeing relatives, both deceased or living, friends or acquaintances and sometimes even strangers. An example of just such an experience was reported by Sir William Barrett, who recounted the report of a woman who kept watch by the bedside of a man dying of consumption in 1924. She reported the following account of her observations during the period that she sat there (12).
He [the dying man] suddenly raised himself and stretched out his hands, and said very clearly, as though speaking to someone present and whom he was glad to see, "Edmund!! my dear brother Edmund!
This woman related this to the relatives of this man, and was told that Edmund was the brother of the dying man, and had been dead for some time. Prior to the arrival of this woman, the dying man had had another vision. This time he had seen a deceased woman friend of his.
Such hallucinations are secular apparitions, that is visions of non-religious figures. The identities of the persons seen during these hallucinations differs considerably between persons with different socio-cultural backgrounds. Doctors Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson are two parapsychologists who wrote a book called "At the Hour of Death" (7) in which they published the most complete set of cross-cultural data currently available on the experience of dying, or being near to death in persons of two different cultures. They compared the deathbed experiences of 442 persons living in the U.S.A. with those of 435 persons living in India and found them significantly different (p < 0.001).
The body structure and function of an inhabitant of India is precisely the same as that of an inhabitant of the U.S.A.. So if the visionary content of death-bed visions, otherwise known as near death experiences, is determined by body structure and function, there would be no differences between the apparitions seen by Indian and American adults, which means they would see each type of religious figure, god, relative, and acquaintance with equal frequency during near death experience visions. But they do not. This is proof that the visions seen during near death experiences are determined by social and cultural factors which have nothing to do with the spiritual nature of an afterlife.
Many people truly believe that near death experiences are proof of life after death and proof of the reality of an immaterial and immortal soul. So does the discussion above, and on other pages of this website provide any proof for these beliefs? Unfortunately for these believing in these things, the discussion on this page, as well as on other pages of this website provide several very powerful reasons disproving these beliefs. I will list these reasons for clarity.
I could go on for much longer, but the final conclusion is evident. Near death experiences are profound and wondrous experiences, but despite the intense and profound emotions and experiences they arouse, they are nonetheless conscious socio-culturally determined hallucinations generated by life-threatening experiences. The consistency of these experiences is rooted in the commonality of human body function, as well as the fundamental socio-cultural desires of all people regardless of race or sex.
Content of this page last modified 4 March 2005
Revised slightly 8 December 2010, and again in April 2014