Discover more from Sarah Fay
Are Near-Death Experiences Real?
Part 3 in our four-part series on life and death
Reading time: 8 min.
Answers: probably not and absolutely.
As we think of them, what psychologists, psychiatrists, academics, doctors, and bloggers call near-death experiences (NDEs) are a relatively new thing. The term “near-death experience” was coined by psychologist Raymond Moody in his 1975 book Life After Life. Moody also has a Ph.D. in philosophy and an MD and believes in past lives, including nine of his own. Moody’s evidence was anecdotal, based on interviews with people who claimed to have had NDEs.
Moody and his successors have been criticized for creating a standard NDE narrative (the bright light, being called back to your body) and using it as proof where there is none. To be considered an “experiencer,” as NDErs call themselves, your NDE has to meet specific requirements. The experience should occur during a cardiac arrest, terminal illness, surgery, near-drowning, electrocution, plane crash, gunfire, etc. It should include being beckoned by a bright light, going through a tunnel, the sense of leaving your body and looking down on yourself, feeling at peace or euphoric, seeing one’s life “flash” before your eyes, meeting a spiritual being or God or dead friends or relatives, being called back to your body, and not wanting to leave the other-worldly realm you’ve entered. The NDE should produce particular side effects: a renewed sense of purpose, light sensitivity, heightened awareness, anxiety, bliss, generosity, and unconditional love for all human beings so pollyannaish that it annoys those around you. The criticism is that although experiencers may recall the same phenomena, the consistency among the retellings doesn’t prove that near-death experiences are real, only that they all tell the same story.
There’s a whole industry built around books about “heavenly tourism.” One of the most famous, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, by father and son Kevin and Alex Malarkey, said that during Alex’s two-month coma when he was ten years old, he spent time with Jesus. Alex later admitted that he’d made it up and didn’t remember anything from the time he spent in a coma. His confession—not to mention the irony of his last name, Malarkey—hasn’t stopped the book from selling over one million copies.
Heavenly tourism is odd, given that NDEs run counter to the religious idea that goodness and faith in life are rewarded in the afterlife. On their deathbeds in the Angola Prison Hospice Program, criminals reported seeing visions of angels, feeling at peace, and being forgiven by their deceased loved ones.
Left out of the classic NDE narrative (and research on NDEs) are accounts of negative experiences that defy the cliché of the passage between life and death as peaceful and blissful. People describe their negative NDEs as distressing, hostile, and even hellish. The light doesn’t beckon; it fills the experiencers with a sense of isolation that borders on annihilation. Instead of a tunnel, there’s a void. Being bodiless is full of terror. As your life flashes before your eyes, it’s meaningless or depressing. In place of God and long-lost loved ones are horrific, grotesque beings that moan and wail and gnash their teeth. The experiencer begs to return to the land of the living, to be saved from an abyss of panic and horror.
Yet NDEs are now a quasi-legitimate area of study. Masters of psychology programs allow graduate students to conduct research and write their theses on NDEs. The University of Virginia houses a research unit titled the Division of Perceptual Studies, which is devoted to their study.
NDE gained credibility after physicians started to recount their own experiences. In the New York Times bestsellers To Heaven and Back and 7 Lessons from Heaven, Mary Neal, one-time director of spinal surgery at the University of California, published her experience of entering heaven during a kayaking accident. In Proof of Heaven, the neurosurgeon Eben Alexander said that he saw a bright light, heard beautiful music, frolicked with a dog in a pasture, and became one with God during his NDE while in a coma. Esquire Magazine later debunked aspects of Alexander’s account. (It also revealed that he’d been the subject of multiple malpractice suits, had his surgical privileges by UMass General Hospital, and was questioned by the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine.) Proof of Heaven still sold two million copies.
Still, scientific research has shown that most of the phenomena that occur during an NDE result from physical processes—usually functioning gone haywire—in a dying brain. The Swiss neuroscientist Olaf Blanke showed that out-of-body experiences (OBEs) and hallucinations of loved ones and heavenly beings visiting experiencers result when the temporoparietal junction of the brain, the part responsible for orienting ourselves in space, is activated or impaired. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that when rats underwent cardiac arrest, their brains flatlined but then the neural activity spiked, explaining heightened consciousness at death. NDEs mimic psychedelic drug trips, during which neural communication is disrupted. Anxiety and stress can trigger altered states of consciousness. Tunnel vision occurs when the eye doesn’t get enough oxygen.
Other sensations that occur during an NDE have been likened to those that result from epileptic seizures: déja vu, depersonalization (the sense that one isn’t in one’s body), and euphoric feelings. (The clinical term for these symptoms is actually “Dostoyevsky’s seizures.” In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, the protagonist who has epilepsy, describes waking up “to vigor and light,” becoming “filled with joy and hope,” and “overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life” during a seizure.) Researchers have been able to replicate these phenomena by stimulating parts of the brains of patients with epilepsy. When the insula, the region of the cerebral cortex responsible for mood and memory, is electrically charged, patients report the same ecstatic and comforting feelings as those who say they’ve had positive near-death experiences.
I don’t believe in them for myself but am willing to accept that others have perhaps experienced them. We know nothing of death, so who are we to say?
Don’t miss an issue. Subscribe!
#curious #mentalhealth #onbeing #startwithaquestion #neardeathexperiences