Maybe you have to be a numbers geek to be interested in the previous post, but I find the numbers fascinating. Not the numbers themselves, but what they suggest (and some seem to shout). That post was simply tables showing the incidence of distressing NDEs in studies published in responsible journals between 1975 and 2005. Questions nearly jump off the pages. For instance:

1. The early attention. Where were the distressing experiences in the early reports of near-death experience? Were the major researchers hiding something? Did the distressing NDEs only start later?

2. Hospital studies. How can it be that in the hospital-based studies, where participants are closer to death, the reports are of zero dNDEs and percentages of pleasant NDEs are typically 20% lower than in studies of the general population? Shouldn’t all those rates be higher, or are healthy people making up stories? These are the academic researchers who know how to do studies expertly; should we trust their data more?

3. Why that 1% rumor? With a thorough literature review showing that on average almost one in five reported NDEs has been distressing, why is it that for over two decades almost everyone has said that only 1% of NDEs are “negative”?

I’ll start with the first question now and deal with the second and third in the next two posts.

Where were distressing experiences in the early studies of near-death experience?

They were there but invisible. The reasons for the silence are relatively simple and understandable.

Researchers. Nowadays, we are pretty much used to NDEs. Although the great majority of them are still wonderful and life-shaping, and they bring comfort to millions of people who hear about them, today’s pleasure and reassurance seem pale compared to the stunning sense of hope and mystery when people were first hearing about them. Audiences and researchers alike were simply transfixed. Researchers are certainly not immune to the same hopes and anxieties as the rest of humanity, and what these researchers wanted to know about specifically were the glorious NDEs, the peaceful ones, the ones that sounded like heaven.

One answer, then, about why dNDEs were invisible comes from this: what questions did the researchers ask? Their eyes were so intently fixed on happily transformative experiences, it didn’t occur to them to ask about anything unpleasant; and if it did occur to them to wonder, it seemed they didn’t really want to know enough to add those inquiries. This can be considered humanly understandable or, less kindly, as researcher bias.

Further, it was still so early in the NDE research game, interviewers weren’t quite certain how far it was all right to probe. As many of the experiencers being  interviewed were in fragile health, no responsible investigator wanted to go in like a SWAT team, asking challenging questions that might be harmful. What if  tough questions precipitated another experience and this time the person actually died?

Experiencers themselves. In the years we’re talking about, roughly 1975 to 1982, NDEs were still considered “iffy” in terms of mental health. For psychotherapists and physicians, one big question was whether these were psychotic events. Experiencers often contacted the IANDS office anonymously, afraid of being too self-revealing. No matter what the method of communication, an experiencer’s most common opening statement was, “I hope you won’t think I’m crazy, but…”

The days of wide-open websites were far in the future; reporting an NDE was considered so intensely private that in setting up the first NDE account archive, IANDS promised three different levels of security to safeguard contributor confidentiality. And all these cautions were about the pleasurable experiences! If blissful experiences were considered so hush-hush, imagine the secrecy and anxiety, not to mention the shame, around a frightening experience!

Even today, put yourself in the experiencer’s place: Knowing what people speculate and wonder about dNDEs, would you want to go public with a terrifying near-death account? The reluctance of experiencers to describe their dNDEs is why, when psychiatrist Bruce Greyson and I began pulling together experience accounts for the first study of distressing NDEs, it took ten years to collect the 50 narratives that made up our study sample. Even the best -designed study will not bring out experience accounts until people are ready to talk about them.

The audience and media. In that first decade, the Big Four of researchers were Raymond Moody, Kenneth Ring, Michael Sabom, and George Gallup. Their books dominated the scene. Maurice Rawlings did well in conservative Christian circles with his books about hell, but they did not hit the mainstream as the others did. And the media, riding high on stories of blissful NDEs, were in no hurry to stop the torrent. The few other mentions of difficult NDEs were in journal articles, not books, and never claimed much in the way of public attention.

Overall, the result is what we have seen: mystery and invisibility surrounding distressing near-death experiences.

Next time: The hospital studies.