With all the points of view about near-death experiences, it can be difficult to sift out facts from opinions. Here, for the sake of convenience, is a brief listing of what the research has shown about NDEs.
1. Reports of experiences like NDEs, both splendid and harrowing, have come from around the world, going back to antiquity.
2. Although the great majority of NDE accounts describe pleasant, even glorious, experiences, a study of research reports indicates that as many as one in five may be disturbing.
3. Both pleasant and distressing NDEs are likely to include: an out-of-body experience; movement, often with a sense of speed, to areas with special qualities of light or dark; a landscape; encountering one or more presences; intense emotion; sometimes transcendence; sometimes a specific message. Some experiences include more of these elements than others. Distressing NDE reports typically lack three elements that may appear in a pleasant NDE: a life review, positive emotional tone, and loss of the fear of death.
4. The primary effect of any NDE is usually a powerful and enduring awareness that there is more to reality than the physical world.
5. NDEs do not play favorites: they appear across demographic bases including age, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual preference, education, occupation, socioeconomic status, religious background and beliefs, level of religious activity, expectations of afterlife. Despite limited demographic data about distressing NDEs, they appear to have the same universality.
6. At least three types of distressing NDE have been identified: 1) one with features common in pleasant NDEs, but interpreted negatively; 2) the Void; 3) features or landscape interpreted as hell. A suggested fourth type separates out an otherwise pleasant NDE with a guilt reaction to the life review (a type I generally include with #1).
7. NDEs are not always static but may switch from unpleasant to pleasant or, less commonly, pleasant to distressing.
8. A fear of social stigma has made many people reluctant to report distressing NDEs.
9. A distressing NDE may produce long-lasting trauma, especially for the unknown percentage of individuals who have great difficulty explaining and integrating the experience.
10. The strong emotional response reported to have been present during an NDE indicates that interpretation begins within the experience. A distressing NDE is upsetting during the experience, not only when thought about afterward.
11. The description of any NDE is dependent upon the pre-existing mental categories and vocabulary of the person doing the describing. For instance, encountered entities are not reported as wearing name tags but are described according to whatever identities are present in the person’s cognitive storehouse; people do not describe presences or other elements in terms that are unfamiliar to them. Any report identifying a presence as a particular individual is a perception that may or may not be factually true. Nevertheless, the identification is bound up with the content and ascribed meaning of the experience, though it cannot be confirmed as literal fact.
12. There isno evidencethat character, religious activity, or moral status determines the type of NDE a person will have. Saints have reported dreadful visionary experiences. Criminals have reported glorious NDEs. Some individuals have experienced both. This not to suggest that morality is irrelevant, but that we might do well to avoid snap judgments about who gets what and why.
13. After a distressing NDE, some people look for its meaning by “reforming” their life, possibly with a convincing religious affiliation. Some dismiss it as “it was only…” (reductionism). Others struggle to find resolution. Beyond that, there is little information about how people cope with a distressing NDE.
14. Pleasant NDEs tend to convey powerful messages that are common to all human experience, across religious and philosophical systems: a mandate to love, to have compassion, to keep learning, and to be of service to others. Distressing NDEs have less focused messages but follow the ancient shamanic pattern of suffering/death/ resurrection, read as an invitation to profound self-examination, disarrangement of core beliefs, and rebuilding into a new way of understanding. (The new way commonly moves toward some aspect of the elements described by positive NDEs: love, compassion, learning, service.)
15. Because NDEs do not conform to the precise doctrines of any specific cultural, philosophical, or religious subset, they present a difficulty for groups tightly tied to particular teachings (which may be religious or secular). For example, unwavering materialists dismiss NDEs as impossible and therefore unbelievable, whereas strongly doctrinal religious groups may believe them to be satanic. Again, description is dependent upon individual interpretation.
If you have questions about any of these–or anything else–please feel free to ask. I’d love to have some guidance from readers of the blog about particular interests!