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!
D Bnonn Tennant says
An excllent summary, but where are items 12 and 13? 🙂
Big oops! Thanks for your quick reaction! It’s fixed.
Sheila Joshi says
Very fascinating list! I came across it on David Sunfellow’s nhne-pulse.org site. I particularly like how you emphasize the fact that interpretation of the NDE begins during it, and that, even though NDEs challenge people’s worldviews a lot, people are still interpreting them through the lens of their previous experience.
Re: # 14, even pleasant NDEs can cause much disruption and suffering after the fact, as survivors integrate the learnings and go through big developmental leaps. And, as you say (# 7), an NDE can be mixed. But I do think it’s useful to wonder about why some people have a so much rougher shamanic path to spiritual opening than others do.
I have never had an NDE, but I am recovering from severe neurological damage that has caused a spiritual opening, and I often think of it as a slow-motion, attentuated NDE….of the distressing kind.
I have two hypotheses about why some people have the rougher path, and I would very much like your opinion on them. 1) People who have more distressing spiritual openings may have a very particular quality of *unconscious* anxiety that has not been resolved. Conscious guilt or general level of anxiety do *not* seem to correlate with having a more difficult spiritual experience. Perhaps the key factor is unconscious mistrust of the parents / God / the universe. 2) People who have the more distressing path may be further off track from where God / the Tao / the collective unconscious needs them to be for the good of themselves and the whole. The bigger gap between where they are supposed to be and where they are, and the concomitant shove to fix things, cause distress. There also may be more neurological re-wiring required, which is disruptive.
I just read a lot of your blog, and I think it’s great! It and the coming book are really important contributions to de-pathologizing, understanding, and helping people on the more painful, shamanic path.
Thanks so much for this comment. I had written a thorough reply, which has now vanished. Where do they go, anyway? Now, short on time, here’s the condensed version.
Thanks for the connection to nhne-pulse.org. Appreciated.
About your hypotheses: I think you may be onto something with the idea of an unconscious something–certainly more complex than the usual knee-jerk explanations of (conscious) guilt or the other tired list of deficiencies used to answer the ‘why’ of difficult spiritual experience. With hypothesis #2, I’m reluctant about the “supposed to be” element. However, there are some tantalizing potentials in there. I’ll keep thinking.
Any depth psychologists with ideas about these issues?
Sheila Joshi says
Thank you for the supportive reply! I just wrote up a post further explicating hypothesis # 1 on my blog. Would love to hear your feedback — here, there, or by email. Now, I will start working on a fuller statement of hypothesis # 2.
BTW, I second what everyone else has said — your NDEs and the Bible talk on Youtube made me think for the first time in my life — “There’s someone I would like to take a Bible study class from.”
re: “There’s someone I would like to take a Bible study class from.”
You couldn’t have said anything nicer! Thank you. It’s one of my favorite things to do, brush the dust off and see what’s there that usable today, true as ever but altogether differently.
Nancy, I watched your presentation on NDEs and the Bible and found it riveting. I have not had an NDE but have become fascinated with all accounts, good and bad and am learning a lot. My fundamentalist Christian background has been rocked but in a good way. I am more open to other faiths now and find God MUCH more fascinating that I ever thought and certainly way bigger than my “religion”. I’m sure my pastor would frown on my recent interest in the Book of Enoch but I would very much appreciate any comments/comparisons you have on NDEs and that book. Thank you.
That’s quite a path you’re on! Lots of people sharing it these days, but it’s not easy. And yup, God does just keep getting bigger! (And, I think, we along with God.) Thank you for your comment about my presentation on NDEs and the Bible. I’m planning to develop that as an article, so stay tuned.
The Book of Enoch? You’re doing some interesting reading! One entire chapter in the book Dancing Past the Dark is devoted to how our ideas about hell developed over time, and Enoch is right in there, almost like the script of an early horror flick. Human beings have always loved gruesome! My take is that Enoch, like other apocalyptic literature, is fine as long as it is read the way we read science fiction, as an imaginative recasting of significant ideas rather than as historical truth. Quite frankly, the great majority of hellish NDEs are not nearly as vicious as Enoch. What do you think?
Alex Dalton says
Nancy wrote: 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).
Alex: From my readings, NDEs do seem to often conform to the specific doctrines of the religion of an experient.
Thanks for commenting. Your comment makes me realize that I need to be more specific. There’ll be a post about this, so thanks for helping clarify the issue. (And if the post doesn’t help clarify, I count on you to let me know!)
Alex Dalton says
No problem. I watched your videos on the Bible and NDEs from that last IANDs conference. They were very interesting, and filled with some great insights. I’ve had very similar thoughts on many of those issues. Just a few days before I watched your vids, I was actually reading an NDE account where the NDE’er received a message about “sin” and how it is viewed differently on the “other side”. I was thinking of a way that this could be reconciled with the Judeo-Christian view and I actually thought of the same scripture in Isaiah 6.
There is a natural resistance to having one’s deep-abiding faith challenged. Obviously, with sqillions of faiths around the world currently in existence, and untold numbers of doctrines fallen by the wayside over the past 10+ millennia, nobody has God, or the lack of God in a box.
But often, our faith gives us a sense of sanity, no matter how insane it appears to others. The fear of having ones boat rocked applies to the militant atheist as strongly as the Christian or Muslin fundamentalist.
Many of the points in this list rocks the “Life after death is all sweetness and light”, as well as the “If you live the right way, you go to Heaven” boats. I personally believe that who we are internally affects the near death experience, but that is my belief, not a documentable assertion. Maybe it’s just my little tether to sanity. 🙂
More open minded study, and spiritual discussion is definitely needed.
BTW, this is off topic, but I can’t resist throwing this little tidbit around the web forums and blogs that I visit. Some folks might get a little kick out of it.
This is a link to an article describing militant Atheist Richard Dawkins getting skewered “so fabulously, so stylishly, and so thoroughly that anti-religion’s high priest was reduced to incoherent mumbling and spluttering”: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9082059/For-once-Richard-Dawkins-is-lost-for-words.html
Here’s the extended audio version (6 minute, 42 seconds long). The verbal hanging is between the 3:00 and 3:40 marks: http://audioboo.fm/boos/667322-are-the-uk-s-christians-religious-enough#t=2m58s
Arrogance. It’s everywhere.
An interesting interview on several fronts! Thanks, RD.
I had a distressing life review (it was a travesty shall we say?). My life was a sham, empty, meaningless, and so on. A total waste. But then i went into the light. It was quite shocking. While at the time i thought that;s just what NDE’s did (not having much of a reference, back in 1985) i still feel that the whole experience of dying before my own eyes was very traumatic even if it did end well, blissfully in fact. I am glad that this information is coming out. Thank you.
And a terrific post at your site it is! I’ve signed up for your RSS feed and linked here. So glad you found this site!
And thank you for being here and commenting. I hope you will let me know if you would like some discussion about anything in particular. No answers promised, but at least a sharing of ideas.
Sheila Joshi says
Thank you, thank you for adding the neuroscienceandpsi blog to your blogroll! You’re the first person to do that, and I really appreciate it. (BTW, the 3 links to the blog have an extra http// in them so they don’t quite work yet…) I have added dancingpastthedark (I love the name) to my blogroll, too. Also, today, I just posted the new entry on Hypothesis # 2, and I quoted you again. Also, not to get too gushy, but I have been reading and re-reading your Fall 09 interview with Amy Stringer, and I relate to it so much, and am finding it so thought-provoking.