How can anyone sift out facts from opinions about near-death experiences, considering all the points of view that have been published about them? Here are some facts from research about NDEs, especially those that are disturbing.
1. Reports of experiences like NDEs, both splendid and distressing, have come from around the world, going back thousands of years.
2. Although the great majority of NDE accounts describe pleasant, even glorious, experiences, an analysis of reports covering three decades of research indicates that as many as one in five may be disturbing.
3. NDEs do not play favorites: they appear across demographic bases including age, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexual preference, education, occupation, socioeconomic status, religious beliefs and practices, expectations of afterlife. Despite limited demographic data about distressing NDEs, they appear to have the same universality. There is no evidence that “good people” have pleasant NDEs and “bad people” have unpleasant ones. Saints have reported hellish experiences, and felons 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.
4. Both pleasant and distressing NDEs are likely to include similar features: an out-of-body experience; movement, often with a sense of speed, to areas or landscapes with special qualities of light or dark; encounter with one or more presences (often a guide, a religious figure, a deceased family member); intense emotion; transcendence; sometimes a specific message. An experience may include only one or two of these features, or may be minutely detailed. 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.
5. The primary effect of any NDE is usually a powerful and enduring awareness that there is more to reality than the physical world.
6. At least three types of distressing NDE have been identified: 1) one in which features common in pleasant NDEs are interpreted negatively; 2) the Void; 3) features or landscape interpreted as hell. In a suggested fourth type, an otherwise pleasant NDE is considered distressing because of guilt felt during a 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 in the same NDE. People with multiple NDEs may report having a beautiful experience one time, a distressing experience the next time.
8. With distressing NDEs, in addition to anxiety about the meaning of their experience, many people fear the social stigma that could result if they were to tell anyone about it.
9. 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.
10. Long-lasting trauma may result from a distressing NDE, especially for the unknown percentage of individuals who have great difficulty explaining and integrating the experience.
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 introducing themselves or wearing name tags, but are identified by the experiencer according to whatever labels are present in the person’s cognitive storehouse; people do not describe presences or other elements in terms that are unfamiliar to them. It may be that, especially with religious figures, identification is bound up with the content and ascribed meaning of the experience, though it cannot be confirmed as literal fact.
12. 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.
13. 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, which commonly moves toward some aspect of the elements described by positive NDEs: love, compassion, learning, service.
14. Because NDEs do not conform to the precise doctrines of any specific cultural, philosophical, or religious subset, they present a difficulty for individuals tightly tied to particular teachings. This is true whether the uncompromising teachings are religious or secular. For example, unwavering materialists who dismiss NDEs as impossible may conclude they are psychotic episodes, whereas strongly doctrinal fundamentalists (of any religion) may conclude that non-conforming NDEs must be satanic. Again, description of the experience is dependent upon individual interpretation.
If you have questions about any of these observations–or anything else–please feel free to ask. Courteous questions and comments are always welcome.