While most everyone understands/knows what a Near Death Experience (NDE) is, the phenomenon is not easy to accurately define from a scientific perspective. The reason is that science does not quite know where to put NDEs yet.
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There have been some tentative steps taken toward NDE research, but the very nature of the phenomenon raises ethical, moral, and practical hurdles when it comes to studying it.
The simple definition of a Near Death Experience spells out that it is a personal experience associated with the perceived or very real proximity of death. As such, it can be positive or negative.
If we are to define NDEs in a less layman-focused manner, we will have to point out that it consists of a range of memories acquired during a special state of consciousness. The perceived or physical proximity of death is what triggers this state of consciousness. The memories logged during it have shown surprising consistency across cultural and chronological boundaries.
Indeed, NDEs seem to have some common elements, to which the cultural filter of a person’s mind may give a specific twist. Still, looking past that, these elements have been reported since ancient times and even by children young enough to be unaffected by any cultural “indoctrination” through education.
These typical NDE elements are:
- OBEs (Out of Body Experiences)
- Life review
- Meeting deceased loved ones/light entities.
- Conscious return to the body.
In addition to these main elements, NDEers have also reported:
- The awareness of being dead.
- Well being, peace, and painlessness. A flood of positive emotions.
- The Tunnel Experience: a sense of moving through darkness towards light.
- Unconditional love and acceptance.
- Indecision over whether to return to one’s body or not. Reluctance to do so.
Before we take a closer look at these elements, we should build up some context, exploring a few concepts that may make it easier to understand NDEs.
Consciousness and the Brain
The actual localization of thoughts and emotions/consciousness within the brain has been the Holy Grail of scientists for decades. Unfortunately, thus far no one has made a breakthrough in this regard.
While EEGs, MEGs, and PET scans have linked thought and focus to increased activity in certain sections of the brain, increased neuronal activity has never resulted in the pinpointing of the actual source of thoughts.
With that in mind, we can safely toss aside the “matching content” theory. According to this theory, the similarity in thought patterns/experiences reported by NDEers can be explained through the fact that the activation of certain neuronal networks always gives rise to the same thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
The bottom line in this regard is that we simply do not possess the scientific understanding that would allow us to explain NDEs through a physical model. We simply do not know where consciousness resides in the brain and whether it can leave its physical confines.
The Eternal, Nonlocal Consciousness
Instead of rigidly linking consciousness to the physical body, researchers have floated the theory of nonlocal consciousness. The interesting thing about this theory is that it does indeed fit in well with the experiences reported by NDEers.
According to this theory, the endless consciousness is in nonlocal space. Our brain serves as a relay station that allows it to manifest, the way a radio set allows radio programming to take up an audible and intelligible form. Similarly, the body and the brain may act as a microphone, which turns audible information into electromagnetic waves.
Consciousness is therefore without a beginning or an end. It simply exists. Our sense of self, ego, and entire waking consciousness is not linked strictly to our physical shell. The brain acts as a mere facilitator, helping consciousness manifest. It is not the origin of it.
Common Elements of Near-Death Experiences
One of the universal and most commonly encountered elements of NDEs is the out-of-body experience. You have probably heard stories of people lying on the operating table, watching themselves from above as the medical crew resuscitates them. To their surprise, while outside of their own body, they retain a full sense of identity and perception.
As far as science is concerned, such reports constitute a mystery. NDE-induced OBEs contain elements that make their objective validation quite impossible. At the same time, they also deliver proof that is impossible to dismiss.
Following successful resuscitation, patients who experienced NDEs could recount details of the resuscitation procedure that would have been impossible for them to perceive. Such accounts mean that these NDE-induced OBEs are not merely illusions of a brain perhaps deprived of some sort of essential function.
To try to gain objective proof of NDE OBEs, researchers placed symbols on placards, positioning them face-up, so that they could only be seen from above, from the presumed perspective of an OBEer. This experiment failed to yield any results, thus confusing the situation.
Of course, the methodology itself can and should be questioned.
A near-death-induced OBE is not exactly a mundane experience. It is safe to assume that the person having this experience is surprised enough to see him/herself from above, life hanging in the balance, to look away searching for various symbols hidden here and there.
Thus, lack of proof in this regard likely has to be written down as a lack of attention and intention.
Still, some scientists are not yet ready to accept the phenomenon as a true OBE. Science has come up with several explanations and explanatory models that attempt to create a logic-based taxonomy of NDE-induced OBEs.
The “Tunnel” Experience
Almost as common as the out-of-body experience described above, the tunnel experience entails the sense of entering a sort of darkness and moving through it, as if through a tunnel or staircase, towards a source of light.
The experience seems to signify the passing of the endless consciousness towards the nonlocal space where it is rooted. Turning back and not making it to the “end of the tunnel” seems to be a common motif linked to this experience as well.
Unlike the mentioned OBE experience, the Tunnel experience cannot be objectively proven in any shape or form. As such, no effort has been invested into research in its direction.
Life Review Experience
One NDE experience which makes non-locality exceedingly obvious is the Life Review experience.
During such an experience, a person going through an NDE is presented with a sort of tally of his/her entire life.
This tally includes every action and every thought ever done/conceived by the person, as well as their consequences for others. During such an experience, time and space do not exist.
The “all-seeing eye” angle is a commonly reported element of the Life Review experience. What it means is that the person going through the experience understands every emotion and thought produced by his/her actions/thoughts in others. What’s more, the review seems to contain all the conscious as well as unconscious elements of one’s self.
Considering the above, it is obvious that such an experience can be a cathartic and eye-opening one. It is an experience of oneness and interconnectedness with everyone else. As such, it is likely one of the major triggers of the after-effects of NDEs.
Meeting and Communicating with Deceased Relatives
This is another aspect of NDEs with a massive possible impact on after-effects. People have reported meeting their deceased loved ones through such experiences and communicating with them through thought transfer.
This phenomenon would be explained through the nonlocal consciousness model detailed above as well. The “selves” of these deceased people do not cease to exist, and they can therefore be encountered in the non-physical planes.
What is interesting regarding this experience is that people have reported meeting entities they did not know, and who later turned out to have had some kind of connection to them.
Specifically, one NDEer reported meeting her grandmother and an unknown man who looked lovingly at her. Years later, she was shown a photo of the same person, who was her biological father, whom she had never gotten to know.
Return to the Body
Most NDEers have reported a conscious return to their physical body, often accompanied by reluctance.
Such returns usually happen through the top of the head. The reluctance which accompanies these returns can be explained through the fact that the consciousness which has gained a tiny peek into its true, nonlocal nature, gets “locked up” in the physical body again, subject to all its limitations.
Most people who have gone through such an experience decide to make this conscious return after understanding that it is “not their time yet,” or that they have some task left to complete.
The “Being of Light” Phenomenon
In addition to the above-detailed common NDE elements, some people have also reported meeting “beings of light” with whom they communicated via thought transfer.
These encounters are a lot like the ones involving deceased relatives. These entities that people have described either consist entirely of light or they are dressed in white.
Presumptions concerning the identities of these “selves” have been made, based mostly on cultural and ideological considerations.
Interpretation of NDEs Impacted by Cultural Beliefs
NDE elements that seem to be connected to various cultural and religious beliefs are usually the results of later interpretations. It is easy to see how “beings of light” and various benevolent entities dressed in white, can be identified as angels.
That said, the common elements listed above seem to persist over time and cultural boundaries. Precisely what this means from a practical perspective is up for debate at this point.
After Effects of Near Death Experiences
Given the profoundly shocking nature of NDEs, it is entirely unsurprising that they should elicit some equally profound after-effects.
Such experiences often shake up the whole belief system of the person who goes through them.
Hands down, the most common side effect of NDEs is that the person loses his/her fear of death. Having taken a peek at the “other side” the NDEer will likely develop a strong belief in the afterlife. The experience also shakes up one’s entire attitude towards life, leading to increased self-esteem and a re-evaluation of existing relationships.
A person who has been through the throes of an NDE generally becomes more generous, caring, and less concerned with the material side of life. Of course, this process of re-evaluation may also result in the termination of some relationships. People deemed incompatible with the new NDEer’s new outlook on life may be sidelined.
Often, the entire demeanor of the NDEer changes. This may lead to some friction with the family. It is not uncommon for couples where one party has experienced a NDE, to divorce.
Another side effect may involve death dreams. Some people may experience dying in dreams (or should I say nightmares) for years after a near-death experience. This may also give rise to insomnia as the fear of impending nightmares may prevent one from wanting to fall asleep…
Other side effects experienced include increased sensitivity and openness toward psychic activity. Some NDEers have claimed to have acquired telepathic skills.
Most scientists are skeptical in regards to the mentioned NDE after-effects. No scientifically conducted study would confirm the above-detailed – mostly psychological – effects.
On the other hand, a physiological side effect has been confirmed. NDEers become more sensitive to electricity. The study confirming this fact is the only well-conducted one, concerning the after-effects of NDEs.
The nature of the experience means however that it does indeed impact every aspect of the NDEer’s existence, whether there are scientific studies supporting this or not.
It often takes an NDEer years to incorporate the experience into his/her everyday life. Many have trouble making sense of it at all. Others are afraid to communicate the experience to others, for fear of being labeled weirdos and liars. Nothing is worse than having to lock the experience away from the rest of the world, and not being able to talk about it.
It is therefore important to ask people who had a close brush with death about their unusual experiences upon awakening.
Having them talk to a therapist is an even better idea. Talking to other NDEers can also be beneficial for those struggling to incorporate the experience into their lives.
How Does Science Explain Near Death Experiences?
Scientists have come up with several explanatory models to try to make heads and tails of this intriguing phenomenon.
- The spiritual or transcendental model allows the theory that NDEs are exactly what they appear to be to NDEers. As such, they are true manifestations of the afterlife and proof of the immaterial existence of the soul.
- Depersonalization explains NDEs from the perspective of the extreme stress they exert on NDEers. Under this stress, the sufferer may attempt to distance him/herself from reality, and NDE-induced OBEs may be nothing more than hallucinations.
- The expectancy model also toes the hallucination line. According to it, NDEs yield the sort of visions and experiences that they do, due to the NDEer expecting to have such visions. The experience already exists in the mind of the would-be NDEer, before it is experienced.
- According to the birth model, through an NDE, people relive the shock and trauma of birth.
- Various neuroanatomical and neurochemical models preach that NDEs are triggered by damage to various areas of the brain.
- Low oxygen levels and altered blood gas levels have also been considered potential “culprits” in NDEs.
- The multi-factorial model says that every component of an NDE can be explained through either chemical, psychological, or physiological factors.
Consciousness Beyond Life? Groundbreaking Study Detects Activity in Dying Brains
A 2023 study led by Dr. Jimo Borjigin from the University of Michigan offers preliminary evidence of continued consciousness in the dying brain. This research, which builds upon earlier animal studies, investigated gamma wave activity, the fastest brain activity associated with consciousness, in the dying brains of comatose patients who suffered cardiac arrest. Out of four such patients, two showed a surge in gamma wave activity after being taken off life support.
This surge was detected in a neural region—the junction between the temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes—linked to dreaming and altered states of consciousness. Interestingly, this phenomenon paralleled findings from animal studies where similar gamma wave activation was observed upon loss of oxygen after cardiac arrest.
This groundbreaking study offers insights into the neurophysiological mechanisms of the dying brain and could change our understanding of death and near-death experiences. However, the researchers emphasize caution in interpreting these findings due to the small sample size, and the fact that it’s impossible to know what the patients experienced since they did not survive. The findings, nevertheless, present a new framework for understanding covert consciousness near death and set the stage for larger, multi-center studies.
How to Induce Near-Death Experiences
As mentioned, studying NDEs is difficult on account of their nature and due to the ethical and moral hurdles they raise.
A solution to this scientific conundrum would be the artificial triggering of NDEs – itself a very touchy subject.
Is this possible at all?
Meditation-induced Near Death Experiences
Buddhist documents have mentioned meditation-induced NDEs since ancient times.
Buddhism has never been a stranger to the psychology of death-related processes. As such, the amount of experience it has piled up in this regard should not be ignored.
Regarding the ability of experienced meditators to induce NDEs at a predetermined time in the future, even the Dalai Lama has added his confirmation.
Scores of Tibetan texts have also mentioned the existence of a state of consciousness preceding death, which carries all the signs of NDEs.
Such meditators “experiment” with such states of consciousness, so that when they come upon it as they are dying, they can recognize and sustain it. This state of consciousness has often been associated with lucid dreaming.
Given that the latter can indeed be induced even from a waking state (WILD) by experienced meditators, it would not be farfetched to assume that the same can be done with NDEs.
Familiarization with death is a central theme of Buddhism. Religion asserts that consciousness has to detach itself from the idea of the “self” as an enduring entity. The physical body is ephemeral; thus, attachment to it and to various material possessions does the soul no good.
Interestingly, there exists a study involving 12 advanced Buddhist meditators, done over 3 years, aimed at increasing the profundity of meditation-induced NDE.
Needless to say, the study had to overcome some unusual challenges, such as determining what makes a meditator “advanced” regarding NDE. The fact that only 12 such individuals could be located globally, speaks volumes about the difficulties met by the study. The control group was made up of the same 12 people.
The study yielded some interesting results regarding the experiences the meditators managed to trigger.
Most of them reported:
- A feeling of gradual “dissolution.” As they let go of their physical bodies, they identified with the elements. Various sensations resulted from this process, including sensations of drowning, of being stuck, and of being weightless and bodiless.
- The disappearance of time and space. Most study participants reported being able to be everywhere at the same time, as time itself lost all meaning.
- Perhaps most disturbingly, in addition to realms populated by beings made up wholly or partially of light, meditators were able to visit “hellish” realms, where suffering and torture were commonplace.
- All participants stated that they were remotely aware of their physical bodies during their NDE episodes. They also all felt a sort of emptiness, a lack of true substance in everything they perceived during their NDEs.
- Some of them even stated that the whole experience was mind-made. They asserted that upon death, the unlimited potential of the human mind would be unlocked. To those untrained, such an experience can be a truly traumatic one.
With its strengths and shortcomings, the study proved the existence of meditation-induced NDEs, as referred to in ancient Buddhist documents. It did however raise the issue of differences between meditation-induced NDEs and actual NDEs. The study recommended more research in this direction.
That said, it did find meditation-triggered NDEs as valid NDEs. With that in mind, such MI-NDEs may provide a way for researchers to assess real-time neurological activity during an NDE.
In addition to meditation (which requires a very lengthy training), near-death experiences can also be induced through lucid dreams and by using substances.
An experienced lucid dreamer who is familiar with the phenomenology of near-death experiences (and perhaps even one who is not familiar with it) can rather easily create a dream that emulates an NDE. This would just be a dream and not a real NDE. Though some would argue that NDEs are just dreams…
In Tibetan Yoga, lucid dreaming is practiced for exactly this purpose: to prepare oneself for death by experiencing a similar state of consciousness.
Finally, by using certain drugs and plants, one may induce an experience that resembles a near-death experience and contain at least some of the elements I have described above.
For the time being, NDEs are a gray area for science. There is some scientific evidence that those going through such experiences are NOT hallucinating. There are scores more questions that need to be answered though.
From the perspective of the lucid dreaming and OBE enthusiast, the existence of this phenomenon is confirmation that meditation-triggered OBEs are not mere hallucinations either. They may be constructs of the mind, but by harnessing the unlimited power of the mind, they do offer a true glimpse into what awaits us on the “other side.”
The after-effects of NDEs entail reactions of the “I have seen the light” kind. What is certain is that NDEs trigger an altered state of consciousness best replicated by meditation-induced OBEs.
There may indeed be a link between OBEs and what lies beyond death. If that is truly the case, experienced oneironauts and meditators have long been flirting with the most fundamental questions of human existence. Why are we here and what awaits us after death?