Near Death Experiences

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Near Death Experiences

In the 1970s interest in near death experiences (NDEs) reemerged, primarily associated with the popular appeal of Raymond Moody's Life After Life (1975). In this work, a respected physician used interviews of almost 150 persons to argue that commonalities in experiences of persons in near death conditions (who in fact did not die) are compelling evidence that death is a transition to another realm of existence. This is perhaps best symbolized by one fairly common NDE—that of traveling through a tunnel toward a bright light. Persons experiencing near death also often feel as though they have left their physical bodies, linking NDEs to the broad category of out-of-body experiences. Typically, people feel that it is revealed to them that it is not their time to die and thus they return to their earthly bodies. Other commonalties in NDEs include experiences of significant figures, typically friends or relatives, and perceptions of prominent religious persons. The vast majority of NDEs include positive emotional feelings such as joy and a profound peace. Still, one must be cautioned that the variety of experiences classified as near death are quite broad and that there is little unanimity in typical or ideal patterns of NDEs that have been scientifically verified. The most widely used measure of NDEs is an index developed by Ring (1980).

In contemporary surveys conducted in the Western world NDEs are common, likely to be reported by about 15 percent in random samples. Scientists report fewer NDEs than laypersons do and are also less likely to interpret their experiences as evidence for an afterlife. Both scientists interpreting their own NDEs and those studying NDEs of others tend to interpret these experiences as products of physiological changes occurring during extreme stress, or trauma characteristics associated with being near death—from accident, disease, or even attempted suicide. Most typically highlighted as possible physiological causal explanations for experiences reported in NDEs are oxygen deprivation, increased endorphin production, and changes in limbic system functioning. Figures typically reported in NDEs are likely to be identified as either simply hallucinatory or hypnogic imagery by scientists. No scientific evidence exists indicating that persons can have out-of-body experiences, including those in NDEs, that reveals to them factual knowledge unavailable to them as physically embodied persons. NDEs are heavily influenced by cultural and personal expectancies. Zaleski (1987) has provided the most critical account of NDEs across a broad historical spectrum, documenting the fact that NDEs have been reported in a variety of cultures since at least medieval times.

More common among laypersons reporting NDEs than scientists are interpretations granting evidential force to NDEs regarding an afterlife. Laypersons reporting general religious experiences are also more likely to report NDEs. Persons reporting NDEs are also are more likely than those who do not report NDEs to indicate belief in reincarnation and even believe that they have had contact with deceased persons in experiences other than NDEs. Not surprisingly, among those who give a meaningful interpretation to their NDE, positive changes in self-esteem, compassion, and increased internal control have been reported. Among the religiously oriented, decreased fear of death is associated with their interpretation that they have, however briefly, experienced the afterlife as legitimated within their faith.

In contemporary psychology, transpersonal psychologists have been most active in studying NDEs and providing a frame for interpreting them that avoids both physiological reductionism and an uncritical claim that NDEs are clear evidence of an afterlife. They also have been active in cross-cultural research on NDEs and the study of NDEs in children. An experience of a white light and of spiritual beings in NDEs in children most commonly parallel NDEs in adults.

Most typically NDEs are viewed by transpersonal psychologists either as adaptive processes triggered by near death or as transitional phenomena that are neither objective nor subjective, but simply human encounters with an acute awareness of death that NDEs necessarily trigger.

What seems most crucial is not simply the occurrence of NDEs but what frame one adopts to interpret them. For some, NDEs are religiously or spiritually meaningful in themselves. However, for most the meaningfulness of NDEs is probably their interpretation as supportive of an afterlife. While there is little scientific warrant for claiming that NDEs are indicative of an afterlife, it is also clear that many religions not only affirm an afterlife, but also provide a meaningful context that many use to interpret NDEs as a brief experience of that affirmation.

See alsoAfterlife; Death and Dying; Psychotherapy; Summerland.


Grof, Stanilav. The Human Encounter with Death. 1977.

Moody, Raymond. Life After Life. 1975.

Ring, Kenneth. Life at Death: A Scientific Investigation ofNear-Death Experience. 1980.

Zaleski, Carol. Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times. 1987.

Ralph W. Hood, Jr.