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Thousands of records of near-death experiences affirm some of humanities most profound beliefs
Every year, thousands of people (the “experiencers”) survive close brushes with death due to illness or to accidental or self-inflicted injury. Most of them remember nothing unusual from the episode, but a minority of about 10-20 percent do remember a near-death experience (NDE). Since 1975, when then-medical-student, now-psychiatrist Raymond Moody coined the term NDE in his groundbreaking book “Life After Life,” hundreds of research studies have revealed the features of the experience itself, as well as its aftereffects.
In an NDE, the experiencers find themselves—their consciousness—functioning apart from their physical body. The experience typically feels real, if not hyper-real—that is, more real than usual waking reality. An experiencer might be perceiving the material world, usually from a position above the physical body.
Perception in that state is “normal plus”—meaning that things, people, shapes, and colors appear as they do in the physical body, but the person has additional abilities. These include being able to both see and see through physical objects, know the unspoken thoughts of people nearby, move instantaneously at the speed of thought, and travel to locations far from the body.
Other people perceive environments and beings of a trans-material nature: that is, not of the material world. Environments include preternatural scenes similar to those on Earth, except for unusual features, such as colors not seen on Earth, and plants emanating consciousness. Beings include deceased loved ones and other humans, as well as spiritual or religious figures—some identifiable, others not—with whom the experiencer communicates mind-to-mind.
One commonly encountered entity is a being of light, who exudes a love that experiencers say has no parallel on Earth. Often in the presence of this being, the experiencer has a life review (simultaneously reviewing and re-experiencing every moment of one’s life), while also being everyone with whom the experiencer had interacted—literally knowing firsthand how their actions affected each of these other people.
Or they might perceive both—usually the material world first, then the trans-material—but possibly in any order or even both at the same time, such as a woman whose NDE occurred when her heart stopped beating during surgery and, from a location outside her physical body, she was fully conscious and saw spiritual entities in the operating room.
NDEs range from relatively simple, with only one or two uncomplicated features, to complex, with numerous features rich with detail. The more complex the NDE, the more likely the experiencer is to report aftereffects.
Psychologically, experiencers’ values may be transformed, such as totally losing a fear of death or becoming less materialistic and more concerned about others and our planet. Spiritually, experiencers often become much more interested in spiritual matters, and have an ongoing sense of connection to the trans-material domain. Physically, experiencers might manifest changes in their diets and sleep patterns, and in electrical devices in their vicinity. Light bulbs, cell phones, and computers might malfunction far more often than is the case with people who have not had an NDE.
And socially, experiencers often change affiliations with people and organizations, as well as with careers, gravitating toward work that involves service to others. Because, for most people, an NDE is a sudden immersion into an alternate reality, the process of reconciling the experience with a return to physical life can be challenging, and the integration process can take years.
The features of the experience itself—as well as its aftereffects—are now well-established through hundreds of research studies and countless personal reports.
Beyond the features and aftereffects are the implications of these experiences. The most consistent “take-away” message from experiencers is that each human life has purpose, and the overall purpose is to advance in one’s capacity to love and to acquire knowledge. What a different experience life on Earth would be if these principles guided everything from moment-to-moment personal interactions to government policies.
Among the reasons that such principles have not “caught on” widely is the question of the “reality” of NDEs. Beyond experiencers’ typical subjective sense that their experiences were absolutely real, what evidence exists for their objective reality?
Researchers have addressed this topic through study of a phenomenon called “veridical perception.” In veridical perception, experiencers report having perceived something during their NDE that was impossible to perceive through normal means, considering the condition and position of their physical body, and that was impossible to deduce from what the experiencers knew at the time of their NDE. Over 100 cases of this type have been compiled in a 2016 book by Titus Rivas, Anny Dirven, and Rudolf Smit entitled “The Self Does Not Die: Verified Paranormal Phenomena From Near-Death Experiences.” Here are three illustrative cases.
Case 3.1 Observing an Amputation
Jean-Jacques Charbonier, a French anesthetist-ICU doctor at the Capio Clinique Saint-Jean Languedoc, in Toulouse, France, became known for his work in the area of NDEs and life after death. In the documentary “Untimely Departure: Near-Death Experience” (a translation of the French-language documentary “Faux Départ—Enquète sur les EMI/NDE),” he mentioned a relevant case of a patient of his: “I operated on a woman under general anesthetic. And when she woke up, she described her operation as if she had been on the ceiling. Not only that, she also described the operation that took place in the next theater, the amputation of a leg. She saw the leg; she saw them put the leg in a yellow bag. She couldn’t possibly have invented that, and she described it as soon as she woke up. I checked afterwards, and the operation had indeed taken place in the next theater. A leg had been amputated at the very same time that she was under anesthetic and, thus, totally disconnected from the world.” (Rivas et al., pp. 58-59)
Case 6.5 Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s Young Patient
The well-known Swiss psychiatrist and thanatologist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, has written about the dying process of young children. One of the examples she cited concerned a little boy who had been in a coma following a car accident that had involved his mother and his brother Peter. The boy came out of his coma briefly and told Dr. Kübler-Ross, “Yes everything is all right now. Mommy and Peter are already waiting for me.” He smiled contentedly and then slipped back into a coma from which he never recovered.
Kübler-Ross already knew that the boy’s mother had died at the scene of the accident, but as far as she knew, his brother Peter had survived. Peter had been brought to another hospital with serious burns because the car had caught fire before rescuers had been able to extricate him. Kübler-Ross decided she would contact the other hospital to check on Peter’s condition. However, as she was about to place the call, she received a call from the other hospital to notify her that Peter had died a few minutes before.
Kübler-Ross claimed to have witnessed this pattern a number of times before, in which a child was not apprised of the death of a loved one, but still perceived this person during the child’s own process of dying. She concluded that she could not attribute this pattern simply to chance. (Rivas et al., p. 152)
Case 8.2 Ralph Duncan
In his book “Lessons from the Light,” social psychologist and NDE researcher Kenneth Ring reported a case of miraculous healing. The case derived from Professor Emeritus Howard Mickel of the religion department at Wichita State University in Kansas. Mickel investigated this case thoroughly and stood staunchly behind its authenticity.
In the 1970s, a leukemia patient named Ralph Duncan was dying. He had obviously been told that he had only a short time to live and had already prepared himself for his death. During his hospital admission, he had an NDE during which he met a being of light. Duncan took this being for Jesus, even though the being did not look like traditional pictures of him. The being of light had eyes that were “shooting fire.”
Duncan and the being had a telepathic contact with each other in the form of three brief sentences: “That’s enough. It’s dead. It’s gone.” After he regained consciousness, these words were still echoing in his ears. He did not quite understand what was meant by “That’s enough.” But he associated “It’s dead” with the disappearance of his leukemia. The last time Ring had news of the man, in 1989, he was still doing well. (Rivas et al., p. 175)
Six research teams have attempted to capture veridical perception under controlled conditions. Typically, the team identifies hospital departments in which cardiac arrest is most likely to occur and “plants” visual targets above eye level, facing the ceiling—in the hope that a patient will be resuscitated and report an NDE, including an accurate description of the target. Every such attempt so far has failed. Numerous factors make these types of cases difficult to capture: including that they are rare, that the exact location of the experiencers’ consciousness cannot be predicted, and that the experiencers’ attention is often drawn to aspects of their situation related to their well-being, rather than to visual targets that have no meaning for them.
For now, researchers—and humanity—are left with numerous cases in which the apparently veridical material is verified by a credible third party—usually the medical personnel in attendance during the experiencer’s medical crisis. Not only do most medical personnel have no reason to advance a false story, but in most cases, they actually are discouraged from sharing such stories because the stories contradict the prevailing view in medicine that such things simply cannot happen.
In Gallup’s annual poll of Americans’ views of the trustworthiness of various professionals, physicians and nurses consistently score among the very most trusted. Despite their credibility, many people find even an extensive collection of such cases to be inadequate to convince them that veridical perception actually occurs during NDEs. To be convinced, they await such time as the phenomenon is captured under controlled circumstances. It remains for readers to decide for themselves what constitutes sufficient evidence that a mind can function independent of matter.
Janice Miner Holden, EdD, LPC-S, ACMHP, retired from the University of North Texas in 2019 after 31 years on the counseling program faculty where her primary research area was near-death and related experiences. She serves currently as president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and continues as editor of IANDS’s peer-reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies.