If you’re interested in near-death experiences but don’t have the time or inclination to read extensively about the subject, two excellent recent books sum up what 35 years of research have discovered so far.
One is Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences by Dr. Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry. Long, a radiation oncologist, is himself a prominent NDE researcher who has long been convinced (for good reasons) that NDEs are actual glimpses of the afterlife.
The other, which came out just last year, is Near-Death Experiences as Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven: A Brief Introduction in Plain Language by J. Steve Miller. Unlike Long, Miller is a layman and a generalist who has written on various subjects. As he describes it, he has been both “obsessed” with the idea of God since he was 16 and subject to a “skeptical bent” that “led me to continually question religious claims” and “plunged [me] into periods of doubt.”
Miller set out to explore the NDE literature and, as is very evident from his endnotes, has delved deeply into it. In this entertainingly written, sometimes very funny book, he sums up what he’s learned and what conclusions he’s drawn.
Who are these NDE researchers? Fringe types? New Age gurus?
Far from it. Apart from Long the radiation oncologist, Dr. Pim van Lommel is a world-renowned Dutch cardiologist. Dr. Bruce Greyson is professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia. Dr. Michael Sabom is a cardiologist in private practice and on staff at two hospitals in Atlanta. Dr. Raymond Moody, sort of the patriarch of the field who first published the groundbreaking Life After Life in 1975, is a psychologist and medical doctor with PhDs in philosophy and psychiatry.
Where do they publish their studies of NDEs? Apart from widely read, sometimes bestselling books put out by major houses, Miller notes that by 2005 over 900 articles on NDEs had been published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals like Psychiatry, The Lancet, Critical Care Quarterly, Journal of Near-Death Studies, American Journal of Psychiatry, and British Journal of Psychology, Resuscitation and Neurology. Not bad. Even a nonscientific type like me knows that such journals are very rigorous about what they publish.
But most interestingly of all, far from having started out with a religious or spiritual agenda, most of the major NDE researchers affirm that they were skeptics before they started inquiring scientifically into NDEs. Van Lommel wrote:
I grew up in an academic environment where I was taught that there is a reductionist and materialist explanation for everything…. I had always accepted this as indisputably true…. That death is the end used to be my own belief.
Sabom’s aim in studying NDEs was to “refute them, to prove that they could be explained naturalistically” (my emphasis). But he ended up writing: “I have searched for such an explanation over the past five years and have not found one that is adequate.”
Another researcher, Dr. Melvin Morse, wrote after a three-year study of NDEs:
After looking at all the other explanations for near-death experiences, I think the simplest explanation is that NDEs are actually glimpses into the world beyond. Why not? I’ve read all the convoluted psychological and physiological explanations for NDEs, and none of them seem very satisfying.
What sorts of things end up convincing such researchers that NDEs are real?
First of all, there’s the phenomenon of specific corroborations.
NDEs often happen to people on an operating table who are brain-dead. They typically report—among much else, of course—floating above their bodies and observing the work that’s being done on them.
The most famous such instance is the Pam Reynolds case. As Miller describes it:
Pamela Reynolds, a thirty-five-year-old mother, underwent a complex surgery to repair a giant aneurysm in a cerebral artery. As reported by cardiologist Michael Sabom and neurosurgeon Robert Spetzler, in preparation for the surgery they lowered her body temperature to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit and drained all the blood from her head, so that her brain had ceased functioning by all three clinical tests—“her electroencephalogram was silent, her brain-stem response was absent, and no blood flowed through her brain….” Additionally, her eyes were taped shut, she was put under deep anesthesia, brain-stem activity was monitored with “100-decible clicks emitted by small molded speakers inserted into her ears” and her entire body, except for the small area of the head they were cutting on, was completely covered.
During this time, Reynolds experienced a vivid NDE where she watched part of the surgery and reported back to the doctors what she saw—describing in minute detail the specialized instruments they used….
Doctors Sabom and Spetzler (director of the Barrow Neurological Institute) confirmed the accuracy of what she both heard and saw in the operating room….
As Moody wrote:
Several doctors have told me…that they are utterly baffled about how patients with no medical knowledge could describe in such detail and so correctly the procedure used in resuscitation attempts, even though these events took place while the doctors knew the patients involved to be “dead.”
Even more dramatically, such cases have occurred with patients who were born blind and had never experienced vision even in their dreams.
For instance, a 22-year-old woman named Vicki was thrown into a deep coma by a car accident.
After the wreck, she found herself viewing, with perfectly clarity, a scene in an emergency room where a medical team was frantically working to revive a person. She recognized her wedding ring (which she knew by touch) and began to realize that the body was hers and that she must have died. She went up through the ceiling and saw trees, birds, and people for the first time. “…it was incredibly, really beautiful, and I was overwhelmed by that experience because I couldn’t imagine what light was like.” Before coming back, she went on to meet some people who had preceded her in death.
Van Lommel wrote:
This is impossible according to current medical knowledge…. Vicki’s reported observations could not have been the product of sensory perception or of a functioning cerebral cortex, nor could they have been a figment of the imagination given their verifiable aspects.
Miller comments: “Naturalists should consider the near-death experiences of the blind as a serious challenge to their worldview.”
A whole other category of corroborations involves encounters with deceased people whom NDE experiencers (NDErs in the literature) did not know to be deceased — or didn’t know about at all.
The common elements of NDEs, reported by people of widely varying cultural and religious backgrounds all over the world, include out-of-body observations, tunnels, life reviews, encounters with a supreme being or “being of light”—and meetings with the deceased, usually relatives. Jeffrey Long in his book cites this as one of the indications that NDEs are real; if they’re just dreams and hallucinations, why don’t NDErs encounter living people as generally occurs in dreams and hallucinations?
And what about those even stranger cases? Miller notes this one from the book Science and the Near-Death Experience:
The first known attempt to pull together accounts of people’s deathbed experiences was by Sir William Barrett, professor of experimental physics at Ireland’s Royal College of Science. His study was prompted by his wife (who was a physician), who rushed home to tell Sir William about a remarkable vision seen by Doris, a lady who was about to die after giving birth to her child. Doris spoke with great delight about seeing her deceased father. Then, with a rather puzzled expression, she said, “He has Vida with him.” Doris turned toward her and repeated, “Vida is with him.” She soon died.
Doris’ sister Vida had died three weeks before, but nobody had told Doris, due to her state of health.
And this one from Van Lommel’s study Consciousness Beyond Life:
A five-year-old contracted meningitis, fell into a coma, and awoke reporting that he’d met a little girl on the other side who claimed to be his sister. She said to him, “I’m your sister. I died a month after I was born. I was named after your grandmother. Our parents called me Rietje for short.”
When he awoke and told his parents, they were shocked and left the room for a moment, then returned to tell him that he indeed had an older sister named Rietje who’d died of poisoning a year before he was born. They had decided not to tell him until later in life.
Cases of different kinds of corroboration, Miller notes, “are scattered throughout the professional literature…. Professor Janice Holden, Chair of the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at the University of North Texas, identified over 100 such cases….”
And who is this “being of light”? Some NDErs use a name for this deity they encounter like Jesus or Brahman, in keeping with their own religion. But “being of light” is the term that comes up most commonly.
A Russian NDEr named Victor reported: “The light was extraordinary. In it were love and peace. I was completely enveloped by love and I felt totally secure.” Miller notes that “the descriptions of [the light’s] personality and abilities and effects are remarkably similar.” Moody called the encounter “the most incredible common element” of NDEs and affirmed that “not one person has expressed any doubt whatsoever that it was a being, a being of light.”
The being of light is always singular; there is only one, never multiple beings. Van Lommel wrote: “This encounter is always accompanied by an overwhelming sense of unconditional love and acceptance.” The light knows and cares about the NDEr’s whole life and personal choices, and is always experienced as just, not capricious or errant.
Studies have found that prior belief or lack of belief has no effect on whether one has an NDE, including an experience of the being. As Van Lommel put it: “Any kind of religious belief, or its absence in nonbelievers and atheists, was irrelevant….”
Yet the encounter with the light, along with the other elements of the NDE, profoundly affects NDErs for the rest of their lives. Miller, after “compiling the results of five independent studies” on NDErs, found that
only 27 percent of the subjects believed in life after death before their NDEs. But even twenty plus years after the NDE…90 percent of them reported believing in life after death…. In one study [reported in this book], while only 38 percent believed in life after death before their NDE, 100 percent believed after the NDE.
Full disclosure: about 35 years ago I had a non-NDE mystical experience in which I came into the light’s presence. The experience was exactly as the NDErs describe it.
So is the news all good? No, not all of it.
Some minority of NDEs are distressing, and in some cases even terrifying. The NDE researcher Nancy Evans Bush, who had a distressing NDE herself, has published a book on the subject.
Just remember, this is halftime, not the end of the fourth quarter, so NDEs may not take place in a person’s final resting place. Perhaps it’s a warning. Some consider distressing NDEs more of a vivid dream than reality, since there may not be as much consistency between hellish experiences as there are with positive experiences. Yet, they do seem to have the vividness and convincing nature of an NDE.
Some studies of the frequency of distressing NDEs have come up with exactly 0 percent in a sample; others come in at around 20 percent, with some of the NDEs just “disturbing” and not really terrible.
My own web surfing on the subject gives me the impression that not a few of the bad NDEs happen to suicide attempters, people who were already in other kinds of distress, or people with religious preoccupations about hell.
One of the major NDE researchers wrote this to me:
The more research I do, the more I suspect that those who [have] hellish experience[s] may be predisposed to be morally/spiritually flawed. This research is ongoing, and I can’t make any firm conclusions on that yet.
Another FAQ is: what about really evil people? Do individuals who may have committed monstrous crimes get lovingly absorbed into the light?
While I’m not aware of a single report of the NDE of, say, a serial killer, the same researcher wrote to me that “there are many seemingly ‘bad’ people who had very pleasant NDEs….”
In short, we don’t yet know much about how things work on the other side, and possibly, from the vantage of this dimension we now inhabit, our knowledge will always be limited. We don’t know how the cosmic spiritual-moral economy works, or if there is such a thing.
But what seems clear to me is that, after three and a half decades of NDE research, we know a lot more than we used to, and most of it is exhilarating. Answers to some of the most fundamental, age-old questions seem to be dawning on the horizon. And as NDE research keeps progressing, it is going to get more and more fascinating and thrilling.