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Does a near-death experience change you? Nearly losing your life can help you make sense of it

He's waiting (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

He's waiting (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)


November 9, 2023   5 mins

Two days before he died from cancer at the age of 39, my father was sitting in a hotel restaurant with my mother, in considerable discomfort. After a while, they noticed two very familiar people sitting at a table across the room — my father’s father and a family friend who he had been very close to when he was younger. Both these people had been dead for many years. Later, my mother reflected that they had come to collect my father, to guide him to wherever he was about to go.

Encounters such as these, in which a dying person is “brought home” by someone who loved them earlier in their life, are one of the many fantastical experiences commonly reported by people close to death. For several decades, psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying “near-death experiences”, to understand what causes them and what they might mean. Some of the most remarkable reports have come from patients who clinically died before being resuscitated — and saw things that changed their lives.

Researchers say that 10-20% of those who have returned from the brink of death have clear memories of what they went through. The same stories come up over and again. They have left their body and are looking down from above. They’re in an infinite void, or approaching a border from which there is no return. They feel a deep sense of harmony with something much bigger than themselves. Scenes from their past are played out in front of them and they see how their actions affected others. They’re passing through a tunnel towards a bright light. They’re in a beautiful garden with people who have died before them.

These visions are quite different from everyday dreams or drug-induced hallucinations, which tend to be fractured, disordered and difficult to interpret. They almost always have a narrative arc, a distinct reality and a clear purpose or moral intent. They are often exquisitely detailed. Bruce Greyson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, has collected hundreds of graphic accounts that he describes as “quite real and quite profound in their impact”. The following example, recounted in his 2021 book After, is from a 23-year-old woman who almost died during a bad reaction to an anaesthetic during childbirth: “This was a beautiful green meadow with beautiful flowers, beautiful colours … colours that I’d never seen before … I realised I was seeing the inner light of all the growing things, just utter glory in colour.”

Another of his patients, a firefighter at an air force base, recalled being in some kind of tunnel after being severely injured in an explosion: “There was a light in the distance and I saw the spiralling strings of blue-green light coming and going like the aurora borealis. The light was drawing me to it. I moved exceptionally fast down the tunnel and it took no time at all to reach it … The light was emanating from a being … He was beautiful to look at, and projected the feelings of unconditional love.”

Most people who report near-death experiences describe them as pleasant or even transcendent. Recently, Sam Parnia and his colleagues at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine interviewed survivors of cardiac arrest. Many recalled a pervasive sense of peace. “It was so calm and serene with an incredible amount of tranquility,” one of them told the researchers. Another described feeling “nothing but love, goodness, truth, and all things to do with love. There was no room for fear or evil … I was so happy to be there.”

It is tempting to think that these upbeat assessments tell us something about death itself — that there is no reason to dread it, that some part of us survives it. But near-death experiences are reported exclusively by people who survived. They may describe the process of dying, but not what comes afterwards. Moreover, not all of them are tranquil. Greyson and a fellow researcher, Nancy Evans Bush, have recorded dozens of reports of negative experiences which they say contain many of the same phenomena as positive experiences but differ greatly in “emotional tone”. Patients who float outside their body can find it terrifying. The oft-reported infinite void can trigger feelings of desperate isolation. A few people have had the sensation that they are plunging through the gates of hell. One woman who passed out during a traumatic childbirth found herself floating on water, a feeling she described as “pure hell. I had become a light out in the heavens, and I was screaming, but no sound was going forth. It was worse than any nightmare.”

The long history of these accounts upends much of what we believe about the relationship between the mind and the brain. In the prevailing orthodoxy of medicine, the mind should not be capable of heightened, lucid states when the brain is barely functioning or clinically dead. But when Parnia and his team at New York University monitored the electrical activity in the brains of cardiac arrest patients as they underwent CPR, they found surprising evidence of high-level cognitive functioning in many of the patients up to an hour after cardiac arrest — even though blood flow and oxygen levels diminished drastically within seconds of their heart stopping. The researchers think the brainwaves they recorded were “biomarkers of consciousness” — neural correlates of the near-death experiences reported by some of the surviving patients when they woke up. They suggest that instead of completely dying when oxygen levels fall off, the brain enters a state of disinhibition that allows “lucid understanding of new dimensions of reality — including people’s deeper consciousness”.

Whatever we encounter when we die, it is likely the same for all of us. The central elements of near-death experiences appear to be universal, though they are often filtered through the lens of culture or religion. For instance, the Tibetan delogs — people who have “returned from death” — have the sensation of looking down on their body, but they are more likely to see it as the corpse of a pig, a symbol of ignorance and delusion in Tibetan Buddhism. And their journey through the after-world is often populated with formidable or horrifying deities, as in this account of a Bhutanese delog from the mid-17th century in which she witnessed “an ox-headed acolyte of the Lord of Death beating some tied-up victims for having eaten meat”.

A grand theory of near-death experiences is almost certainly beyond us. They may be a mechanism to allow us to make sense of the life we have lived. They may hint at hitherto unrealised levels of consciousness. It’s hard to imagine them having an evolutionary purpose, unless their function is to rescue us from the brink of death. But one thing they tell us for sure: the mind is more than a function of the brain, and we still don’t know the full extent of what it is capable of.

We do know that such patients lose their fear of death. They become more loving, more tolerant, more interested in the suffering of others. They care less about material possessions and appreciate the everyday things more. They live more fully in the present. Greyson thinks everyone should live life as if they’ve had a near-death experience, since — as he says in his book — “they tell us that life is more about meaning and compassion than about wealth and control”.

My father died surrounded by people who loved him, but I rather hope they weren’t the last people he saw. I like to imagine he was greeted by friends and family who had gone before him, who ushered him through the tunnel of light, introduced him to the radiant figurehead and settled him into the beautiful garden. Who knows, maybe he’ll be waiting for me there.


Michael Bond is a writer specialising in human behaviour. He is a former editor and reporter at New Scientist. His latest book is Fans: A Journey Into the Psychology of Belonging.

michaelshawbond

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0 0
5 months ago

One afternoon in my ER a 55 y.o. security guard at our hospital came in by ambulance “Code 3 – flatline, full code!” ERs can be rough places and I knew Roy well. By exam and history, he was dead long before arriving in our ER. Another physician and I worked on him for 30 minutes, much longer than normal. We pulled out all the stops but eventually and reluctantly “called the code,” indicating it was futile. Sadly we collected the paperwork to certify the death. Then the cardiac monitor pinged! It had not yet been disconnected from the body. And then another ping…and slowly his heart resumed beating and, wonder of wonders, one of us found a femoral pulse in his cold, blue leg. We had mixed emotions, as anyone who has ever done CPR “on a brain dead vegetable” will quickly understand.
To give the elevator speech, his blood pressure slowly returned and despite having fixed and dilated pupils for more than 40-45 minutes, we sent him upstairs to the ICU. Four weeks later, he walked into the ER and thanked me for saving him. I asked him how he knew I was the involved. He launched in to a 100% accurate description of his arrival in the ER and everything that happened to him up to being transferred to the ICU. He accurately told me everything – despite 40-45 min of flatline cardiac monitor, ZERO reflexes, ZERO spontaneous heartbeat or breathing with fixed and dilated pupils. Roy proceeded to name the other doc involved and all four of the nurses. He pointed out where each of us was standing and what task we did: “Doc, you put the IV line in my arm while Doc Bryan put that tube down my throat.” Roy pointed and told me he watched everything from up in the corner of the trauma bay and it wasn’t until the cardiac monitor started beeping that he knew “he had to come back and his work wasn’t done.” Huh? They didn’t mention this in Med School.
Thus I was introduced to near-death and “out-of-body” experiences 40 years ago. I have since read hundreds of books and I subsequently asked specifically about this kind of phenomena with many of my patients. I can now say with 100% confidence, “I haven’t a clue what’s going on.” But it is clear to me that our inability to explain it does not equal this isn’t real or worthy of more investigation.
BTW, “Roy,” was a badass Marine in Vietnam and a hardcore security guard before his “experience.” Before his NDE, he was likely to rap your head with his stick if you moved too slowly. Afterwards? He was a gentle, loving and truly caring man – with zero fear of death.

Susan Lundie
Susan Lundie
5 months ago
Reply to  0 0

Thank you for that.

Last edited 5 months ago by Susan Lundie
Harry Phillips
HP
Harry Phillips
5 months ago

A fascinating article – thank you.

I have read many such accounts over the years, and they certainly offer a glimpse of the hope, deeper meaning and connection that so many of us seek – no bad thing at all. We don’t need to understand it.

John Potts
John Potts
5 months ago

I had a near-death experience when I was in my early twenties. I wasn’t ill, drunk, or otherwise intoxicated: I went to bed as usual and then it occurred. As described in the article, I had the sensation of floating upwards out of my body, even gently bumping into the ceiling, while I looked down at my body on my bed. Then I passed through the ceiling (and presumably the roof) up into the sky and entered the long tunnel, through which I flew very rapidly towards an incredibly bright white light.

I never reached it. I didn’t see my life replaying itself, nor any people (familiar or otherwise), nor any garden, flowers or colours. What I did do was say to myself: “John, you’re dying. But it’s too soon. Not yet. Just go back down to yourself in bed. You’ll be all right. You can die when it’s time.”

So that’s what I did. Did it change my life? I can’t say that it did, at least not in the sense of appreciating everyday things more, or living more in the present. Unfortunately.

One final thing: I had never heard of, much less read about, near-death experiences before having my own, so I hadn’t been exposed to, and therefore possibly influenced by, other survivors’ accounts of floating, tunnels, bright lights etc.

My experience wasn’t in the least frightening – it was really novel and very enjoyable in fact. Then, as I mentioned, I had the realisation that I was about to die, and I calmly and “rationally” decided not to. At least, not right then.

Last edited 5 months ago by John Potts
Benedict Waterson
BW
Benedict Waterson
5 months ago
Reply to  John Potts

What caused this?

John Potts
JP
John Potts
5 months ago

I don’t know. As I wrote above, I went to bed as usual, not ill or feverish, not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. I wasn’t under extreme or existential stress. All was perfectly normal.

I can’t say why it happened, I can only say that it did happen. After my “out of body” experience, I slept soundly and felt fine the next morning.

Benedict Waterson
BW
Benedict Waterson
5 months ago
Reply to  John Potts

If you didn’t have any kind of physical distress or near death experience, then that puts it in the category of a dream

John Potts
JP
John Potts
5 months ago

Perhaps, yes. But it’s still odd that this “dream” should include several of the typical features of near-death experiences – floating up out of the body, then looking down at the body, flying through the tunnel, the speed, the white light, the calmness…

As I wrote, I had never even heard of near-death experiences at the time of my own experience, yet mine included these features nevertheless.

Last edited 5 months ago by John Potts
Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
5 months ago
Reply to  John Potts

Yeh, it’s interesting.
It does imply that near death experiences correspond with dream states

eleanor nightingale
eleanor nightingale
5 months ago
Reply to  John Potts

May I ask what you nearly died of? It sounds as if you were perfectly healthy on going to bed?

John Potts
JP
John Potts
5 months ago

Again, I don’t know. I was perfectly healthy before and after the experience.

During the experience, there was no indication as to why I was dying. As I said, I didn’t even realise that I was dying until I began to reach the end of the tunnel and neared the enormously bright white light. It was then it became clear (to me) what was happening – that I was about to die – and that I had to return to my bed.

None of this was remotely frightening – I felt no fear of the white light but I knew that if I entered it there would be no going back. That’s what I mean by saying that I realised I was dying – it was a point of no return.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
5 months ago

Well he didn’t die, or even nearly die he came back. I believe him, and I feel better for believing in this too; maybe he was called in error, maybe ‘the power’ realised he had more to do on earth that he may never be aware of himself other than by just being here a little bit longer. Maybe it was a ‘bug in his software’ that tripped him up in error? Who knows the secrets of the black magic box? Try and believe in it Eleanor, your life will improve no end and lets be honest no one has ever disproved any of it have they?

Last edited 5 months ago by Andrew Thompson
Betsy Arehart
BA
Betsy Arehart
5 months ago

Makes me think of the “sudden deaths” of presumably healthy people we hear about. Perhaps they just chose not to come back. Fascinating.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
5 months ago

I’m not sure why the author didn’t highlight both the positive and negative experiences from the start. If both are happening, the tendency to ascribe a skewed meaning to this type of experience detracts from any insights we might seek to draw. The negative experiences are presented almost as an afterthought. Why? Perhaps the author would care to explain.

In the introduction, both the man who was dying of cancer and his wife “saw” his father and friend in the restaurant. Why his wife also claimed to see this, when she wasn’t close to death, deserves further attention, but seems to be presented to us as an isolated case of loved ones coming to “collect” the husband. Did they all just carry on eating?

The subject is indeed fascinating, but i feel it should be presented to us (and i don’t find it in the least bit disturbing) in a more balanced way. It offers a route towards greater understanding of our consciousness, and even what might be called our soul, which i don’t dismiss at all but neither do i think it should be given the kind of explanation it’s traditionally been associated with. The investigation of brain function in people on the verge of physical death (e.g. during cardiac arrest) seems to me a more promising route forward, although there may be ethical considerations too.

Matt M
Matt M
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

That’s a good question about his mum. I thought he was going to explain it at some point. I’d love to hear the answer. Perhaps he will let us know in the comments.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I would have liked more investigation of the cultural differences. That the Buddhist experience reflects Buddhist beliefs would be a strong indicator for me that the experience still rests in the brain’s memory banks rather than anything external.

Matt M
MM
Matt M
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Or it could mean that the experience is external and real, but being indescribable, your brain reaches for the closest cultural reference points.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
5 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Fair comment. It’s an interesting topic but I do think this statement isn’t fully supported by the evidence in the article.

“But one thing they tell us for sure: the mind is more than a function of the brain.”

Matt M
Matt M
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Yes, agreed, it is an non sequitur.

Jerry Carroll
JC
Jerry Carroll
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

You appear to be a victim of scientism.

Michael Bond
Michael Bond
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

It’s a good question about my mother. Yes she did see them too. We don’t have an explanation. My only thought is that my mother and father were very close and she lived every day of his illness with him. It’s another mystery among many.

The reason I underplayed the negative experiences is that if you look at the NDE data collected by researchers, the vast majority are positive. Of course we don’t know about the people who never came back.

Josh Allan
Josh Allan
5 months ago

Very interesting. From a theological point of view, it would also be interesting to look at the moral character of the people who described heavenly and hellish near-death experiences respectively.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago
Reply to  Josh Allan

It really wouldn’t be helpful at all. “Good” people can have nightmares, and “bad” people very pleasant dreams. Would this phenomenon be any different? Wishing it so is a typically human self-deception.

Josh Allan
Josh Allan
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I’m not saying it would be proof of the afterlife or anything. But it would be interesting to see how accurately the ‘nightmares’ map onto the immoral, and vice versa.

Dominic A
DA
Dominic A
5 months ago
Reply to  Josh Allan

Just as likely it would relate to a guilt complex – many bad people are guilt free, and vice-versa.

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
5 months ago
Reply to  Josh Allan

From the biblical point of view, we would be looking at their relationship to Christ.

Jeff Butcher
JB
Jeff Butcher
5 months ago

It’s amazing what nearly dying can do to a person – check out Eben Alexander.

He was a thoroughly analytical brain surgeon until he got sick and nearly died, and now he is convinced of the existence of alternate dimensions and believes profoundly in the eternal nature of the soul.

I am incapable of believing any of this. I’d kind of like to though.

Helen Nevitt
Helen Nevitt
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

It was different for me because I was brought up in a churchy family, but faith’s not binary, it’s a kind of continuum. At my most faithful part of me thinks ‘this is all crap isn’t it?’ and at my most dismissive there’s a little voice saying ‘don’t worry, I’m still here’. But the main point is I never really thought I had real faith until on some kind of below the line thing like this someone posted ‘faith is a gift; ask for it and you will get it’. I did and I did. Don’t know if that helps. I prefer living with a stronger faith.

Matt M
Matt M
5 months ago
Reply to  Helen Nevitt

The mysteries of existence are, and probably always will be, mysteries.
No one knows how life on earth started. The logical positivist types say that a thunderclap turned inanimate chemicals animate. That requires a leap of faith as great as any supernatural explanation.
When people try to answer Fred Hoyle’s “Fine-tuned Universe” problem ( i.e. why are the physical constants of the universe so perfectly and bizarrely tuned for the creation and support of life?) the best answer the rationalists can come up with is “The Multiverse” – that an infinite number of parallel universes exist of which this is just one. That is no more likely than an Intelligent Designer.
No one knows how the universe came into being, what came before the Big Bang? Some say the universe has always existed – whatever that means. It is just as probable that there was a First Mover.
No one knows why humans have consciousness or imagination or empathy when other mammals don’t. And no one knows what happens to our consciousness after our bodies die.
It is perfectly rational to believe in God, or at least it is not disproved by the scientific discoveries of the last couple of centuries in any way.
” I prefer living with a stronger faith”. Me too.

Last edited 5 months ago by Matt M
Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

The British philosopher and atheist A.J. Ayer, the Richard Dawkins of his time, didn’t believe in an afterlife until he swallowed a piece of fish that went down wrong when he was in a hospital being treated for pneumonia. His heart stopped for four minutes as doctors tried to revive him. His near-death experience was seeing a bright red ball pulsing which he deemed was “the governor of the universe.” He remained an atheist but said his belief was slightly weakened. He did strike up a friendship with an Anglican priest that went on for years.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

His book is “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.”

Dominic A
DA
Dominic A
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

I am incapable of believing any of this. I’d kind of like to though.
It is likely that consumption of 5 MeO-DMT would grant you the wish of your second statement, and disprove the first.

Betsy Arehart
BA
Betsy Arehart
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

It really irritates me when people say they are “incapable” of believing anything that might exist outside the realm of the material.

R M
R M
5 months ago

The central elements of near-death experiences appear to be universal, though they are often filtered through the lens of culture or religion.

I’m not going to pretend that I know what happens after we die. Maybe there is a spaghetti monster who takes us in its warm embrace for eternity. Maybe we just stop. Nobody knows.
But surely the cultural specificity highlighted in the quote above points us at something worth paying attention to. Almost all of these accounts are recitations of cultural and religious tropes about (near-)death which have long been prevalent in our own particular societies.
Looking down on ourselves, lights, gates of hell etc. These images of the afterlife have been around for centuries and, in some cases, millennia. It seems to me an entirely credible hypothesis that in circumstances of extreme stress (and what could be more stressful to the brain than fatally or near-fatally being starved of oxygen), the brain simply “reaches” for these familiar tropes.
Nobody ever seems to describe a near-depth experience in terms which lie outside of these tropes. Which is curious at the very least.
p.s. Was anyone else hoping it was the same Michael Bond who wrote Paddington?

Graham Strugnell
GS
Graham Strugnell
5 months ago
Reply to  R M

If it’s the spaghetti monster I hope there are vegan options and not mandatory Bolognese.

Michael Bond
MB
Michael Bond
5 months ago
Reply to  R M

Interesting point, and something that researchers in this field also ponder. It’s worth noting that in many accounts of NDEs, the person was unaware that anyone else had experienced them.

Sorry to disappoint re the Paddington Bear author. If he had written this it really would be a miracle since he passed through the tunnel of light into the garden of colours some six years ago.

Betsy Arehart
BA
Betsy Arehart
5 months ago
Reply to  R M

Maybe because the tropes are true?

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
5 months ago

It’s fascinating, and we just don’t know, do we?
I was the only survivor of a 130mph head-on and since I blacked out momentarily, I assume that I now know what it would feel like to die instantaneously that way. No fear (it happened too suddenly for that) Not painful, just momentarily loud, and then nothing. No tunnels of light, beckoning relatives, or magic gardens. So not much to fear there, but no revelations either.
Did it change me? – which is what the title of the article asks. Oh yes. For good and bad, but I wouldn’t be without the experience. Strong experiences (even difficult ones) tend to improve our thinking. I’ve had many, and fully expect more – it’s been that sort of life.

Last edited 5 months ago by Albireo Double
Susan Grabston
SG
Susan Grabston
5 months ago

Yes. For about 6.months the sky is never bluer, the grass is never greener. But slowly you revert to your less grateful self. However, fear of death is diminished, but not eliminated (fear of death is more usually fear of dying).

Chris Walker
Chris Walker
5 months ago

I had a cardiac arrest one Christmas and I’m sorry to say that no transcendental experiences took place. Just woke up in ICU a couple of days later. I do think I’m in a different universe though!

Adam M
AM
Adam M
5 months ago

Interesting and very touching article. Though I’d contest the author’s assertion that near death experiences are very different from dreams and drug induced experiences. I think if you really researched this area thoroughly, you’d find a lot of overlap. Some drugs are able to trigger experiences nearly indistinguishable from NDEs. While as a few have already attested to in the comments, dreams can often be of a very similar nature. Especially in the case of lucid dreams and sleep paralysis.
though it remains mysterious, I believe a lot is possible in these ‘in-between’ states of consciousness.

Benedict Waterson
BW
Benedict Waterson
5 months ago
Reply to  Adam M

The similarities between experiences are strange tho, altho may be cultural

Travis Wade Zinn
TZ
Travis Wade Zinn
5 months ago

Important topic, thank you for your personal story and insights

Wim de Vriend
WD
Wim de Vriend
5 months ago

Last year I happened to come across a foundation called NDERF (Near Death Experience Research Foundation), founded quite some time ago by an American physician, Dr Jeff Long; the files of NDERF contain thousands of such reports. I offered to translate some, and have done a couple of dozen so far. They vary considerably, but going through a tunnel seems to be almost universal, as is being told to go back (logical if you consider that they survived). The most recent one I did was unusual in reporting a truly hellish experience of pain and torture, but not one that harmed the reporting person; it was the irresponsible driver of the car in which they crashed. However, she submitted her report without providing contact information, which raised my level of skepticism — at least, about this one. It seems reasonable to assume that for a person to remain anonymous and incommunicado raises chances of untruthful reporting; they cannot be questioned to any depth.

Last edited 5 months ago by Wim de Vriend
El Uro
El Uro
5 months ago

Confabulation. It’s well known from psychology

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago

My 3rd significant mentor was David V – whose logged account of 40m without heartbeat ,on his 43rd birthday ,Innsbruck .
8 years after an impossible lazarus experience – we were tearing around a corner ,near Fosdyke in the Lincolnshire fens- suddenly the front wheel axel gave way- and we tumbled off ,at speed – in sheer laughter.
This is not normal ,can be lethal – but it was the first of many such ‘unlearnings’ from a man I loved to call ‘the compost man’.
Everything he touched – gave back their own ‘scent of the roses’ ..