A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.
- Albert Einstein
Recently I became curious about a mysterious phenomenon: the near-death experience, or NDE. Despite my general preference for evidence, science, data, and the like, I’ve always been a bit intrigued by events that seem to defy scientific explanation. Being also curious about the afterlife, I bought a couple of books. Maybe this NDE thing was just misfires from a dying brain like many skeptics claim, but maybe it was something else…
An NDE from Someone Who Should Know Better
One book was Proof of Heaven, a personal account by a respected neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander who had an NDE while comatose with bacterial meningitis that should have been destroying his brain at the time. After spending his entire career dismissing NDEs as nonsense, he woke up a strong believer in them with a remarkable tale to share.
The Book That Coined the Term
Next was the book that coined the phrase near-death experience, Dr. Raymond Moody’s Life After Life. Moody gathered and studied 150 accounts of NDEs and looked for recurring elements, thinking that if NDEs were real, they would probably share many similarities. He was correct.
What Happens During an NDE?
Moody identified twelve elements that kept appearing in NDE reports. Each report was a bit different, and none of them contained every element, but several elements popped up repeatedly, including:
- A sense of being outside one’s body in a separate and immaterial body of sorts, often looking down upon one’s physical body as medical people struggled to save it.
- Remarkable peace, lucidity, and lack of pain.
- The ability to move, often to other parts of the hospital where the subject often heard or saw things they shouldn’t have been able to hear or see. Many of these instances were verified later, much to the surprise of the medical professionals and families.
- A dark tunnel or cave, through which the subject often moved at seemingly great speed.
- A being of light whose presence enveloped the subject in an overwhelming and indescribable sense of unconditional love and peace.
- Meeting other beings, generally deceased relatives or occasionally close friends.
- A life review in which the subject reviewed his entire life or just certain parts, but with the ability to better understand their significance and how his choices affected others. The purpose of this life review was always the person’s own education, never as a determinant for a heaven/hell decision.
- A decision to return to one’s body. Sometimes the subject chose to return to attend to unfinished business such as raising a child, while other times the decision was made for the subject, sending him unhappily back to his broken physical body.
- Profound life change after returning, characterized by a complete loss of the fear of death and greater love and compassion for others.
Moody and Alexander, both physicians, took pains to evaluate the natural explanations that skeptics often suggest, such as low blood oxygen, drug-induced hallucinations, mental illness, brain malfunctions, dreams, and recalled memories. Although convenient and widely accepted in some circles, none of these explanations really holds up under closer analysis. The problem with most common explanations is this: NDE reports nearly always involve a high level of awareness, recall, lucidity, and complex thought. Low blood oxygen, painkillers, hallucinogens, or a malfunctioning, dying brain would make one’s brain foggier, not sharper.
I am now on my fifth book on the subject. Yes, there are plenty of personal accounts in books and on TV, some of which might be frauds trying to make an easy buck. But the books I’ve been reading are by physicians who once believed that NDEs should not be possible, but have been convinced otherwise by studying the evidence and, in Alexander’s case, also by personal experience.
Most of my books have focused on analyzing large numbers of NDE reports. These reports are often submitted anonymously or de-identified prior to publication, so there is little incentive for false reports from people looking to sell their book or get on Oprah. Even in studies larger than Moody’s seminal study, and even when comparing NDE reports among different languages and cultures, the same elements appear time and again. Sometimes the respondents interpret or describe things differently based on their cultural background, much like travelers describing the same landmark in different ways, but the elements themselves get repeated in a surprising number of cases. Interestingly, the elements don’t vary significantly by nation, culture, gender, or (perhaps most surprisingly) religion. Christians, atheists, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims all reported the same types of NDEs. If these reports are true, the traditional Christian view that all non-Christians go to hell seems to be mistaken.
I’ve been wrestling with a lot of questions lately, really over the past year. Along other things, it’s been difficult to believe there truly is something else beyond death. Remember, I like data and evidence and sound reason, and since I haven’t died yet that I know of, I have no personal experience to use as evidence. Although this blog post probably hasn’t convinced you, the books I’ve been reading about people who have been to the edge of death and returned are making me more convinced that the afterlife is real, albeit different from many people’s expectations. That growing conviction comforts me more than I would have expected.
Do You Have a Story?
Estimates suggest that around five percent of all people have experienced an NDE, although many of them never discuss theirs publicly for fear of ridicule. So I suspect that some of you either have personally experienced an NDE or know someone who has. If so, I would love to hear about your experience.
If you’d like to read about some NDEs without buying a book, check out NDERF.org.