We’ve all heard of, or even experienced, instances of extreme danger or rapidly declining health: a four car pile-up on the freeway, a fever that stuck around longer than it should have, an accidental misstep at the worst possible moment. These brushes with death were likely described as near death experiences (NDEs), but, from the scientific point of view, they probably weren’t.
Scientists use specific parameters to determine what incidents they study as NDEs, and veridical data to determine the veracity of these accounts.
This article will walk you through everything you need to know about NDEs from a scientific perspective, and discover what they can tell us about the human soul and the afterlife. For more information, download our free fact sheet with the top 5 points to remember about NDE's:
- What is a Near Death Experience?
- The Science of Near Death Experiences
- How do we know NDEs are not just a physical reaction of the body?
- Credible stories of Near Death Experiences
- Heaven, hell, and NDEs
- NDE frequently asked questions
Chapter 1: What is a near death experience (NDE)?
A near death experience occurs when someone has limited brain function, yet is able to have a sensory experience without full use of their physical senses.
But scientifically speaking, what is considered a near death experience?
According to the strict science of near-death experiences, a person must have a flat EEG (electroencephalogram) indicating an absence of electrical activity in the cerebral cortex (generating higher cerebral functioning), the absence of gag reflex, and fixed and dilated pupils, indicating a significant reduction of lower brain functioning.
In this state, sensory organs are non-functional, both in themselves, and in the brain’s capacity to process their signals. Furthermore, higher cerebral functions such as thinking, processing memories, and linguistic functions are either completely absent or reduced to insignificant. Lower brain activity is also minimized, though there may be some sporadic and minimal “sputtering” of pockets of deep cortical neurons in those areas.
For more information on the physical state of the person during an NDE, click here.
Experience without the senses
Despite the inability to process sensory information (see above), patients describe events, feelings, and sensations—it is these experiences that we categorize as “near death experiences”.
Dating back to 1982, we have data for NDEs. A Gallup Survey indicated that approximately 8 million adults in the United States have experienced an NDE. The people sampled report having some of the following ten characteristics, eight of which appear to be unique to near-death experiences (in italics):
- out of body experience
- accurate visual perception (while out of body)
- accurate auditory perception (while out of body)
- feelings of peace and painlessness
- light phenomena (encounter with loving white light)
- life review
- being in another world
- encountering other beings
- tunnel experience
A caution on near death experiences
We must cite the evidence of near death experiences with caution, because there are many books written on this subject that are not scientific or based on any clinical, cross-cultural, long term study, but rather on a few anecdotes taken to the extreme. Some of these nonscientific books have rather manipulative agendas, and some are quite cultic in character.
However, we don’t have to disregard all NDEs reports as unreliable. Instead, we can look at the research of scientists who have studied such accounts for years.
Why an NDE can be scientifically verified
Since NDE experiences often happen in hospital settings with professional medical oversight, thousands of NDEs have been sufficiently well-documented for scientific study. This documentation often includes relevant information that can be verified by those present. Examples include actions that took place during resuscitation, conversations in the waiting room, or articles of clothing worn by family members.
For more specific near death experience stories with veridical data, scroll down to Chapter 4 or read our article, "5 Credible Near Death Experience Stories."
The transphysical component of near death experiences
In NDE cases, people retain their consciousness. As noted in the list above, there are reports of moving outside the body, passing through walls in the hospital, and sometimes being transported to a transphysical domain (this is where the popularly-known details of moving through a tunnel and encountering a bright light come in).
What exactly does a near death experience feel like?
In a near death experience, people can see and hear what’s going on around them, remember what is happening and know who they are—but their consciousness is operating independently of their physical body.
As such, we call their consciousness "transphysical," i.e., not limited by the physical.
This idea corresponds with developments in other branches of science. Near death experiences are certainly pronounced and conspicuous evidence of a transphysical soul.
Chapter 2: The science of near death experiences
The widely accepted criteria for near death experiences makes the science of near death experiences possible.
There are four significant peer-reviewed studies that provide meaningful, verifiable evidence of the survival of human consciousness after clinical death, strengthening the case for the transphysical nature of NDEs:1. The studies of Dr. Sam Parnia (2014)
A 4-year study of 2,060 patients with cardiac arrest found 9% of the survivors (185 patients) had an NDE; an additional 30% (618 patients) had some sense of postmortem consciousness and maintained visual awareness for up to three minutes after cardiac arrest.2. Dr. Pim van Lommel (2001)
The science of near death experiences was started in earnest by this longitudinal study of the near death experiences of 344 cardiac patients in ten Dutch hospitals. It found that 62 adult patients (roughly one out of five) experienced an NDE with some typical characteristics. No patients reported distressing or frightening NDEs.3. Dr. Kenneth Ring (2006)
Specifically studying the NDE experiences of the blind, Dr. Ring found their experiences conformed to the classic NDE pattern (it did not vary whether the patients were born blind, had lost sight later in life, or had minimal light perception). Additionally, 80% of 31 blind respondents claimed to be able to see during their NDEs or OBEs (out of body experience).4. Dr. Janice Holden (2007)
The Holden study is a compendium of 107 cases in 39 studies by 37 authors in which 37% of the cases involved veridical (verifiable) details reported in the NDE experiences.
Collectively, these studies examined the experiences of over 3,500 patients.
It should be noted that there are many other careful studies that corroborate and extend their findings: Basford 1990, Fenwick & Fenwick 1995, Greyson & Flynn 1984, Roberts & Owen 1988, Sabom 1982, and Zaleski 1987.
Additionally, Dr. Bruce Greyson and Dr. Emily Kelly have made longitudinal studies of near death phenomena (with control groups) at the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies (in the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine).
In general, purely physical explanations (see Chapter 3) do not account for the three kinds of verifiable evidence revealed in these studies.
Chapter 3: How do we know NDEs are not just a physical reaction of the body?
Physical explanations of NDE’s claim that patients are really experiencing hallucinations resulting from stimulation/trauma of certain areas of the brain due to:
- Lack of oxygen (anoxia)
- Electrical surge to the brain
Are these physical explanations for near death experiences satisfactory?
The experiences (hallucinations) produced by these conditions do not correspond with the perceptions and experiences of those with NDEs. We will look at each of these conditions.
Anoxia hypothesis (Susan Blakemore)
The explanation offered here is that the anoxia of a dying brain could lead to the firing of neurons responsible for visual perception – possibly leading to an experience of a white light at the end of a tunnel. If this were true, then 100% of patients should have an NDE or OBE under such conditions, but only 18% do.
Researcher Karl Jansen conjectured that he could produce an NDE by ingesting small quantities of ketamine – a veterinary anesthetic. Though this did induce a sense of being out of body (OBE), the images in the hallucination were “weird” and perspectives were exaggerated. Again, “weird” perceptions are contrary to the lucid and accurate descriptions found by the studies of near death experiences.
Electrical surge to the brain
Several physicalist explanations of NDEs and OBEs (out of body experiences) fall in this category.
Blanke (2003) and his team placed electrodes in the angular gyrus of the parietal lobe which triggered an “OBE-like” experience in a patient with epilepsy. However, Blanke’s stimulations produced abnormal bodily experiences and a false sense of reality (e.g. legs growing shorter and seeing body doubles), contrary to the experiences described in NDE’s.
Michael Persinger claimed he could stimulate an near death experience by using weak transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the temporal lobes. The states induced by this process, however, resemble the psychic states associated with epilepsy and, again, do not correspond to near death experiences.
Other problems with physicalist explanations
The patients described in the studies from Ch. 2 had no electrical activity in the cerebral cortex (marked by a flat EEG) and virtually no electrical activity in the lower brain (fixed and dilated pupils and absence of gag reflex). This is not true for any of the patients mentioned in the physical explanations offered above.
Another major difference between NDEs and physically stimulated illusion (hereafter “PSI”) is that in each case the latter do not resemble the former.
- Blanke’s PSI gives rise to abnormal bodily experiences and a false sense of reality (instead of a clear and accurate perception of reality and one’s place in it).
- Whinnery’s PSI gives rise to a state of confusion and anxiousness in its aftermath (instead of clarity and lifelong positive transformation).
- Jansen’s narcotically induced hallucination gives rise to false and weird images and exaggerated perspectives (unlike NDEs).
- Persinger’s PSI gives rise to psychic states associated with epilepsy (which are quite distinct from those associated with near death experiences).
Chapter 4: Credible stories of Near Death Experiences
Frequently during near death experiences, some transphysical component leaves the body, but does not go immediately to an other-worldly domain. Instead, it remains in the resuscitation room or somewhat near the body.
Some of these reports have highly unusual or unique characteristics which are not part of ordinary resuscitation or hospital procedures. As such, the details of these near death experience stories can be verified by hospital staff and others who were present at the time. When the claims of a NDE have been verified, the account is deemed “veridical”.
Virtually every peer-reviewed study reports multiple instances of such veridical data. Here are some veridical near death experiences reported in these studies.
3 Real-Life Near Death Experience stories
In the Pim van Lommel study, one man who had been in a deep coma later told a nurse that he recognized her and saw where she had placed his dentures during resuscitation efforts—he even described the cart where she placed them. They were there, precisely as he described it.
Dr. Bruce Greyson (Department of Psychiatric Medicine at the University of Virginia) reported one woman’s accurate description of the plaid shoelaces on a nurse participating in her resuscitation.
Another patient from Dr. Greyson’s study accurately described of his cardiac surgeon ‘‘flapping his arms as if trying to fly’’ during his open-heart surgery.
Given the evidence of NDEs - what conclusions can we draw about the afterlife? Read on for more.
Chapter 5: Heaven, hell, and NDEs
If we believe that a transphysical component of a person exists and has an experience that is similar to actual death during an NDE, then we may use those experiences to extract information about the afterlife.
Here are some common descriptions of heaven and hell based on NDE accounts.
Characteristics of Heaven from NDEs
1. Freedom from physical limitations
Patients in NDEs maintain bodily powers like seeing and hearing but are free of physical constraint. They report the ability to move through walls, ascend upward, and move beyond the physical domain.
The resurrected Jesus has these freedoms in his glorified body, and Christian revelation further teaches that our own bodies will be similarly transformed at the resurrection.
There is a dimension of beauty, joy, and paradise—ultimate fulfillment—in many accounts of NDEs as well as in Christian revelation about the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus told us love was central in the Kingdom of God, and NDE patients describe overwhelming love as their dominant experience in the realm of light. For example, one patient describes her experience of coming into contact with the loving white light. The following case resembles hundreds of others reported by researchers:
Moreover, some patients are greeted by deceased family members who they do not recognize, because they deceased family member died before the patient was even born. They often introduce themselves and reveal facts about themselves that the patients’ relatives or friends are subsequently able to verify.
Though this kind of evidence is not veridical (because it can’t be corroborated as occurring during a patient’s clinical death by an independent source), it has probative circumstantial value—particularly because it occurs in so many different cases of near death experiences. It has also been studied by specialists, such as Dr. Jeffery Long and Dr. Pim van Lommel., both of whom show patients’ knowledge of facts about or from deceased family members and friends not formerly known.
Negative Near Death Experiences
Some patients report negative near death experiences of a hell-like place, an experience shared by many saints and noted in revelation.
Most negative NDEs describe a feeling of being in alone in a void. However, there are some hellish NDEs such as this patient described:
“When I reached the bottom, it resembled the entrance to a cave, with what looked like webs hanging. . . . I heard cries, wails, moans, and the gnashing of teeth. I saw these beings that resembled humans, with the shape of a head and body, but they were ugly and grotesque. . . . They were frightening and sounded like they were tormented, in agony.”
We might conclude from this correlation between medical studies of near death experiences and Christian revelation that NDEs support Jesus’ message in the New Testament – that there is a heaven and a hell, and that our souls live on after our bodies die.
Chapter 6: NDE frequently asked questions
Are there peer-reviewed medical studies on near death experiences?
Yes. There are 4 major studies: Dr. Sam Parnia (2014), Dr. Pim van Lommel (2001), Dr. Kenneth Ring (2006), and Dr. Janice Holden (2007) Also the International Association for Near-death Studies (IANDS) encourages scientific research and education on the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual nature of near-death experiences. Its publications include the peer-reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies and the quarterly newsletter Vital Signs. At the University of Virginia, there is an entire department, the Division of Perceptual Studies, devoted to the scientific examination of phenomena that challenge accepted scientific assumptions. Dr. Bruce Greyson is the resident expert on NDEs.
What kinds of scientists study NDEs?
Modern research of NDEs involves neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other medical doctors.
How many people have had this experience?
World wide, tens of thousands of people report having NDEs and, in 1982, the Gallup Organization examined over 8 million reports of NDEs. (Not all of these cases were reported in 1982 but were on record.)
Is there evidence that near death experiences are real or describe a real event?
Many people don’t want to believe something unless it can be scientifically verified. While an NDE is a subjective experience, what we do know is that tens of thousands of people report having one, and similar characteristics are reported across the range of individual experiences. Additional “evidence” is the report of veridical data, and the fact that 80% of blind NDErs report being able to see during their experience.
What does “veridical” data mean?
“Veridical evidence” refers to verifiable evidence of a unique sort occurring during a near death experience which can be subsequently verified when a patient has returned to his or her body. True example — a person who leaves his body, passes through the wall of a hospital and sees an old sneaker on the fifth floor ledge of the outside wall of the hospital (the experience of the sneaker and its position is unique – not common to the vast majority of near death experiences). A researcher crawls out on the fifth floor ledge of the hospital and finds the sneaker there (probably dropped by a construction worker) and had been there for decades (verifiable after the NDE).
What is the difference between an out of body experience (OBE) and a near death experience (NDE)?
A near-death experience might be considered a “kind’ of OBE. An OBE usually involves the feeling of perceiving one's physical body as if one was outside one's body (autoscopy). A near-death experience has other characteristics described in the next question.
What are the most common characteristics used by people to describe their NDEs?
In 1982, a Gallup study listed ten common characteristics experienced in over 8 million NDEs:
- Out of body experience: 26%
- Accurate visual perception: 23%
- Audible sounds or voices: 17%
- Feelings of peace, painlessness: 32%
- Light phenomena: 14%
- Life review: 32%
- Being in another world: 32%
- Encountering other beings: 23%
- Tunnel experience: 9%
- Precognition: 6%
What is meant by “brain death” and why is this important when talking about NDEs?
Brain activity can be detected and recorded by an EEG (electroenchepholagram). Brain death means a complete cessation of brain activity (a flat EEG much like a flat EKG in cardiac arrest). There are several dramatic reports of NDEs during documented cessation of brain activity, when technically a patient is “brain dead.”
Can’t low oxygen states, electrical stimulation of certain regions of the brain, or some drugs produce NDE-like experiences?
These explanations are among more than a dozen alternative physical explanations offered to explain away NDEs, but they are insufficient. For example, if low oxygen states can explain NDEs, then why don’t all “dying” patients (particularly those in von Lommel’s study of cardiac arrest patients) experience one? Additionally,the experiences produced by electrical stimulation or drug induced “hallucinations” are qualitatively different from those described by NDErs. The following are some comparisons with the NDE data in parentheses:
- abnormal bodily experiences, a false sense of reality, even false and weird images (instead of a clear and accurate perception of reality and one’s place in it).
- a state of confusion and anxiousness in its aftermath (instead of clarity and lifelong positive transformation).
- fragmented and randomness of the memories (instead of clear recall in a sequential order even many years after the event)
Do NDEs prove that there is life after death?
The most conservative interpretation of NDEs is that some aspect of human consciousness is non-physical and continues after physical death.
Are the only people who have NDEs very religious?
No. NDEs occur in people of different ages, religious backgrounds and cultures.
What, if anything, does the Catholic Church have to say about NDEs?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t have any specifics on the topic, but there are parallels between Church teaching and near death experiences. See more in the video below.
Do near death experiences change a person’s life?
There are many reported spiritual/psychological changes and even physiological ones. Spiritual/psychological changes include a loss or decrease in a fear of death, an increase in generosity and charity, an increased desire for knowledge, the resolution of issues from childhood along with an increase in child-like wonder and joy. Physiological changes include different patterns of thought-processing, becoming more creative and inventive, increased light/sound sensitivity, changes in food preferences, lower blood pressure, increased metabolism, and the person may even become younger looking. More details here.
What if someone I know has had a near death experience?
An NDE is not a sign of a mental disorder, but sometimes the experiencer may fear being viewed as “crazy”. Most people view an NDE as a life-altering event, and its aftereffects can be challenging (see question above). The important thing is just to listen.
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