As a psychologist pointed out last year, there is no simple way to just dismiss near-death experiences (NDEs). Explanations that focus on the chaos produced by oxygen deficiency, endorphins, etc., don’t really work:
For example, oxygen deficiency usually results in chaotic hallucinatory experiences and is associated with confusion and memory loss. NDEs are completely unlike this. They are serene, structured, and well-integrated experiences. In theory, in NDEs people could have a very low level of brain activity which is not picked up by EEG machines. On the other hand, it seems very unlikely that such a low level of brain activity could produce such vivid and intense conscious experiences. If there was any conscious experience, it would surely be dim, vague, and confused. In NDEs, by contrast, people often report becoming more alert than normal, with a very clear and intense form of awareness.Steve Taylor, “Near-Death Experiences and DMT” at Psychology Today (October 12, 2018)
A more recent hypothesis attributes NDEs to psychedelic chemicals that are naturally produced by the brain (DMTs) but, as Taylor notes, the pattern of evidence is weak.
Careful researchers, coming from a variety of perspectives, have now sifted hypotheses over several decades. Whatever is happening with NDEs won’t yield to a simple explanation tossed off by, say, an internet skeptic at his blog.
Thanks to modern medical interventions, the experiences are not even rare:
Up to 25 per cent of people who almost die report a near-death experience. These usually involve sensations of zooming through a tunnel towards a light. Many also feature replays of the person’s life and reunions with dead loved ones.Graham Lawton, “Why almost everyone believes in an afterlife – even atheists” at New Scientist
So the issue now isn’t whether anything is happening but what exactly is happening.
But then what about the small proportion of near-death experiences that are distressing? We are told by the International Association for Near Death Studies, Inc. that most near-death experiences (NDEs) recorded in the literature are “dominated by pleasurable feelings such as peace, joy, and bliss.” The distressing ones, by contrast, have been described as “dominated by distressing, emotionally painful feelings such as fear, terror, horror, anger, loneliness, isolation, and/or guilt” (2017). One researcher classifies as many as 15 percent of NDEs as hellish (Blackmore, Consciousness: An Introduction, 2004: 362).
What are these bad experiences like? In The Near-Death Experience: A Reader (1996), Bruce Greyson and Bush studied fifty reports of distressing NDEs, including “an acute awareness of nonexistence or of being completely alone forever in an absolute void. Sometimes the person received a totally convincing message that the real world including themselves never really existed.” A few such reported experiences have included hellish imagery. Some also included a sense of personal torment or negative judgment.
These experiences can be mapped onto specific psychological or religious templates but here are some general observations from the literature:
- Distressing NDEs are comparatively rare and individual examples may not necessarily form a pattern:
As a result, what we know about frightening NDEs must be considered less certain than virtually any other aspect of NDEs.Jeffrey Long,, “Frightening NDEs” at Near-Death Experience Research Foundation
Given that estimates of distressing NDEs range from 1% through 15%, different interpretations and classifications may be at work.
For example, some people may be distressed simply by the fact that they had a near-death experience, even if it was benign, because it means that they had a brush with death (Long). In addition, psychotic episodes or the aftermath of drug abuse may be misclassified as “hellish” NDEs but the experiencer was not in fact near death. (Long).
- People who had a distressing experience may be proportionately less likely to report it than people who had a pleasurable experience.
It is often difficult for NDErs who had a pleasant experience to share their NDEs. It is understandable how hesitant an NDEr might be to share an experience that was frightening, or even terrifying. NDErs experiencing hellish NDEs are likely aware that they risk inviting negative judgments from others due to the content of their NDEs.Jeffrey Long,, “Frightening NDEs” at Near-Death Experience Research Foundation
The experiences can be mixed rather than wholly negative:
Many NDEs are not purely frightening, but have parts that are both frightening and pleasant. When NDEs have both frightening and pleasant components, it is more common for the frightening part to occur first. For these NDEs, they eventually transition into the later, and usually longer, part of the NDE containing the more typical pleasant experience elements.Jeffrey Long,, “Frightening NDEs” at Near-Death Experience Research Foundation
Research to date suggests no fixed pattern as to who might be expected to have distressing experiences except that persons who attempted suicide are overrepresented. That could testify to the experiencer’s general state of mind:
Prior studies of frightening and hellish NDEs have established that it is wrong to assume that ‘good people’ have pleasant NDEs and ‘bad people’ have hellish NDEs. In spite of the findings of these prior studies, this erroneous stereotype persists. This stereotype could greatly limit the desire of those experiencing hellish NDEs to share them.Jeffrey Long,, “Frightening NDEs” at Near-Death Experience Research Foundation
- Contrary to what we might expect, distressing NDEs often have a positive effect: “Someone who had a lifelong pattern of using emotional isolation to avoid being rejected by others, may have a distressing NDE of the eternal void, in which he realized that profound, endless isolation is not what he really wants.” (International Association for Near Death Studies, Inc.) Some people reconnect with their religion or spirituality or improve their health choices as a result. For example,
It’s remarkable that one single experience can have such a profound, long-lasting, transformational effect. This is illustrated by research showing that people who have near-death experiences following suicide attempts very rarely attempt suicide again. This is in stark contrast to the normal pattern—in fact, a previous suicide attempt is usually the strongest predictor of actual suicide.Steve Taylor, “Near-Death Experiences and DMT” at Psychology Today (October 12, 2018)
Ceasing attempts at suicide is, however, consistent with the common finding of profound changes in outlook:
Survivors often believe they have been to another realm. They lose all fear of death and become convinced that some aspect of their consciousness will survive it – although they struggle to say what, falling back on vague notions such as spirit and soul. Even people who were convinced that death is final often come back from a brush with it as believers in an afterlife.Graham Lawton, “Why almost everyone believes in an afterlife – even atheists” at New Scientist
So, all parties agree that we don’t know very much about near-death experiences except that, even if they are distressing, they are life-changing. Researchers now focus on trying to understand them rather than explain them away.
Further reading: Do near-death experiences defy science? NDEs do not defy science. They sometimes challenge human senses, which are based on our biology. For example, if the human eye’s usual limitations were not a factor, previously unknown colors—which we KNOW from science to exist—might be perceived.
Why medical scientists take near-death experiences seriously now Today, we know much more about what happens to people when they die—and what we are learning does not support materialism. Near-death experiences are generally seen as real, even among hardcore skeptics and research focuses on how to account for them.