We all die, but what happens after is an answer waiting to be told. Near-death experiences shine a light on the most human experience of all—death. People have shared stories of out-of-body experiences and meeting their loved ones again. The stories aren’t new, but there is new research that may help explain the science behind these experiences.
Even when it wasn’t possible to document NDEs, ancient thinkers were fascinated with the possibility. They believed the dead could come back to life to watch over both the living and the dead. Even the famous philosopher Plato told stories of dead soldiers coming back to life after battle.
Science has come a long way. Today, researchers use machines to track the brain activity of patients under anesthesia in actual time. They conduct experiments with rats to compare their brain activity before death with humans. There’s even a scholarly journal dedicated to near-death experiences.
Although near-death experiences are elusive, there are some common similarities captured by scientists and writers. If you’re curious to explore your mortality, consider beginning your journey with some things we know about near-death experiences.
1. It’s a Field of Study
No matter how skeptical you might be that someone can die and come back to life, near-death experiences are a scientific field of study. In fact, Physician Raymond Moody is considered to be the pioneer behind the movement. Moody published a book in 1975 called Life After Life, based on the near-death experiences of 50 people.
Researchers at the University of Michigan found a spike of brain activity in rats right after their heart stops. For these researchers, the hyper-consciousness was an attempt for the brain to save itself. But others argue that it proves near-death experiences are real.
2. Near-Death Experiences are Universal
It may surprise you that your co-worker, neighbor, or friend may have had an NDE. They are more common than most people think. A Gallup poll from the 90s shows that 13 million Americans (or 5 percent of the population at the time) have had a near-death experience.
As books and movies about NDEs gain popularity, more people start to remember or realize what happened to them. The number will only increase as technology continues to advance, saving more people from a brush with death.
3. Drugs are a Trigger
You don’t have to die to experience near death. To study the experience, researchers compared groups of people with NDEs to those taking psychoactive drugs. They found more similarities between near-death experiences and drugs than they did between drugs of the same class.
One drug known as DMT, dubbed as the ‘spirit molecule,’ creates mystical experiences. Researchers found the drug helps to dissolve the ego and creates a sense of oneness—a hallmark sign of a near-death experience.
Both participants and those that experience near-death states say they have a heightened perception of vision and sound.
4. There are Mysterious Sensations
The cornerstone of any near-death experience is the sensation. Experiencers, or people that have had an NDE, share common stories. They describe beautiful places where time and space don’t exist.
Many experiencers share stories similar to the Christian afterlife. They see their deceased relatives or religious figures. The neurosurgeon Eben Alexander saw a bright light and met an angel guide in his coma. Others report access to unlimited knowledge and even the ability to see the future.
5. Religion Doesn’t Matter
People from all genders, ages, and religions have experienced near death. There are reports of atheists coming back from near-death experiences with changed minds, just like there are of those with religious beliefs.
Tibetan Buddhists even have a guide to the afterlife called the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It explains that actions like meditation can cause a person to reach the afterlife without dying, which may help explain why people can come back from death.
However, science says we can measure NDEs in terms of brain activity. Since the brain activity of people on psychedelic drugs is close to those having a near-death experience, some researchers believe the brain is the basis.
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6. Some Aren’t Pleasant
While most experiencers report positive feelings of joy and peace, others have a worse experience. According to the International Association of Near Death Studies, between 1 to 15 percent of NDEs are negative.
Experiencers see scary images, demons, and animals in distress. Other times, a person may experience every moment of their life. After, a higher power negatively judges them for it.
7. Out-of-Body Experiences are Key
If researchers could prove the mind leaves the body, it would verify near-death experiences. This is why researchers interview patients right after medical emergencies. While out-of-body experiences don’t happen for each person, seeing an object in the room or hearing the medical staff while clinically deceased is evidence for the experience.
The little-known story of Maria, a migrant farmworker, is the hallmark experience for researchers. Maria died after a heart attack and floated out of her body. After resuscitation, she recalled seeing a tennis shoe on the third-story window. Today, researchers try to replicate this experience by placing objects around the hospital room for patients to recall after waking.
8. You’re More Likely to Have One After a Heart Attack
Maria, the migrant worker, left her body after a cardiac arrest. These patients report the highest incidence of near-death experiences. When researchers conducted a thirty-month survey, they found that the manner of death is important when studying an NDE.
Ten percent of patients with a cardiac arrest reported a near-death experience versus one percent of other emergencies. Other patients report near-death experiences during resuscitation. They may hear voices or see the medical staff attempting to save their lives.
That’s not to say near-death experiences don’t happen under other circumstances. Childbirth complications or car accidents are all medical emergencies that can lead to an NDE.
9. There’s a Near-Death Experience Quiz
Bruce Greyson is a professor from the University of Virginia and a physician with research on near-death experiences. One of his biggest accomplishments is the creation of an NDE scale. The experiences between NDEs are strangely common, so researchers found a way to measure them.
Greyson’s scale measures the intensity of an NDE based on sixteen questions. They range from feeling peace to seeing brilliant light and scenes from the future. A score of 7 out of 32 on the questions is a possible near-death experience.
10. The Oldest Report is from the 18th Century
Near-death experiences have been around for a while. The earliest medical description comes from a French text found in 2014. In the text, a medical doctor describes his patient's account of his near-death experience.
The patient saw a bright light consistent with the accounts of modern experiencers.
11. There are After-Effects
It’s up for debate whether near-death experiences are an actual phenomenon or a by-product of chemical reactions in the brain. The experience may not be real, but the aftereffects are.
The International Association For Near Death Studies found that over eighty percent of people couldn’t go back to their regular life after a near-death experience. People reported changes in their personality and values. Some became more giving, changing career paths, or started volunteer work.
Not only do personality changes accompany survivors, but physical differences, too. Physical effects vary. Some people report they have to relearn to use the body and brain—feeling disconnected from their previous experiences. Others develop sensitivity to sounds, light, and electronics—known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
12. The Science Isn’t Settled
Near-death experiences are fascinating, but the scientific explanations vary as much as the people who experience them. Some scientists say there’s a biological explanation for the symptoms.
For example, a lack of blood and oxygen flow to the eyes explains bright lights. The lack of oxygen can also cause hallucinations, like seeing spirits or deceased relatives. As science creates alternative ways to study near-death experiences, it’s sure that research and beliefs will develop.
Live With Meaning After Near Death
People that experience near-death are more likely to know what is meaningful in their life. They see the importance of connecting with their friends and family. These experiences not only teach us about the afterlife but how to live now.
We all die, but how we approach it differs. End-of-life planning is one meaningful way to prepare. We don’t have control over disease, cardiac arrests, or any other medical emergency, but we do about the way we die and what happens after. Create an end of life plan to share your own preferences with your loved ones. It’s a small step towards a meaningful life.
- Lichfield, Gideon. “The Science of Near-Death Experiences.” The Atlantic. 2015 April. www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/04/the-science-of-near-death-experiences/386231/
- Choi, Charles Q.” Peace of Mind: Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations.” The Scientific American. 12 September 2011. scientificamerican.com/article/peace-of-mind-near-death/
- C, Timmerman, et al. “DMT Models the Near-Death Experience.” Frontiers in Psychology. 15 August 2018. frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01424/full
- Grayson, Bruce. “The Near-Death Experience Scale.” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. June 1983. researchgate.net/publication/271857657_The_Near-Death_Experience_Scale
- Charlier, Philippe. “Oldest medical description of a near death experience (NDE), France, 18th century.” Resuscitation. 28 May 2014. resuscitationjournal.com/article/S0300-9572(14)00588-7/fulltext
- Stein, Rob. “Brains Of Dying Rats Yield Clues About Near-Death Experiences.” NPR. 12 August 2013. npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/08/12/211324316/brains-of-dying-rats-yield-clues-about-near-death-experiences
- “Distressing Near-Death Experiences.” International Association For Near Death Studies, Inc. 14 December 2017. iands.org/distressing-near-death-experiences.html
- Atwater, P.M.H. “Aftereffects of Near-Death States.” International Association For Near Death Studies, Inc. 14 December 2017. iands.org/aftereffects-of-near-death-states.html
- Greyson, Bruce. “Incidence and correlates of near-death experiences in a cardiac care unit.” General Hospital Psychiatry. Volume 25, Issue 4. Pages 269-276. July 2003.