To look death in the eye, and, at the last moment, be pulled back, is an immensely moving experience. It is no surprise that many who been that close to dying have fantastic stories to tell. Each story is unique but there is a commonality, which modern writers call the near-death experience (NDE). Medical scientists – psychiatrists, psychologists and neuroscientists – have struggled to find explanations for the NDE which fit the medical model. Spiritualists insist that it is the wanderings of a conscious soul, which leaves the dying body to seek another world, but is called back. To date neither side has proven their case, nor disproved the other.
Today’s hi-tec medical interventions have made the NDE commonplace, and vivid reports engage a growing audience – literally a cult following – with thousands of cases recorded on one web site (NDERF.com). Books and articles, often based on personal experiences, overflow the bookshelves. You can participate in national conferences and a week-long course to imitate the experience.
With so much hype one would suspect that these reports are pure hoax. You get a different impression when you talk with someone who has been there. Brian Moore is an intelligent and practical man: a successful businessman, developer and municipal politician. Now 74 years of age, he has been a member of the Anglican Church all his life and a regular church goer. But when asked about his beliefs he admits he was sceptical about heaven, hell and an afterlife. That is, until 26 September 2015. This is his story of that day as told to me about two years later.
We talked in his office, in the building supply center he owns. Brian looked up from his laptop when I entered, leaned over his desk and stuck out his hand as if I was the most welcome visitor he had that day. He was a bit hazy on the medical details, as expected, but the rest of his story needed no prompting. The clarity had not faded, but he struggled at times to find words to describe images and feelings that were so extraordinary. This appears to be a common difficulty and some call these experiences ineffable, literally beyond our powers of description.
….. “The day started much like any other working day. I was helping a customer load cinder blocks onto his truck, perhaps a bit too strenuous a job for a man of my age. Not that I had any health concerns, I still did a full day’s work. However, when I got back to my desk, sitting in my chair, catching my breath, I was seized with the worst pain I have ever felt – a crushing chest pain that left me cold and sweating. I called out to my secretary and, after one look at me, she called the ambulance.
Fortunately, we live in a small town – Killarney, Manitoba – and within about fifteen minutes I was in the hospital emergency room. The doctor on call checked my pulse and blood pressure, then immediately put in a call to the senior hospital doctor, Dr. Anton Pio. I remember both her urgency and the voice of Dr. Pio as he answered his phone. My next conscious memory was waking up in St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg, several hours later.”
A lot happened during those hours, events that changed Brian’s life. This is what he has pieced together from his doctors and nurses.
“This is what I was told happened. I had a cardiac arrest, my heart stopped for ten minutes. They did CPR – chest compressions – and other measures to restart my heart, including eight electrical shocks (defibrillations). And they called the air ambulance to med-evac me to the cardiac unit at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg. Later I was told they didn’t expect I would make it alive; I was unconscious the whole way. In the hospital I guess I went directly to the cardiac room where they found a complete occlusion of the main artery supplying the left side of my heart. Fortunately, they were able to stent it successfully, but I don’t remember any of this. My first conscious recollection is waking up in my hospital bed. But I do have vivid recollections of events during this time,”
This is the NDE that Brian described, an experience that seemed real to him.
“At some point between hearing Dr. Pio’s voice in Killarney and awakening in St. Boniface Hospital I sensed I was in a tunnel. It felt like I was at one end of a tunnel and floating up. The tunnel was dark but the walls were brilliant, a kaleidoscope of color. At the top was a dazzling white light and as I approached it the light got brighter. I didn’t believe a light could be so bright. Not only did it get brighter, but it began to radiate warmth and love; I felt loved; I didn’t want to come back.
But I guess I did come back because I recall looking down at myself. I could see the outline of my body; I’m sure it was my body even though I couldn’t make out the face. I was black or in shadow, lying on my back with arms outstretched above the head.”
I asked him how he explained these visions?
“To me they were real, very real, not just dreams. I knew that was my body, though I couldn’t see the face. The light, I am sure, was God, and the closer I got the more I could feel his presence.”
On his third day in hospital Brian had another experience.
“ It was evening – I was lying awake – when suddenly the end wall of my room became bright blue sky. A golden ball went across that sky trailing a golden streak. Again, this was lucid and vivid, and I believe it was God’s reminder to me that I had been saved for a purpose.”
When I asked if this had affected his life he replied without hesitation.
“This has definitely been a life-changing experience. When I was young I was terrified of death – not just of my death but also of losing my parents. When I was five or six years old I would wakeup crying. My mother would comfort me and ask what was wrong, but I never told her that I was dreaming of dying. Now I have totally lost my fear of death. I’m not in a hurry to go but I have no dread of the prospect. I am thankful for the life I have been given and am sure that there is a God and an afterlife. What form they take, I do not know, but I have experienced the welcome that they offer.”
Has it made him a different person?
“Yes, this experience has changed my understanding of my purpose on earth and my goals during my remaining years. I am more thankful for the blessings of life and I believe I am more understanding and tolerant. At first, I was reluctant to talk about my NDE – I didn’t even know the name for it then – but my church and other neighbouring churches, and community groups, have asked me to share the experience with them. A few weeks ago, I was invited to talk to the congregation of a small Mennonite church at a nearby town, Mather, Manitoba. After the service an old Mennonite gentleman, not somebody I knew, sought me out. He shook my hand, thanked me and said that my talk had given him great comfort. Three weeks later I was surprised to hear he had died; he hadn’t told me he had terminal cancer.
I have thought about this man and his gratitude. If my message was a comfort to him, could it also be a comfort to others who are near dying? Should I share my experience with others? Was giving comfort and hope the mission for which I was spared? God does work in wondrous ways!”
Several authors have catalogued these experiences and identified the features which set them apart (see technical notes). Although each story has its individual peculiarities, they share remarkable similarities. Brian’s account is typical of the majority. Most describe the experience as remarkably vivid and realistic – not like a dream; and not just realistic but a positive, life-changing event.
About 10-20% of people resuscitated from cardiac arrest report a near-death vision and, about 80% of those describe the event in positive terms, associated with feelings of detachment, levitation, serenity, security, warmth, light, and love. Recognition of ancestors or spiritual figures and reluctance to return to the body are common. Those who have had positive experiences believe they have been changed for the better, and report enhanced love for life, serenity, tolerance, and a more charitable outlook. These are clearly transformative experiences and we would like to understand them better, but where does one begin?
One approach to understanding the unfamiliar is by comparison. We all carry a set of vivid memories – memories of the surprising, dramatic and dangerous events of our lives. These are usually emotionally charged events with deep personal significance – a parent’s death, car accident or near-miss – and they often pop-up in our minds unbidden. Psychologists have named this type of memory “flashbulb memory”. Recall of a flashbulb memory usually recaptures both the details and the emotional aura of the original incident. Almost every one of my generation can remember the day J.F. Kennedy was assassinated – where we were, what we were doing and the feelings of shock and disbelief. The same holds for the 9/11 attacks; say “9/11” and everyone can recall the appalling pictures of passenger jets crashing into the World Trade Center.
Are NDEs just another type of flashbulb memory? If so, they are much more complex. Flashbulb memories are anchored in space and time. They can be spatially fixed by reference to concrete objects in the surroundings, by time and by independent observers. An NDE has none of those. The visual images of an NDE are other-worldly, sense of time is distorted, and independent corroboration is impossible. Although those who have had an NDE report it as real, they are describing a reality that cannot be confirmed by veridical evidence.
Most investigators do not question the accuracy of recall; their interest lies entirely in the mysteries of their origin and meaning. The psychological explanation is that these are dissociative mental states or states of consciousness that fall under the general categories of dreams, delirium, or hallucination. In the psychological model they unquestionably arise from the brain and can be imitated by certain drugs, for example the anesthetic drug ketamine.
The spiritual explanation is that they are transcendent experiences, psychic or paranormal evidence for duality of soul and body. Those with strong religious or spiritual beliefs see them as proof for a soul, for an afterlife, for God and for Heaven. This is not a scientific proof of course; it is an intuitive proof. Intuitive proofs are ideas felt so strongly, so clearly, with such surety, that they cannot be denied. intuitive certainties need not be based on logic and, therefore, scientific attempts to confirm or reject them are irrelevant.
Sceptics scoff at the spiritual explanation. To claim these visions as proof of anything offends the non-believer’s intuitive certainty that science will eventually explain everything that needs to be known about life and death.
Both sceptics and believers, busily defending their own intuitive certainties, have missed the key point. These are transformative personal experiences. Their value is not that they support one world-view or another, it is in the personal benefits – the change in values and outlook of the one who has had the experience.
In determining the worth of an NDE, we all work from the same page, the personal account. Those of us who have not had the benefit must listen to those who have – there is no other way to study them. They are never described as abstract notions, they are highly significant individual experiences, with profound personal meaning and consequences. In his first book in 1975 (see technical notes), Raymond Moody recognized that the personal significance was the real value: “However, more than academic and professional issues are involved. It involves deeply personal issues, for what we learn about death may make an important difference in the way we live our lives.”
William James, one of the most influential American scholars of the late 19th Century said much the same. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, written in 1902, he stated that a revelation or transformational experience could only be judged objectively by its effects. He also insisted that we judge the contribution of the experience by human standards of value, by its contribution to human welfare. If the effects were beneficial – if the recipient became a better and happier person, or if there was a benefit to society – it was a valuable experience.
These are events of great personal consequence which alter the affective and intuitive aspects of consciousness. Personal attitudes and intuitive understanding of life and death are changed. One remarkable consequence, reported by almost all, including Brian, is complete loss of the fear of dying. They do not invite death; but they no longer dread it. They interpret their NDE as assurance of a continued existence? In what form? We do not know – no one has reported back after she has crossed over. Many, like Brian, are pragmatic. They accept some degree of uncertainty, and are grateful for the extension of their mortal existence, but are not afraid of the next. I am quite prepared to share these marvelous insights with them, vicariously of course. Attempting to elicit a real NDE is too dangerous a game for me.