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Encyclopedia > Near death experience

A near-death experience (NDE) is the perception reported by a person who nearly died or who was clinically dead and revived. They are somewhat common, especially since the development of cardiac resuscitation techniques, and are reported in approximately one-fifth of persons who revive from clinical death. The experience often includes an out-of-body experience.

The phenomenology of a NDE usually includes physiological, psychological and transcendental factors (Parnia, Waller, Yeates & Fenwick, 2001). Typically a near-death experience involves the sensation of floating above one's body and seeing the surrounding area, followed by the sensation of passing through a tunnel, meeting deceased relatives, encountering a being of light (Morse, Conner & Tyler, 1985). There have also been accounts of patients seeing things they apparently could not have seen had they not been out of their bodies.

A 'core' near-death experience reflects -- as intensity increases according to the Rasch scale (Lange, Greyson & Houran, 2004) -- peace, joy and harmony, followed by insight and mystical or religious experiences. The same study also notes that the most intense NDEs involve an awareness of things occurring in a different place or time.


As an afterlife experience

Many see near death experiences as an afterlife experience, and some accounts include elements that are most simply explained (see Occam's Razor) by an out-of-body consciousness. For example, in one, a woman accurately described a surgical instrument she had not seen previously, as well as conversation that occurred while she was clinically dead. In another from the proactive Dutch NDE study[1] (http://www.iands.org/dutch_study.html), a nurse removed the dentures of an unconscious heart attack victim, and was asked by him after his recovery to return them. But researchers have been unsuccessful in running proactive experiments to establish out-of-body consciouness. There have been numerous experiments in which a random message was placed in a hospital in a manner that it would be invisible to patients or staff yet visible to a floating being, and thus far, no person experiencing a near death experience has been able to reproduce the message.

Nevertheless, the subjective reality of NDEs is well documented.

  • It is generally accepted that some people who reported NDEs were shown to be clinically dead, sometimes longer than a day.
  • Those who report NDEs typically respond by a major change of life perspective and direction, generally away from self-orientation toward outward orientation, or what they call a more loving life. The NDE is reported by some to feel "more real than life"[2] (http://www.meta-religion.com/Paranormale/NDE/nde_research.htm). In a story commonly repeated as a parable, at least one former atheist has adopted a more spiritual view of life after an NDE[3] (http://www.southcoasttoday.com/daily/01-04/01-31-04/c04rg223.htm).
  • Those who report NDEs typically look forward to death, but despise suicide.

As a naturalistic experience

Many see near death experiences as a purely naturalistic phenomenon.

One scientific hypothesis that attempts to explain NDEs was originally suggested by accounts of the side-effects of the drug Ketamine (see link to Dr. Karl Jansen below). Ketamine was used as an anesthetic on U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War; but its use was abandoned and never spread to civilian use because the soldiers complained about sensations of floating above their body and seeing bright lights. Further experiments by numerous researchers verified that intravenous injections of ketamine could reproduce all of the commonly cited features of an NDE; including a sense that the experience is "real" and that one is actually dead, separation from the body, visions of loved ones, and transcendent mystical experiences.

Ketamine acts by blocking the receptor for the neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate is released in abundance when brain cells die, and if it weren't blocked, the glutamate overload would cause other brain cells to die as well. In the presence of excess glutamate, the brain releases its own glutamate receptor blocker to defend itself; and it is these blockers Dr. Jansen (amongst others) hypothesize as the cause of many NDEs.

Critics of this hypothesis point out that although some aspects of the experience may be similar, not all NDEs exactly fit the ketamine experience; and that while it might be possible to chemically simulate the experience, this does not refute the possibility that true NDEs have a spiritual component. As even Dr. Jansen notes:

Claims that NDE's must have a single explanation (e.g. Ring, 1980), or that a scientific theory must explain all of the experiences ever given the name of NDE (e.g. Gabbard and Twemlow, 1989) are difficult to justify.

Swiss scientists published in 2002 in Nature (Blanke, O., Ortigue, S., Landis, T., Seeck, M. Stimulating own-body perceptions. Nature, 419, 269 - 270, (2002). (http://philosophy.hku.hk/courses/cogsci/files/Blanke,%20Ortigue%20-%20Stimulating%20illusory%20own-body%20perceptions.pdf)) found that electrical stimulation on a specific brain region repeatedly caused out-of-body experiences to the patient.

See also: Out-of-body experience in which experiences like NDE occur in epilepsy or during brain stimulation; or, lucid dreaming in which subjects also report experiences that seem more "real" than waking life.


Dr. Raymond Moody is recognized as the father of NDE research. He has chronicled and studied many of these experiences in his books The Last Laugh, Life After Life and Reflections on Life After Life. Another early pioneer is Dr. Kenneth Ring, co-founder and Past President of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS).

Major contributions to the field include the construction of a Weighted Core Experience Index (Ring, 1980) in order to measure the depth of the Near-Death experience, and the construction of the Near-death experience scale (Greyson, 1983) in order to differentiate between subjects that are more or less likely to have experienced a genuine NDE. These approaches include criteria for deciding what is to be considered a classical or authentic NDE. Well-known researchers in the field - who support a moderate view, or sympathize with aspects of the after-life view - are Kevin Williams, Bruce Greyson, Michael Sabom, Melvin Morse, PMH Atwater, Yvonne Kason, Sam Parnia, Peter Fenwick, Jody A. Long and Jeffrey P. Long. Much of this research is co-ordinated through the field of Near-Death Studies.

Among the researchers who support a naturalistic and neurological base for the experience we find the British psychologist Susan Blackmore, and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer. The possibility of altered temporal lobe functioning in the near-death experience is suggested by Britton & Bootzin (2004). In this study Near-Death experiencers were also found to have altered sleep patterns compared to subjects in the control group. Dr. Rick Strassman has attempted to induce NDE in a clinical setting by injecting subjects with DMT. This research is described in his book DMT - The Spirit Molecule (2001).

According to Martens (1994) the only satisfying method to address the NDE-issue would be an international multicentric data collection within the framework for standardized reporting of cardiac arrest events. The use of cardiac arrest-criteria as a basis for NDE-research has been a common approach among the European branch of the research field (Parnia, Waller, Yeates & Fenwick, 2001; van Lommel, van Wees, Meyers & Elfferich, 2001).

Spiritual and psychological after-effects

Accounts by NDE subjects sometimes include long-term after-effects such as a heightened sense of intuition; seeing apparently disconnected events being connected as in the phenomenon of synchronicity; and internal feelings of bodily energy and/or altered states of consciousness similar to those associated with kundalini (Greyson, 2000).

Greyson (1983) developed The Near-Death Experience Scale in order to measure the after-effects of a near-death experience. Research on the after-effects of Near-death experiences note that the aftermath of the experience is associated with both positive and healthy outcomes related to personality and appreciation for life, but also a spectrum of clinical problems in situations where the person has had difficulties with the experience (Orne, 1995). These difficulties are usually connected to the interpretation of the experience and the integration of it into everyday life. The near-death experience as a focus of clinical attention and the inclusion of a new diagnostic category in the DSM-IV called "Religious or spiritual problem" (Code V 62.89) is discussed more closely by Greyson (1997).

Simpson (2001) notes that the number of people that have experienced an NDE might be higher than the number of cases that are actually reported. It is not unusual for Near-Death experiencers to feel profound insecurity related to how they are going to explain something that the surrounding culture perceives as a strange paranormal incident.

Major elements


Hell is significant in its rarity as a major element of reported NDEs. It is common for NDE experiencers to report a dark realm, but less common for them to report elements of their experiences in terms that fit specific conceptions of hell. Among published NDE experiencers, Howard Storm, George Ritchie, and George Rodonaia probably have come closest to using descriptions that many would identify with hell.

Howard Storm

Howard Storm was an accomplished artist turned professor. At the time of his near death experience in June of 1985, he was Chairman of the Art Department at the University of Kentucky. By his own admission, Storm was a man with a "dark side". He said he controlled those around him with angry passion and even his own family feared him. In an interview, his daughter said "At times he could be the best father in the world, but he could also be a very scary, evil, frightening man". He had taken some students on a trip to France to study art and became seriously ill with a perforation of the stomach. Taken to a Paris hospital, he said he died and found himself in the corner of his hospital room overlooking his body, angry and frustrated at what he was seeing and experiencing. He then heard voices beckoning him urgently from the hall outside his room. Following them, he found himself in an ever increasing mist of darkness into which the voices continually retreated before he could discover them. As they proceeded for an immeasurable period--he says it might have been hours or months--their urgent beckonings turned into ever more malicious talk. They mocked him and taunted him onward until he found himself in the darkest pit, where they tore him to pieces and abused him in the most vile manners. When he gave up the fight they would loiter, awaiting more sport, which they had every time he recovered to fight again.

At length the thought occurred to Storm that he might call on God for help. Being an atheist, he did the best he could with his background and began to recite The Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. To his personal delight and satisfaction, this infuriated and repelled his tormentors.

Again at length, he conceived another thought that he might call on the name of Jesus. No sooner had he seized on this thought than there appeared a light from above that descended on him, enfolded him, recomposed him, lifted him from the pit, and proceeded to bathe him in the perfect light of love. Storm was overcome with shame and remorse as these beings of light, one which he knew was Jesus, did a life review and showed him how he had hurt people with his selfishness and anger. Storm later said he realized he belonged in that dark place. The beings told him that God was giving him a second chance. Storm later described opening his eyes again in the hospital operating room. Storm fully recovered and underwent an amazing transformation. He attended a seminary and is today a minister with Zion United Church of Christ in Norwood, Ohio. He often talks of his amazing experience and warns people they will either reap the rewards or suffer the consequences upon death.

George Ritchie

George Ritchie said after he experienced leaving his body he wandered the earth and saw many wretched individuals who would not or could not let go of spiritual vices. Most impressively, he saw an expanse filled with individuals engaged in unimaginably vile abuses toward one another. The thought occurred to him that any one of the individuals in the throng could have freely left the melee at any time, but because of their personal spiritual condition, they would rather suffer the abuses than let go of whatever it was that held them there engaged.

George Rodonaia

George Rodonaia said that he left his body and found himself in a nothingness of darkness. At length he convinced himself he was not extinguished. "I think therefore I am," he thought. At length again he conceived the idea that he was in total darkness, that there must be something opposed to that darkness, and that the something must be light. On conceiving this, Rodonaia says he was able to leave the darkness and experience many of the other common elements of an NDE.

See also Near-Death Studies, Journal of Near-Death studies, Alister Hardy

References and further reading

Clinical and academic

  • Blackmore S. (1993) Dying to live: Science and Near-Death Experiences. London: Harper Collins.
  • Britton WB, Bootzin RR. (2004) Near-death experiences and the temporal lobe. Psychol Sci. 2004 Apr;15(4):254-8. PubMed abstract PMID 15043643
  • Ellwood, G.F. (2001) The Uttermost Deep: The Challenge of Near-Death Experiences. New York: LanternBooks.
  • Greyson, B. (1983) The Near-Death Experience Scale: Construction, reliability, and validity. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 171, 369-375.
  • Greyson B. (1997) The near-death experience as a focus of clinical attention. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 1997 May;185(5):327-34. PubMed abstract PMID 9171810
  • Greyson, B. (2000). Some neuropsychological correlates of the physio-kundalini syndrome. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 32, 123-134.
  • Lange R, Greyson B, Houran J. (2004) A Rasch scaling validation of a 'core' near-death experience. British Journal of Psychology, Volume: 95 Part: 2 Page: 161-177
  • Martens PR. (1994) Near-death-experiences in out-of-hospital cardiac arrest survivors. Meaningful phenomena or just fantasy of death? Resuscitation. 1994 Mar;27(2):171-5. PubMed abstract PMID 8029538
  • Morse M., Conner D. and Tyler D. (1985) Near-Death Experiences in a pediatric population. A preliminary report, American Journal of Disease of Children, n. 139, 1985. PubMed abstract PMID 4003364
  • Orne RM. (1995) The meaning of survival: the early aftermath of a near-death experience. Research in Nursing & Health. 1995 Jun;18(3):239-47. PubMed abstract PMID 7754094
  • Parnia S, Waller DG, Yeates R, Fenwick P (2001) A qualitative and quantitative study of the incidence, features and aetiology of near death experiences in cardiac arrest survivors. Resuscitation. 2001 Feb;48(2):149-56. PubMed abstract PMID 11426476
  • Ring K. (1980) Life at death. A scientific investigation of the near- death experience. New York: Coward McCann and Geoghenan
  • Shermer, Michael (1998) Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. W.H. Freeman & Company
  • Simpson SM. (2001) Near death experience: a concept analysis as applied to nursing. Journal of Advanced Nursing. 2001 Nov;36(4):520-6. PubMed abstract PMID 11703546
  • Strassman R. (2001)DMT - The Spirit Molecule. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press
  • van Lommel P, van Wees R, Meyers V, Elfferich I. (2001) Near-Death Experience in Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: A prospective Study in the Netherlands. Lancet. 2001 Dec 15;358(9298):2039-45.


  • In Passage, a 2001 novel by Connie Willis, the principal story line centers around a researcher who has developed a technique for inducing an experience very much like a natural NDE. By studying the effects and comparing them with real NDEs, she hopes to find a biological basis for NDEs.
  • The novel "Fearless" (1993) by Rafael Yglesias is about an architect that survives a planecrash. His Near-Death experience starts a period of fearlessness and existential concerns which puts him in conflict with both his family and the surrounding culture. The book was later adapted to the movie screen by director Peter Weir, starring Jeff Bridges as the main character, Max Klein.

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