AcademiaAgriculture & FarmingHumanitiesSocial SciencesSTEM

The Truth About Near Death Experiences: Scientific Explanations of NDE and OBE

Updated on December 22, 2016
CatherineGiordano profile image

Catherine Giordano is a writer and public speaker who often writes and speaks on topics related to science, philosophy, and religion.

The Truth About NDE

Science can explain the near death experience and why people see a tunnel of light..
Science can explain the near death experience and why people see a tunnel of light.. | Source

What Is a Near-Death Experience (NDE)?

A near death experience is a report from a person who appeared to be dead (or was close to death) about what he (or she) experienced during the time when vital functions ceased or came very close to being gone. Obviously, the person was not actually dead because they lived to tell about the experience.

A person who experiences an NDE will report one or more (almost never all) of the following:

  • An awareness of being dead; feeling removed from the world
  • Positive emotions described as peacefulness, well-being, and lack of pain
  • An intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance
  • A feeling of traveling through a “tunnel” or passageway
  • A feeling of moving toward, and/or being immersed in, a bright light
  • Meeting deceased loved ones (but sometimes still-living loved ones)
  • Encountering angels or “"Beings of Light”
  • Seeing the holy figures of one’s own religion (God, Jesus, Hindu deities, as the case may be)
  • Experiencing a life-review ("Seeing my life flash before my eyes")
  • Separating from the body, what is often called an out-of-body experience (OBE)—A feeling of floating and being able to see one’s body and surroundings from an outside position, usually from above
  • Feeling like one was called, or pulled, back to life among the living.

Approximately 3% o the U.S. population has reported having a NDE.


Some people report seeing beings of light during their NDE experience.
Some people report seeing beings of light during their NDE experience. | Source

What Is the History of NDEs?

The earliest recorded NDE dates back to the 1740, published in a book written by a French military physician, Pierre-Jean du Monchaux, describing a report from his patient.

In 1968, Celia Green published a book, Out of the Body Experiences, providing the details of 400 first-hand accounts of out-of-body experiences.

The most well-known recounting of NDEs was the 1975 book by Raymond Moody, Life After Life, reporting the experiences of 100 people.

There are now hundreds of books on the subject—some are compilations of NDE experiences and some are first-hand accounts. Some are even written by doctors and scientists, for example the 2012 book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander.

It should be noted, however, that while the large majority of these books are most likely written by sincere people, some of these books are frauds. The most well-known fraud is The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven by Alex Malarky, co-written with his father. It purports to be the account of a six-year old boy. The boy recanted his story at age 16, admitting that he made it up “to get attention” and because his parents egged him on.

Not everyone who has an NDE reports positive experiences; sometimes the NDE is frightening and horrific. However, it appears that since the negative reports are not what people want to hear, no one is writing books about them.

Mortal Minds

Mortal Minds: The Biology Of Near Death Experiences
Mortal Minds: The Biology Of Near Death Experiences

Of all the books on the subject of NDE, I can only recommend one that provides scientific rigor. (The rest are full of what skeptics call "woo.") The author, Dr. Woerlee, is an anesthesiologist with more than 20 years of hospital experience. Dr. Woerlee's arguments are exhaustive and meticulous leading to a full understanding of the medical science that explains NDE.


Are NDEs Proof of God, Heaven, and the Existence of the Soul?

The short answer is “Absolutely not.” NDEs are “real” in as much as people have actually experienced these things. I can’t argue with their experience, but I do take issue with their interpretation of their experience.

From all reports, the experience of a NDE is very powerful. It is not surprising that people will insist that the events actually happened as they have remembered them. I have a friend who told me that she had an NDE. When I asked her to tell me about it, she refused. She knew I was a skeptic who would probably give her the scientific explanation. She said, the experience was too “important and meaningful” to her to allow me to “take it away” from her.


During an OBE, a person has the feeling of floating above their body.
During an OBE, a person has the feeling of floating above their body. | Source

How Does Science Explain OBE?

I’m giving OBE its own section because it is such a major part of NDE lore.

An area of the brain called the temporoparietal junction is responsible for assembling the input from the body’s senses and organs to form our perception of our body. A disruption of the normal functioning of this area of the brain can lead to OBE experiences, even among healthy people. Scientists have been able to reproduce an OBE simply by electrically stimulating this area of the brain.

Another explanation of the OBE experience is a failure of anesthesia which allows for some awareness of surroundings. During an operation in a hospital, several different anesthetics are being administered throughout an operation, not just prior to the start of the operation. A patient may have some awareness of his surroundings if the drug that makes the patient unconscious is improperly administered while the drugs that immobilize the body and prevent pain function as intended.

Investigations into OBE usually shows that the details recalled came from knowledge which could have been acquired before or after the time under anesthesia. Also the NDE may occur not when one is totally anesthetized, but as one is regaining consciousness.

Further, accounts of OBE are not recorded in a scientific way. Often the people report them long after—sometimes years after—they occurred. Other problems with these accounts are interviewers who may have asked leading questions, other people filling in details when they hear the reports, etc.

Let’s take the famous case of “Maria and the Tennis Shoe.” Maria reported a NDE involving an OBE. She said that while she was out of her body, she saw a tennis shoe on a window ledge-- a shoe that was impossible to see from her hospital bed.

A researcher finally tested this case by putting a shoe on the window ledge. It was clearly visible from the hospital bed. Further, it was clearly visible from the street so Maria could have seen it when she entered the hospital or others may have seen it and she head them talking about it.

Here’s the topper. There is no record of Maria being in that hospital.

Spikes in Brain Activity

An NDE may be caused by spikes in brain activity.
An NDE may be caused by spikes in brain activity. | Source

How Does Medical Science Explain NDE?

As one approaches death, it is not surprising to find that various bodily mechanisms are not working properly. Any of these malfunctions could induce some of the characteristics of a NDE.

Hormone Release: During times of stress, the body releases endorphin, the morphine-like “feel good” hormone. This accounts for the feelings of peace and love and the lack of fear or pain.

Hormonal Disruption: Many of the characteristics of the NDE resemble those seen with various diseases that disrupt the hormone system. For example, patients with Cotard’s disease (walking-corpse syndrome) hold the delusional belief that they are deceased. Also, patients with Parkinson’s are prone to seeing ghosts.

Excess Carbon Dioxide: Excess CO2 in the bloodstream can affect vision, and it could be why people report seeing a tunnel or bright light.

Lack of Oxygen: It is well known that oxygen deprivation can lead to hallucinations (like seeing one’s dead loved ones, angels, or other religious figures). Additionally, oxygen deprivation could be responsible for the feeling of euphoria associated with NDE.

Spikes in brain activity: There is a spike in brain activity just before death and this may be the cause of heightened sensory perceptions and the vividness of the NDE.

Reaction to anesthetics: For instance, the anesthetic ketamine can trigger out-of-body experiences and hallucinations.

Tricky Memeories

Memories are not like a movie that we can play back.
Memories are not like a movie that we can play back. | Source

How Does Psychology Explain NDE?

Personality Traits: Not everyone who enters a near-death state has a NDE to report.

Studies have revealed that people who have had an NDE differ in some ways from those who didn’t. The NDE people are more prone to hallucinations, fantasy, mystical experiences, and have a greater receptivity to hypnosis. They are also more prone to dissociation—losing track of time and self. (A common example of dissociation is when you are driving, but your mind is elsewhere, and suddenly you realize many miles have been traveled, but you are not aware of driving them.)

Memory tricks: Memories are not like a movie that exists in our brain that we can play back. Memories are fragmented, with bits stored in different areas of the brain. Sometimes when all the bits don’t fit together, we add in some “facts” so that the story will make sense.

Self-fulfilling prophecy: Certain aspects of an NDE—the tunnel, the white light, the life review, sensing God, etc.—are widely known. People know what is supposed to happen, so that is what happens. Or, perhaps they report these things even if it was not actually part of their own experience. They will “remember” them when they try to reconstruct their memory of their NDE.

Interestingly, some of the reports of the life-review are odd. They do not always include significant events; sometimes there are just random unimportant memories.

Fear: An NDE can be experienced by a person who is not physically at risk of dying. It is induced by the fear of dying—merely thinking that one is about to die.

Is NDE a Good Thing?

Bio-medical researchers, neuroscientists, and psychologists have adequately explained the occurrence of NDE. There is no need for a mystical explanation.

Nonetheless, I am happy that NDE exists. It suggests that our final experience in life, our death, can be a very peaceful and beautiful moment.

Please take this poll.

Have you ever had a NDE?

See results

© 2016 Catherine Giordano


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 7 weeks ago from Houston, TX USA

      This is a very good article. I like how you addressed OBEs separately. There is a website, "IANDS" covering NDEs and supposedly some OBEs have been verified. Please address this.

      The Monroe Institute studies OBEs. Please address.

      A related topic is Telepathy. I have had several verified telepathic experiences. Please address.


    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 7 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      Jay C. O'Brien: OBE does occur. People do have the feeling that they have left their bodies. However, they have not actually left their bodies. It's an illusion.

      Telepathy? I assume you mean stuff like mind reading or sending psychic messages. It's off topic. Perhaps I'll write about it at some other time. It is much too big a topic for a comment.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 7 weeks ago from Houston, TX USA

      Perhaps you did not understand. Some OBEs have been verified. “NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES the rest of the story” 2011 by P.M.H. Atwater. Atwater studied some 3,000 adult cases and about 300 child cases. Starting in chapter seven are cases which have been “Verified.” By “Verified” it means the person obtained information outside his normal five senses was later were corroborated by investigation.

      While clinically dead, George arose and went to the newborn section of the hospital near where his body lay. George noticed a baby with a broken hip. Upon reviving, George told the doctors about the baby’s broken hip and added, the hip is broken because the nurse dropped her. X-rays showed the break. When the nurse was confronted, she admitted to dropping the baby. At page 59.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 7 weeks ago from New Delhi, India

      A very well written hub and you tackled the subject quite convincingly.

      I can relate to this as I had the so called near death experience. It happened about 20 years ago as I had a prolonged illness and almost no medicine was helpful. But I remember that incident very clearly even now. I could see my own dead body and I was feeling so helpless that all my family were not able to revive me from my death. It was fearful sight.

      But I do believe in the scientific explanations you provide above.

      Thanks for sharing this wonderful hub!

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 7 weeks ago from SW England

      Very interesting and clear explanation, Catherine. You're always good at making these things intriguing.

      I've never had an NDE but I have had an OBE, when I wasn't feeling very well and I went up to the corner of the ceiling and looked down on myself. It was a weird but not troubling experience. When I told my father about it, he said a similar thing had happened to him a few times and that his mother also had these experiences - does it run in the family I wonder?!

      It's so interesting the way the brain and our bodies can influence such things.

      I'm not very good at reading everything at the moment but trying to read at least one hub from those I follow, from time to time. Will get back to normal soon! Still renovating and it's taking longer than we expected!

      Hope all's well with you.


    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 7 weeks ago from England

      Fascinating read and something that totally interests me. I write similar subjects so really interested on your take on it. and yes science does explain it, I always look for scientific explanations too, but I do think there is more to it than that, great hub!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 7 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      Jay C. O'Brien: Thank you for your comment. As I stated in my essay on HDE and OBE there are hundreds of these stories. I gave the explanation for them--an illusion of the mind and tricks of memory. I can't explain each and every case individually. The "verified" cases quickly become unverified when they are properly examined. The case of "Maria and the Tennis Shoe," for instance, was completely disproved, but it is still cited as evidence for OBE.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 7 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      ChitrangadaSharan: Thanks for letting me know about your NDE. I'm glad I was able to help you better understand what happened. Even after the scientific understanding, it is still an amazing experience.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 7 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      annart: It is so nice to hear from you. It was so good of you to take the time to read my latest opus. I don't write very often lately so it is easy to stay current with my writing. It takes so much time for me to do all the research so it limits my productivity.

      I myself have never had an OBE as you did. I'm glad to hear you found the experience interesting. I hope that I have helped you understand it better. It happened when you weren't feeling well and that fits the pattern. It happens when the body is "out of whack."

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 7 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      Nell Rose: Thank you for your comment. I'll take a look at what yo have written on the subject. An NDE seems to me something that can be a wonderful experience, but I don't think it is in any way supernatural.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Interesting perspective. I rule nothing out. How can I? There is no way of really knowing until one dies, is there? And I ain't dead yet!

      But then what do I really know? Not much!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 7 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      billybuc: Thanks for the comment. With science, there is always the possibility that conclusions will change as new evidence is discovered.

    • Severian Jussaine 7 weeks ago

      billbuc: Since you can't know anything after you die, you never get to actually learn that death is real. :)

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 7 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      Severian Justin: I couldn't have said it better myself. Death is final.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 7 weeks ago from Oklahoma

      Interesting perspective.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 7 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      Larry Rankin: Thanks for your comment.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 7 weeks ago from Houston, TX USA

      See: "National Geographic", The Science of Death, Coming Back from the Beyond, April 2016.

      A head-on collision landed Tricia Barker, then a college student, in an Austin, Texas hospital, bleeding profusely, her spine broken. She says she felt herself separate from her body during surgery, hovering near the ceiling as she watched her monitor flat-line. Moving through the hospital corridor, she says, she saw her stepfather, struggling with grief, buy a candy bar from a vending machine; it was this detail, a stress-induced indulgence he'd told no one about, that made Barker believe here movements really happened.

      Now there are two cases, one by Atwater cited above and one by National Geographic for you to explain. If you cannot explain them, what is the reader to think? Do not make sweeping generalizations.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 7 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      Jay c. O'Brien: Please don't send me more "case histories." I am not going to debunk them one by one. Every case that has been examined by objective researchers has been shown to be false. Please reread my essay and take a look at the book I recommended if you want specifics instead of generalizations.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 7 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      I am pleased that you back up your perspective with scientific evidence and as you suggest, there may be similar or different findings going forward. Thanks for the update on that boy back from heaven story. Good presentation!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 7 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      Ms. Dora: Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you found my essay informative. I always try to provide evidence for any claims I make, scientific, historical, or other, as the case requires. You can google The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven story and read about how he recanted his claims.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 6 weeks ago from USA

      I like how you approached the topic. People who have had them are very protective of their experiences and I find it interesting how your friend didn't want you to take that away from her. I hope the end of life can be a peaceful transition. I do recall a number of dying relatives talking or calling out to their dead loved ones in the final hours before death. Oxygen deprivation.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 6 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      FlourishAmyway: Thank you for sharing the stories of your relatives.I haven't been present at the death of any one, so I was happy to learn that death can be a peaceful experience. Knowing the science behind a NDE doesn't take away the experience itself. You just learn that it is not proof of an afterlife.

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 6 weeks ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      This subject fascinates me,. I've never been near death or had an NDE, but I've spoken to many people who have. Personally, I believe they're real. I've had virtually no mystical experiences; one other few I've had was one where I was on my way to the hospital to visit a client, and I heard his voice. When I arrived, his room was filled with his family. It turned out he had passed on 3 hours earlier. His brother told me when he's gotten the news, on his way to the hospital, he'd heard his voice; it was saying, "Tell mom I'm in a better place*,

      Regarding unpleasant NDEs - check out Pastor Howard Storm's story.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 6 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      Say Yes to Life: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. There are a lot of stories about people getting some sort of message at the time a loved one passes. If you know someone is near death, especially a loved one, they are on your mind. So you might have some kind of hallucination about them. Once in a while this happens to me, only the person isn't dead or even sick. But I hear the voice as clearly as if they were right next to me. The incident is quickly forgotten. It's only if the person is dead that people give it importance and think of it as a message from "the other side."

    • Sanxuary 6 weeks ago

      I am a person who has no problem with death. I was in a hurry one day and in total peace and I decided to leave early. I could have been gone for a long time, only God would know. When I went to the other place it fit a lot of the discriptions you described above. I was in a beutiful place and all my bad emotions did not exist. I was convinced that I was in Heaven or some place much better then this World. When I woke up back here I was so angry to know I was back. For the first time I realized why I was here and why I have to do my time. I still think of the knowledge of knowing what the next place is like and I know that I am on the right path. Its not about this World but what you do in this World to get to the next place. Its worth throwiing all the evil in your life away to be happy now. Its a journey and we all have are own test. We judge ourselves and no one judges us. In other words do what is right regardless of consequence and you will mature spiritually. I have done so called astral travel, something you do in your sleep since I can remember. Its not the same and I remain unconvinced that its any different then a dream. I have tried to travel to places and ask people quetions or simply identify as area to go look at when I wake up. I have never found anything that convinces me that its anything but some strange dreams.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 6 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      Many people who have a near-death experience , sometimes when they are fine and not near death, find it to be a life altering experience. I think it is wonderful that it affected you in that way.

      Nonetheless, the scientific explanation is that your experience was an illusion. But as you have reported, it was an illusion that had a profound effect on your approach to life.

      Out-of-Body experiences are also an illusion. As you have reported, it is no more than a dream or a trick of thre mind when the parts of the brain that control spatial relationships go a little kaflooey.

    • Sanxuary 5 weeks ago

      Oddly I never thought about comparing the two. Now that you brought that to my attention I can tell you they are incredibly different. I taught myself to wake up when I was dreaming and I could do just about anything I wanted to do in my dreams. I chanced upon the idea of astral planing by mistake. Being dead is not a mistake and where I ended up was not something I could have imagined. Controlling your dreams you have some control, but this place I had none and no idea that I had even gone somewhere. I honestly forgot this place. In dreams people in them are zombie like. This place the people spoke to me like normal people. They were people devoid of any unhappiness and it felt like you were a young child playing with all your friends on a beutiful summer day. The only thing that made me quetion astral planing was a time I met a number beings that were not humans. It made me wonder when one of them told me to not touch them. I tried to visit a few times later but never repeated a visit. Dream control is fun sometimes but it can be hard if you want to sleep and not control your dreams. Oddly you control your dreams by your mental state. Upset and stressed is not what you want be awake for. I actually have not purposely pursued this in a long time. I had done it numerous times before I discovered that there were several people who wrote books on this. One describes that you hear bells when you cross in astral planing. After the fact I do here that. The other describes something connecting you to this World. I have never seen it. The first time this happened to me I was 4 years old and still remember floating around my home. I remember being scared and moving myself in the air back to my body and feeling the weight of myself returning to my body. They also describe levels. Worlds that our dark are the bottom levels and the higher you go you seem to meet others not quite human. I have had both and maybe my idea of finding proof is the fact i can not communicate. All of it is quite interesting and i have had people out of the no-where bring up these topics because it happened to them recently and they wodered if someone else had the same experience.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 5 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      Sanxuary: Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experiences. . You have had some very interesting experiences. Both lucid dreaming and OBE can be done by some people with training. Dreams lucid or otherwise, can be very vivid. I think neuroscientists and cognitive scientists would say you never left your body; what you experienced was either dreams or hallucinations or illusions or all three. Since you have been having these kinds of experiences since you were a young child, you probably have a predisposition to this.

    • Richard B Evans profile image

      Richard B Evans 5 weeks ago

      I have had out of body experiences while on LSD.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 5 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      Richard B. Evans: I have heard that mind-altering drugs can produce these kind of experiences. The drugs can affect the brain in a way that distorts spatial relationships.

    • Nikki 3 weeks ago

      I have had experiences like these in deep meditation. The Buddhists call them Jhana states. They can involve an OBE plus the very pleasant feelings. I have had these two or three times, but it is not something that I seek in my practice.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 3 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      Nikki: Your experience indicates that these types of experiences are perfectly natural. Meditation, like drugs and trauma, can produce an altered state of mind. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • DGriggs 3 weeks ago

      Very interesting article. I wonder if the scientific and supernatural (potentially) could coincide somehow? Just because we can largely explain the NDE/OBE phenomenon through scientific research does not mean the experiences are solely "hyper-real" illusions. And if there is science to prove an afterlife, it would cease to be supernatural, but now science. But as you rightly state, "With science, there is always the possibility that conclusions will change as new evidence is discovered.." So until then, it is only conjecture.

      Also, do you have thoughts on shared death experiences? There are some compelling stories in this subcategory.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 3 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      DGriggs: Thanks for your comment. The anecdotal reports about the NDE contradict everything that is known by biologists. I don't think science is going to change on this one.

      The shared death experience is interesting. I expect it is just part of the emotional trauma of watching someone you love die. Extreme identification, confirmation bias, and the other psychological process described in the article. Reread the section about how psychology explains the NDE.

    Click to Rate This Article