The Truth About Near Death Experiences: Scientific Explanations of NDE and OBE
The Truth About NDE
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.
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.
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.
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 heard them talking about it.
Here’s the topper. There is no record of Maria being in that hospital.
Spikes in Brain Activity
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.
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?
© 2016 Catherine Giordano