Have you heard of, or even experienced, instances of extreme danger or rapidly declining health: a four-car pile-up on the freeway, a fever that stuck around longer than it should have, an accidental misstep at the worst possible moment? These brushes with death were likely described as near-death experiences (NDEs), but from the scientific point of view, they probably weren’t.
Near-Death Experience Topics
This Near-Death Experience research will walk you through NDE facts from a scientific perspective and discover what they can tell us about the human soul and the afterlife.
What is a Near-Death Experience?
A near-death experience occurs when someone has limited brain function yet is able to have a sensory experience without full use of their physical senses.
But scientifically speaking, what is considered a near-death experience?
According to the strict science of near-death experiences, a person must have a flat EEG (electroencephalogram) indicating an absence of electrical activity in the cerebral cortex (generating higher cerebral functioning), the absence of gag reflex, and fixed and dilated pupils, indicating a significant reduction of lower brain functioning.
In this state, sensory organs are non-functional, both in themselves and in the brain’s capacity to process their signals. Furthermore, higher cerebral functions such as thinking, processing memories, and linguistic functions are either completely absent or reduced to insignificant. Lower brain activity is also minimized, though there may be some sporadic and minimal “sputtering” of pockets of deep cortical neurons in those areas.
NDE: An Experience Without the Senses
Despite the inability to process sensory information (see above), patients describe events, feelings, and sensations—these experiences we categorize as “near-death experiences.”
Dating back to 1982, we have data for NDEs. A Gallup Survey indicated that approximately 8 million adults in the United States have experienced an NDE. The people sampled report having some of the following ten characteristics, eight of which appear to be unique to near-death experiences (in italics):
- out-of-body experience
- accurate visual perception (while out of the body)
- accurate auditory perception (while out of the body)
- feelings of peace and painlessness
- light phenomena (encounter with loving white light)
- life review
- being in another world
- encountering other beings
- tunnel experience
A Caution on Near-Death Experiences
We must cite the evidence of near-death experiences with caution because many books on this subject are not scientific or based on any clinical, cross-cultural, or long-term study but instead on a few anecdotes taken to the extreme. Some of these nonscientific books have somewhat manipulative agendas, and some are cultic in character.
However, we don’t have to disregard all NDE reports as unreliable. Instead, we can look at the research of scientists who have studied such accounts for years.
Why an NDE Needs to Be Scientifically Verified
Since near-death experiences often happen in hospital settings with professional medical oversight, thousands of NDEs have been sufficiently well-documented for scientific study. This documentation often includes relevant information that can be verified by those present. Examples include actions that took place during resuscitation, conversations in the waiting room, or articles of clothing worn by family members.
For more specific near-death experience stories with veridical data, scroll down to Chapter 4 or read our article, "5 Credible Near-Death Experience Stories."
The Transphysical Component of Near-Death Experiences
In NDE cases, people retain their consciousness. As noted in the list above, there are reports of moving outside the body, passing through walls in the hospital, and sometimes being transported to a transphysical domain (this is where the popularly known details of moving through a tunnel and encountering a bright light come in).
What Exactly Does a Near-Death Experience Feel Like?
In a near-death experience, people can see and hear what’s going on around them, remember what is happening, and know who they are—but their consciousness is operating independently of their physical body.
As such, we call their consciousness "transphysical," i.e., not limited by the physical.
This idea corresponds with developments in other branches of science. Near-death experiences are certainly pronounced and conspicuous evidence of a transphysical soul.
THE SCIENCE OF NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES
The widely accepted criteria for near-death experiences make the science of near-death experiences possible.
There are four significant peer-reviewed studies that provide meaningful, verifiable evidence of the survival of human consciousness after clinical death, strengthening the case for the transphysical nature of NDEs:
Collectively, these studies examined the experiences of over 3,500 patients.
It should be noted that there are many other careful studies that corroborate and extend their findings: Basford 1990, Fenwick & Fenwick 1995, Greyson & Flynn 1984, Roberts & Owen 1988, Sabom 1982, and Zaleski 1987.
Additionally, Dr. Bruce Greyson and Dr. Emily Kelly have made longitudinal studies of near-death phenomena (with control groups) at the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies (in the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine).
In general, purely physical explanations (see Chapter 3) do not account for the three kinds of verifiable evidence revealed in these studies.
A 4-year study of 2,060 patients with cardiac arrest found that 9% of the survivors (185 patients) had an NDE; an additional 30% (618 patients) had some sense of postmortem consciousness and maintained visual awareness for up to three minutes after cardiac arrest.
How do we know near-death experiences are not just a physical reaction of the body?
Physical explanations of NDEs claim that patients are really experiencing hallucinations resulting from stimulation/trauma of some regions of the brain due to:
- Lack of oxygen (anoxia)
- Electrical surge to the brain
Are these physical explanations for near-death experiences satisfactory?
The experiences (hallucinations) produced by these conditions do not correspond with the perceptions and experiences of those with NDEs. We will look at each of these conditions.
Anoxia Hypothesis: Susan Blakemore
The explanation offered here is that the anoxia of a dying brain could lead to the firing of neurons responsible for visual perception—possibly leading to an experience of white light at the end of a tunnel. If this were true, then 100% of patients should have an NDE or OBE under such conditions, but only 18% do.
Researcher Karl Jansen conjectured that he could produce an NDE by ingesting small quantities of ketamine—a veterinary anesthetic. Though this did induce a sense of being out of the body (OBE), the images in the hallucination were “weird,” and perspectives were exaggerated. Again, “weird” perceptions are contrary to the lucid and accurate descriptions found in the studies of near-death experiences.
Electrical Surge to the Brain
This category includes several physicalist explanations of NDEs and OBEs (out-of-body experiences).
Blanke (2003) and his team placed electrodes in the angular gyrus of the parietal lobe, triggering an “OBE-like” experience in a patient with epilepsy. However, Blanke’s stimulations produced abnormal bodily experiences and a false sense of reality (e.g., legs growing shorter and seeing body doubles), contrary to the experiences described in NDEs.
Michael Persinger claimed he could stimulate a near-death experience by using weak transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the temporal lobes. However, the states induced by this process resemble the psychic states associated with epilepsy and, again, do not correspond to near-death experiences.
Other Problems with Physicalist Explanations
The patients described in the studies from Ch. 2 had no electrical activity in the cerebral cortex (marked by a flat EEG) and virtually no electrical activity in the lower brain (fixed and dilated pupils and absence of gag reflex). This is not true for any of the patients mentioned in the physical explanations offered above.
Another significant difference between NDEs and physically stimulated illusion (hereafter “PSI”) is that the latter does not resemble the former in each case.
- Blanke’s PSI gives rise to abnormal bodily experiences and a false sense of reality (instead of a clear and accurate perception of reality and one’s place in it).
- Whinnery’s PSI gives rise to a state of confusion and anxiousness in its aftermath (instead of clarity and lifelong positive transformation).
- Jansen’s narcotically induced hallucination gives rise to false and weird images and exaggerated perspectives (unlike NDEs).
- Persinger’s PSI gives rise to psychic states associated with epilepsy (which are quite distinct from those associated with near-death experiences).
Credible Stories of Near-Death Experiences
Frequently, during near-death experiences, some transphysical component leaves the body but does not go immediately to an other-worldly domain. Instead, it remains in the resuscitation room or somewhat near the body.
Some of these reports have highly unusual or unique characteristics that are not part of ordinary resuscitation or hospital procedures. As such, the details of these near-death experience stories can be verified by hospital staff and others present. When the claims of an NDE have been verified, the account is deemed “veridical.”
Virtually every peer-reviewed study reports multiple instances of such veridical data.
Three Real-Life Near-Death Experience Stories
Here are some veridical near-death experiences reported in these studies.
In the Pim van Lommel study, one man who had been in a deep coma later told a nurse that he recognized her and saw where she had placed his dentures during resuscitation efforts—he even described the cart where she placed them. They were there precisely as he described it.
Dr. Bruce Greyson (Department of Psychiatric Medicine at the University of Virginia) reported one woman’s accurate description of the plaid shoelaces on a nurse participating in her resuscitation.
Another patient from Dr. Greyson’s study accurately described his cardiac surgeon as ‘‘flapping his arms as if trying to fly’’ during his open-heart surgery. Given the evidence of NDEs—what conclusions can we draw about the afterlife? Read on for more.
Heaven, Hell, and NDEs
Suppose we believe that a transphysical component of a person exists and has an experience that is similar to actual death during an NDE. In that case, we may use those experiences to extract information about the afterlife.
Here are some common descriptions of heaven and hell based on NDE accounts.
Characteristics of Heaven from Near-Death Experiences
Below are the three characteristics of heaven from near-death experiences:
- Freedom from physical limitations
1. Freedom from physical limitations
Patients in NDEs maintain bodily powers like seeing and hearing but are free of physical constraints. They report the ability to move through walls, ascend upward, and move beyond the physical domain.
The resurrected Jesus has these freedoms in his glorified body, and Christian revelation further teaches that our own bodies will be similarly transformed at the Resurrection.
Jesus told us love was central in the Kingdom of God, and NDE patients describe overwhelming love as their dominant experience in the realm of light. For example, one patient describes her experience of coming into contact with the loving white light. The following case resembles hundreds of others reported by researchers:
Moreover, some patients are greeted by deceased family members they do not recognize because they died before the patient was even born. They often introduce themselves and reveal facts about themselves that the patient's relatives or friends are subsequently able to verify.
Though this evidence is not veridical (because it can’t be corroborated as occurring during a patient’s clinical death by an independent source), it has probative circumstantial value—mainly because it occurs in so many cases of near-death experiences. It has also been studied by specialists such as Dr. Jeffery Long and Dr. Pim van Lommel. They both show patients’ knowledge of facts about or from deceased family members and friends not formerly known.
Negative Near-Death Experiences
Some patients report negative near-death experiences of a hell-like place, an experience shared by many saints and noted in revelation.
Most negative NDEs describe a feeling of being alone in a void. However, there are some hellish NDEs, such as this patient described:
“When I reached the bottom, it resembled the entrance to a cave, with what looked like webs hanging. . . . I heard cries, wails, moans, and the gnashing of teeth. I saw these beings that resembled humans, with the shape of a head and body, but they were ugly and grotesque. . . . They were frightening and sounded like they were tormented, in agony.”
From this correlation between medical studies of near-death experiences and Christian revelation, we might conclude that NDEs support Jesus’ message in the New Testament—that there is a heaven and a hell and that our souls live on after our bodies die.
Frequently Asked Questions About Near-Death Experiences
Below, you will find fourteen frequently asked questions about near-death experiences and their answers.
Yes. There are four major studies: Dr. Sam Parnia (2014), Dr. Pim van Lommel (2001), Dr. Kenneth Ring (2006), and Dr. Janice Holden (2007). Also, the International Association for Near-death Studies (IANDS) encourages scientific research and education on the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual nature of near-death experiences. Its publications include the peer-reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies and the quarterly newsletter Vital Signs.
At the University of Virginia, an entire department, the Division of Perceptual Studies, is devoted to examining phenomena that challenge accepted scientific assumptions. Dr. Bruce Greyson is the resident expert on NDEs.
Modern research on NDEs involves neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other medical doctors.
Worldwide, tens of thousands of people report having NDEs, and in 1982, the Gallup Organization examined over 8 million reports of NDEs. (Not all of these cases were reported in 1982 but were on record.)
- Out-of-body experience: 26%
- Accurate visual perception: 23%
- Audible sounds or voices: 17%
- Feelings of peace and painlessness: 32%
- Light phenomena: 14%
- Life review: 32%
- Being in another world: 32%
- Encountering other beings: 23%
- Tunnel experience: 9%
- Precognition: 6%
Brain activity can be detected and recorded by an EEG (electroencephalogram). Brain death means a complete cessation of brain activity (a flat EEG, much like a flat EKG in cardiac arrest). There are several dramatic reports of NDEs during documented cessation of brain activity when technically a patient is “brain dead.”
These explanations are among more than a dozen alternative physical explanations offered to explain away NDEs, but they are insufficient. For example, if low oxygen states can explain NDEs, then why don’t all “dying” patients (particularly those in von Lommel’s study of cardiac arrest patients) experience one? Additionally, the experiences produced by electrical stimulation or drug-induced “hallucinations” are qualitatively different from those described by NDErs. The following are some comparisons with the NDE data in parentheses:
- Abnormal bodily experiences, a false sense of reality, and even false and weird images (instead of a clear and accurate perception of reality and one’s place in it).
- A state of confusion and anxiousness in its aftermath (instead of clarity and lifelong positive transformation).
- Fragmented and randomness of the memories (instead of clear recall in sequential order even many years after the event)
The most conservative interpretation of NDEs is that some aspect of human consciousness is non-physical and continues after physical death.
No. NDEs occur in people of different ages, religious backgrounds, and cultures.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t have any specifics on the topic, but there are parallels between Church teaching and near-death experiences. See more in the video below.
An NDE is not a sign of a mental disorder, but sometimes the experiencer may fear being viewed as “crazy.” Most people view an NDE as a life-altering event, and its aftereffects can be challenging (see question above). The important thing is just to listen.