It’s a phenomenon common enough to have its own abbreviation: NDE (short for near-death experience). Its most consistent features are well known all over the world: aerial views of one’s own body, a white light at the end of a tunnel, encounters with spirit beings, a sense of overwhelming bliss and love, and the “life review,” in which one relives the events of his or her mortal adventure. But are they real?
The day after her 35th birthday, artist/author Róisín Fitzpatrick celebrated her incarnation in an unorthodox way.
“I became pure energy and realized that ‘I’ still existed even though I was no longer an individual person in my physical body,” she explains in Bruce Greyson, M.D.’s book After. “Instead I had merged to become one with a greater, light-filled consciousness.”
Meanwhile, her body lay in an ICU at Ireland’s Beaumont Hospital, sustaining a brain hemorrhage.
Across all cultures and religions, we hear stories like this from people who have come close to dying. By some accounts, this sort of thing has happened to one out of every ten people and to as many as 20 percent of medical patients who have been revived from clinical death.
Spiritualists tend to view this phenomenon as confirmation that consciousness continues after death, while some scientists have speculated that NDEs might be caused by things like REM sleep intrusion, lack of oxygen, too much carbon dioxide, or hyperactivity in the brain.
DMT: The Spirit Molecule author Rick Strassman’s take on the subject falls somewhere between the spiritual and scientific models: He proposes that NDEs may be the result of the brain releasing a torrent of DMT as death approaches. A recent study confirms that DMT can indeed induce experiences similar to NDEs.
Some of the most compelling NDE reports involve something called “veridical perception”: In certain cases, people whose brains are offline are reportedly still able to observe worldly events that are later verified by others.
For example, in a 2001 study called Near-Death Experience in Survivors of Cardiac Arrest, there’s a story of a man who had been brought into the coronary care unit of a Dutch hospital while unconscious. After emerging from a deep, week-long coma, the patient reported having seen his body from above as the doctors worked to revive him by CPR.
He then gave an accurate and detailed description of the room in which he’d been resuscitated, the appearances of the physicians who had occupied it, and the location of the dentures that the medical staff removed from his mouth while he was comatose.
Here’s a corroborated account of that event from a nurse who was present:
The moment he sees me, he says: ‘‘Oh, that nurse knows where my dentures are.’’ I am very surprised. Then he elucidates: ‘‘Yes, you were there when I was brought into hospital, and you took my dentures out of my mouth and put them onto that cart. It had all these bottles on it, and there was this sliding drawer underneath, and there you put my teeth.’’
A similar story comes from psychiatrist Bruce Greyson, M.D., the world’s leading NDE researcher. In his aforementioned book After, Greyson recounts the time he was called to a hospital emergency room to treat Holly, a college student who attempted suicide by overdose. While Holly was out cold in the examination room, Greyson went to the family lounge down the hall, where Holly’s roommate Susan was pacing the room. Moving a standing fan closer to cool himself off, he sat down with Susan to discuss the details of Holly’s overdose.
The following day, the freshly awakened Holly, who hadn’t spoken with Susan since recovering from her overdose, told Greyson she remembered him from the night before. Her eyes still closed, she said, “I saw you talking with Susan, sitting on the couch.” Greyson grew confused as Holly described the striped, spaghetti sauce-stained tie that he’d been wearing during his visit to the hospital the night before.
“She then went on to repeat the conversation I’d had with Susan, all my questions and Susan’s answers, along with Susan’s pacing and my moving the fan, without making any mistakes,” he writes.
Since then, Greyson has studied more than 1,000 NDE cases. In his paper Seeing Dead People Not Known to Have Died: “Peak in Darien” Experiences, he relates a tale told by physician K. M. Dale:
After a tense vigil that lasted almost 36 hours, a 9-year-old patient named Eddie Cuomo emerged from an NDE saying he’d just been to Heaven, where he’d seen his deceased grandfather, aunt, and uncle.
The paper continues:
Then Eddie added that he also saw his 19-year-old sister Teresa, who told him he had to go back. His father then became agitated, because he had just spoken with Teresa, who was attending college in Vermont, two nights ago… Later that morning, when Eddie’s parents telephoned the college, they learned that Teresa had been killed in an automobile accident just after midnight, and that college ofﬁcials had tried unsuccessfully to reach the Cuomos at their home to inform them of the tragic news.
If anecdotes like these are true, we can safely write off the idea of NDEs as hallucinations. The problem, of course, is that even when they’re corroborated by medical staff, these stories can’t be proven.
In all likelihood, there will never be conclusive evidence for or against the notion that NDEs are genuine sneak previews of the hereafter. However, there’s no question that people tend to emerge from these experiences as kinder, more loving beings. Many claim that their NDEs have taught them that simple acts of caring are the things that matter most in mortal life.
From the perspective of someone undergoing a life review, something like becoming a rock star or winning an Oscar seems to be far less important than a kind gesture such as feeding a hungry person. Whether or not NDEs are objectively “real,” that lesson seems worth applying to life right here in this world.
Damon Orion is a writer, journalist, musician, artist and teacher living in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California. More of his work can be found at DamonOrion.com.