An Introductory Analysis of the NDE (Near-Death Experience).

[article posted with the permission of the Noah's Ark Society]

During the last two decades, another phenomenon has entered the general discussion concerning the survival of death, this being the NDE. In addition to mediumistic communications and other related phenomena, the NDE has been seen by many as providing evidence of survival.

In fact, the occurrence of NDEs is not a new subject as parallels already existed as long ago as Plato's Republic. Other accounts, e.g. Salvius in the sixth century, include details of journeys into the next world; the Dialogues by the sixth century Gregory the Great records a number of NDEs, and Bede, in the eighth century also narrated the NDE of Drythelm in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. These are however coloured by the religious concepts that prevailed at the time when they were written. Clinical thinking about NDEs began in the nineteenth century with Prof. Albert Heim, a Swiss geologist, who had an NDE while mountain-climbing in 1871, and published his findings in Notes on Deaths from Falls. The subject was also considered by a number of leading figures in the early SPR (Society for Psychical Research). In more recent years, it was given further attention by Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, an American psychiatrist who became aware that something other-worldly seemed to occur immediately before a patient died; she wrote a number of books about this from the early 1970s.

However, interest in the subject, by the general public and both the scientific and religious world, only really began with the publication of Life after Life, in 1975. The author was Raymond Moody, an American psychiatrist, who was prompted to investigate the subject after hearing of a NDE by Dr George Ritchie during the war (to whom he dedicated his book), and subsequent accounts from students when he was teaching. He collected together details of such experiences and these formed the basis of his book; when Elisabeth Kubler-Ross read the proof, she realized that his findings coincided with her own.

Moody's book became a best-seller and in view of what was being stated, other members of the medical profession carried out their own investigations, one being the psychologist, Prof. Kenneth Ring of the University of Connecticut. He was anxious to bring about a scientific understanding of the subject and by setting up an international organisation with other interested professionals in 1977 (this later became IANDS: International Association for Near-Death Studies), he was able to collect reports of the experience. His book Life at Death published in 1980, gave the results of his enquiry; in this he stated: 'I do endorse the proposition that consciousness (with or without a second body) may function independently of the physical body'. Indicating the scope of support for this type of thinking in the scientific community, Dr Melvin Morse, a Washington paediatrician, who carried out research relating to NDEs in children, stated something similar: in The Light Beyond, written by Moody and Paul Perry in 1988, he said that he could not see why the NDE could not be accepted as 'travel to another realm'.

Another medical specialist who embarked upon an enquiry into the subject was the cardiologist Dr Michael Sabom at the Emory University School. Unlike Ring, he was sceptical, and with an associate, Sarah Kreutziger, he interviewed patients in his own hospital, but obtained the same results as Moody. Of the other medical specialists who have made a significant contribution, Dr Fred Schoonmaker, a cardiologist from Denver, produced a survey of over two thousand patients who had suffered cardiac failure, many of whom reported other- worldly experiences. He suggests that up to sixty per cent of those who experience a cardiac arrest will report an NDE. In addition to different medical specialists recognizing that NDEs occur more often than realized, this was confirmed by an extensive Gallup Poll in America, the findings of which were detailed in George Gallup Jr.'s own book, Adventures in Immortality, in 1982.

NDEs consist of a number of features. Although there are some variations reported by the different researchers, the basic template laid down by Moody, is that the NDEr: (1)feels at peace; (2)hears a noise; (3)is separated from the body and can sometimes observe his/her own body and watch events taking place (e.g. resuscitation); (4)enters darkness, like a void or tunnel;(5)meets other people - often relatives and associates who have already died; (6)sees a light that becomes brighter; (7)experiences a life review; (8)reaches a form of border or barrier, e.g. a river, mist, fence, door, and is made aware there is a need to return to physical life.

It would appear that not all these stages arise in all NDEs and they are only general categories; as frequently noted, those having the experience often have considerable difficulty describing it. It is also interesting to note how the NDE is highly subjective, confirming the Spiritualist idea that the individual's own consciousness determines much of what follows death: this is demonstrated by modern-day NDEs in the West including references to the life review taking place on something resembling a television screen: in one case, a person even referred to her life record being taken down by a computer.

As noted, there were already occasions of obvious parallels with the findings of Kubler-Ross and Moody, decades before their work began. Heim, already mentioned, referred to the occurrence of well-being, timelessness, and seeing a light. There are also the earlier recollections of Louis Tucker, a priest, who wrote Clerical Errors, in which he described his own NDE, i.e., he became unconscious by poisoning in 1909 and the attending doctor declared that he was dead. He described how he then felt that he was passing through a tunnel accompanied by noise, and found himself in a place being greeted by friends and his own dead father; he realized that he was communicating with his father by thought. His father then referred to him returning, and after entering darkness again, he found himself being attended to by the doctor. In this he added the comment so often found in NDEs, 'I did not want to go back...thoroughly disgusted that I could not stay'.

It is not unexpected that non-survivalists propose a number of explanations, often rather imaginative, to account for the NDE that do not involve the survival of death. The common objection is that no matter how near death the people were, they were resuscitated and therefore did not 'die'. However, due to the research undertaken, it can be shown that a number of those who have described an NDE were not merely near death, but did actually die. The matter becomes even more fascinating when people are able to accurately report events occurring (when they also say that they were separated from the physical body), and yet this was during the very time they were showing no clinical signs of life. This has occurred on numerous occasions.

In The Light Beyond, Moody refers to a number of such instances, e.g. an elderly woman who had been blind from the age of eighteen accurately described the events during her resuscitation, but also the instruments, as well as their colour and even the doctor's clothing. In the case of the instruments, most of these had not even existed when the woman had last been able to see. There have also been several cases where people who have had an NDE, and they have not only accurately described the resuscitation, but what was happening elsewhere, away from the area.
In the case of demonstrating the NDE is not a brain disturbance caused by oxygen deprivation (this being the most common explanation), Schoonmaker had by 1979, carried out investigations showing that NDEs occurred when there was no deprivation of oxygen. In fact, in a cardiac arrest, the patient is actually supplied with oxygen, and any anaesthetic being used is stopped, meaning this cannot be the cause of the NDE in such cases. Sabom has also monitored the brain waves of his patients by an electroencephalograph (EEG) and was able to show that some who had reported NDEs had been clinically dead, i.e., registering no electrical activity in their brain. A lack of EEG activity is accepted as constituting death in many places in the Western world, including America.

Another common explanation is that the NDE occurs because of depersonalization, i.e. it is simply a self-defence mechanism as the person is confronted with non-existence. But this conflicts with the feeling of the enhanced self-identity that invariably occurs in an NDE. Furthermore, if the event is only a physical brain-reaction, one would also consider such an episode to be a dream-like state where finer details are missing, but the NDE is marked by the absolute clarity. There is also the factor of the actual events that manifest themselves: for example, the instances when someone has had an NDE and seen a person in the experience but was unaware that the person had died. This 'explanation' is therefore simply untenable.

Another suggestion is that the NDE is the result of drugs used in medication, but this is seen to be unacceptable when the matter is considered in any depth. Sabom found the NDE was quite different from that induced by drugs or hallucination. Furthermore, when Prof. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia, and his colleagues, wrote in The Lancet (10/11/90), it was pointed out that if the physical brain was really necessary for all thought, one would therefore expect the disturbance to result in impaired cognition. However, the very opposite situation occurs in NDEs. It is also noted that in the cases where brain disturbance was evident, NDEs seemed to be less common, and there is also the factor that in delirium, the person tends to see events occurring at a distance, and the effects vary widely unlike those during an NDE.

Dr Susan Blackmore of the University of Bristol is well- known for offering explanations to account for different paranormal occurrences. In the SPR's Psi Researcher, she suggests the tunnel experience and the bright light is due to certain brain cells firing 'rapidly and randomly' through a lack of oxygen, but as noted by Prof. David Fontana in the same publication, the tunnel effect also exists in Out of Body Experiences, where death or approaching death does not arise - and there certainly is no incident of oxygen deprivation. Blackmore, as others, has also suggested that an NDE is prompted through a release of a chemical discharged by the brain in times of acute stress. However, the obvious question is how a physical organism such as the brain could produce a detailed life review, and indeed all the other experiences that occur in a matter of seconds. What takes place during an NDE could hardly be the result of the workings of a physical mechanism, and furthermore, one that is in its very final stages of operation.
In the case of the suggestion that mind-altering medication causes the NDE, Melvin Morse has produced a study where a group of one hundred and twenty-one children were seriously ill, but had less than a five per cent chance of dying, and yet none had an NDE. Of another thirty-seven children who had received many forms of mind-changing drugs, again, there were no NDEs. However, in another group of twelve children who had suffered a cardiac arrest, eight of these recalled having an NDE. A considerable amount has been written by medical professionals that demonstrates that medication cannot be the cause of the NDE. With regard to the matter of NDEs by children, one noteworthy feature is that unlike adults, they sometimes refer to being accompanied by other people, or beings, in the tunnel.

Another explanation is that the NDE is, quite simply, wishful thinking, but this is shown to be invalid when one considers the life review that so many report was a painful, or at least an uncomfortable, experience. Moreover, if the experience arose from wish-fulfilment one should surely expect to see a far greater degree of individualism with personal and idiosyncratic hopes being realized; moreover, the NDE hardly coincides with what has been traditionally taught, and believed by most people about the afterlife. Moreover, this does not explain the remarkable consistency that arises in the accounts supplied by people who vary so widely in their beliefs. It is also apparent that the experience is different, and sometimes entirely different, from what the person expected to happen at death: while interpretation of the events will of course differ, a religious belief (or the lack or it) makes no difference to the actual sequence of events that take place. As Carol Zaleski notes in her excellent survey of the subject, Otherworld Journeys, 'Suicide victims seeking annihilation, fundamentalists who expect to see God on the operating table, atheists, agnostics and carpe diem advocates find equal representation in the ranks of the near- death experiencers'.
It would seem that non-survivalists are forced to throw as many possible 'explanations' at the NDE, but those who believe that survival does in fact occur can simply cite cases where the supposed explanation cannot and did not apply; therefore, as Zaleski rightly notes, 'no single psychological or physiological syndrome can account for near- death experience'.

In dealing with the subject of the NDE, it is necessary to be aware of the considerable stress that has been laid on 'the being of light' that is reported as greeting the person who has died. This aspect is commented upon by Margot Grey, who became interested in the subject after her own NDE in India in 1976; in her book Return From Death, she notes that 'At times the "presence" is replaced by the "spirits" of deceased loved ones'. Indeed, it would seem that the appearance of the 'being of light' only occurs when relatives/friends are not present to greet the person reaching the 'other side'.
As Moody notes in Life After Life, when the being is encountered, the religious background of the person concerned usually determines the identification, thus Christians see it as Christ, Jews as an angelic being, and those with no religious beliefs simply see it for what it is - a being of light. Relevant to this aspect, Zaleski observes, 'The near-death testimony Moody presents has no harp-playing seraphs, no haloed martyrs holding their heads, no Christ emblazoned with a kingly Chi-Rho. Moody therefore reasons that most people have essentially the same vision, even though they may overlay it with different culturally inherited forms'. In fact one suggestion made in the IANDS News Bulletin (Spring 1990), that discussed the features arising from the NDE, is that the communication that takes place with the being, if it occurs, is 'the subject conversing with the superluminous Self...The whole thing looks like a conversation between the part and the whole'. In other words, the person is confronting their own being - as it should be, and is destined to become. This of course agrees with the Spiritualist understanding of the next life serving as the means of personal evolution and progress.
It is interesting to note that in view of what occurs in the NDE, Grey details how the respondents subsequently adopted a more general understanding of God and religion - a Roman Catholic said it was 'beyond any denomination', an Anglican began to feel 'all religion is basically the same', another Anglican became a member of the SAGB, and some had become 'non-denominational or turned to theosophical or psychical associations'.

As I have hopefully demonstrated, the NDE not only offers further evidence for survival, but is also entirely in harmony with Spiritualist beliefs, while in considerable conflict with the mainstream religious traditions. Another example of NDEs agreeing with Spiritualist ideas that the afterlife is a place of hope and progress, is the situation of suicides. Unlike the traditional religious view that argues suicides are 'damned', studies have confirmed that those who seek to end their own life have experienced the various stages of the NDE, e.g. seeing a light, encountering a life review, and communicating with loved ones who had died earlier. It is also surely worth noting in this respect that Moody has observed that an NDE removes further desire to commit suicide.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the NDE is not only the personal transformation that occurs afterwards, but the occurrence of gaining extra-sensory perception; Margot Grey devotes two chapters to this, referring to people acquiring such abilities as healing, telepathy, precognition and automatic writing, after their NDE. This again harmonizes with the Spiritualist view that in the next life, greater awareness will prevail, and it would appear those who have touched the borders of that life have returned with some features of its mode. The life review and other elements of the NDE confirm Maurice Barbanell's view stated in This Is Spiritualism, about personal responsibility and that we all make our own heaven or hell in the next life. Indeed, the NDE recalls the words of Omar Khayyam:- 'I sent my soul through the invisible; Some letter of that after-life to spell; And after many days my soul returned and said; "Behold, myself am heaven and hell"'.

In view of his substantial and significant contribution, I conclude with Moody's opinion in The Light Beyond: 'NDEs intrigue us because they are the most tangible proof of spiritual existence that can be found. They are truly the light at the end of the tunnel'.

Maurice Barbanell, This is Spiritualism (London: Spiritualist Press, 1959).
Susan Blackmore, 'Glimpse of an afterlife - or just the dying brain?', Psi Researcher, Summer 1992.
Susan Blackmore, 'Blackmore's reply to Fontana', Psi Researcher, Autumn 1992.
David Fontana, 'NDEs - Not just the dying brain', Psi Researcher, Autumn 1992.
Margot Grey, Return From Death (London: Arkana, 1985).
Albert Heim, 'Remarks on fatal falls', Swiss Alpine Club Yearbook, 27 (1892), pp.327-337. Trans. by Russell Noyes and Roy Kletti, Omega, 3 (1972).
Raymond A. Moody Jr., Life After Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1975). Raymond A. Moody, Jr., and Paul Perry, The Light Beyond (New York: Bantam Books, 1988).
M. Morse, and P. Perry, Closer to the Light (London: Souvenir Press, 1991).
Kenneth Ring, Life at Death (New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1980).
Michael Sabom, Recollections of Death (New York: Harper and Row, 1982).
Louis Tucker, Clerical Errors (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1943).
Carol Zaleski, Otherworld Journeys (New York: OUP, 1987).

The above article was published in Two Worlds in 1996.

Suggested Further Reading:-
Robert Almeder, Death and Personal Survival (Lanham, MD: Littlefield Adams, 1992).
Robert Crookall, What Happens When You Die (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1978).
Ian Currie, You Cannot Die (London: Hamlyn, 1978).
Peter Fenwick, The Truth In the Light (London: Headline, 1996).
Barbara Harris, and Lionel C. Bascom, Full Circle (New York: Pocket Books, 1990).
Raymond Moody, A. Jr., Reflections on Life After Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1977).
Kenneth Ring, Heading Towards Omega (New York: William Morrow, 1984).
George G. Ritchie, Jr., My Life After Dying: Becoming Alive to Universal Love (Norfolk, VA: Hampton Roads, 1991).


The International Association for Near-Death Studies is at:-
P.O. Box 502,
East Windsor Hill,
CT. 06028,
United States of America.