The Near Death Experience

Erik Edgren

art of a face

“Owl” by Sasha Cherchasky

Definitive proof for the existence of an intelligible afterlife has yet to surface, despite the efforts and findings of a multitude of investigators. Mediums, scientists, theologians, psychologists, philosophers, and countless laymen have searched for an answer that one’s existence does not end with physical death. While many different angles and techniques have been employed, few offer results that point to a spiritual survival of the personality after death. The phenomenon of the near death experience seems to be the most compelling evidence of a life after death. While there is little scientific proof of anything miraculous occurring in the time after a person’s heart ceases to beat, the accounts of the experiences from the subject themselves given after resuscitation seem to tell a different story. This story, in differing yet similar forms, has repeated itself throughout history and across the world. While still not definitive proof, near death experiences warrant further investigation, to help us better understand what, if anything, is going on after we die.

In today’s world of modern science and advanced technology, we demand that all of life’s mysteries be answered with exacting physical proof. Authentic photographs or videos of spirits, a vial of genuine ectoplasm, or a ghost visiting an entire panel of accredited experts would theoretically set our collective understanding of death at ease. Such evidence does not exist. Even if it did, could we really take any of those examples as proof? If anyone captured an image of a spirit on their camera phone, would we believe them? What would ectoplasm, if we had a sample to test, consist of? What could it’s composition possibly tell us about an afterlife? And, finally, just how many people of good standing would have to view a ghost for the sighting to be credible? The afterlife is not something that we can measure in “hard” scientific terms. Trying to weigh or photograph a spirit seems absurd- we are talking about something whose very definition is that it is immaterial. What good are physical measurements for that which lacks a body? The only physical evidence that can be leveled at the theory of an afterlife is that which seeks to disprove its existence. Purely scientific accounts of paranormal phenomenon will point specific parts of the brain, where chemicals are causing imbalances, hallucinations, and mistakes in perception. These scientific explanations direct us towards the conclusion that death is ultimate; there is nothing afterwards; that consciousness is obliterated with the death of the body.

If scientific tests are ineffectual at ascertaining answers about an afterlife, investigators must turn to other means of obtaining information. What we do have, in seeming abundance, are anecdotal accounts from individuals who have had brushes with death and the accompanying paranormal experiences. Although not all who come near to death have bizarre, other worldly experiences, enough people do to understand the phenomenon as a possible experience for the human psyche to undergo when near life’s end. Since we have already seen that science is unhelpful (at least at this point) in describing and understanding what is going on with near death experiences, we must turn to the phenomenological accounts of the participants themselves. If we can assume that people surviving brushes with death have no ulterior motives in their accounts, then we can at least take their stories to be an accurate (as far as memory and descriptive capabilities allow) account of their perceptions and experiences during the state of being near death.

Near death experiences are not the only phenomena that lends credence to the idea of a life after death, but they are the most pertinent. While near death and out of body experiences are similar in nature, the kind of interaction that occurs in each are markedly different. Out of body experiences may occur at any stage in one’s life. Usually, while one is in a state between sleep and wakefulness, a person leaves their body, and rises above it, staring directly down at the physical body. This experience is analogous with near death experiences, but NDE’s go beyond this stage to more intriguing events. Out of body experiences do suggest that a mind or spirit/ body dualism may be a possibility, but they don’t offer evidence for the spirit’s survival of bodily death.

Sightings of ghosts or apparitions seem to suggest that not only can the spirit survive bodily death, but can appear and communicate to the living. Ghosts have been an age-old piece of evidence for our spirits existing long after death, but they don’t really tell us anything. Usually, ghosts aren’t clear-cut images of specific dead figures. They are most often shadowy and vague- “a woman in gray,” a “wispy figure.” Also, the kind of information conveyed from these departed spirits are usually of no use- perhaps they are pacing up and down a hallway, or sweeping, or performing some other sort of menial task, over and over again. If this is proof of an afterlife, then we have a very monotonous and dreary future, wandering our old “haunts” long after we’re physically gone.

Past life memories, while backed by research and many eastern beliefs, are not really evidence for spiritual survival of the body. Even if the past life memories are true, it would seem that the memories are just lingering elements that briefly (during someone’s childhood years), play out through a new body. These “memories” soon fade, and any child who once had them soon forgets, and ceases to talk about previous life experiences. If the spirit or soul transcends death to enter life in a physical body again, but with no recollection of one’s past life, save a few fleeting memories, can we really call this “survival?” The personality and memory of one’s existence on the earth must be retained after physical death to truly call it “survival.”

What then, can near death experiences tell us about the nature and existence of an afterlife? Near death experiences, of all paranormal activity regarding an afterlife, is the most obviously pertinent. While other paranormal activity could be confused or explained by latent telepathic or psychic capabilities, no such explanation works for NDEs. The near death experience brings us closest to what most staunch skeptics of life beyond death want- someone who has been to the “other side” and come back to tell of the experience. While those who have had NDEs may not have been clinically dead, (because they did, after all, come back to life), they were very close. In many cases, their hearts had ceased to beat for a number of minutes. People who have had near death experience have only come to the gate, but never crossed into the other side- there is always a turning around point. So while they may have not experienced a “full” afterlife and come back to life, they have stepped up to the threshold. Interestingly enough, at the point of no return, the person in question is loath to come back to the world of the living- they are so content, and in such a state of well-being, that they don’t want to leave, but they always do, which gives us near death experiences.

During a near death experience, other dead beings are there to greet the person- friends and family who have passed, but often in their prime, and not advanced age. While dead are present to the person who is near death, it seems that visions/apparitions of the living are never there. This seems an interesting point. If the trauma of dying were to be the cause of the experience, and all that ensues was just a figment of the individual’s imagination, why wouldn’t our friends and family still alive and well be there to comfort and console us? Why only the dead? This also brings us to a testable element of near death experiences. A person who is having an NDE may see a relative that they know to be alive and well, only to discover upon returning that said relative had died while they were “out.” Truthfully, it could have been information gleaned from conversations of those nearby while the person was “unconscious,” but it still leaves the door open for discovering otherwise unknowable information. This could also be the case for encounters of dead relatives that were not known during the person’s life. While the individual might have seen pictures of the relatives, it seems odd that they could have interactions with their relations, and know who they are during the NDE.

People who have near death experiences often describe a being of light, or else a very bright light. This sounds very much like the archetypal “light at the end of the tunnel.” Whether this light is interpreted as being a divinity, or a “oneness” with the universe is subject to the individual’s upbringings and beliefs. The more interesting aspect is not what the light itself actually is, but instead that it is seen by many people.

While not all people who are at the doorstep of death have the near death experience, many people do. Although the specifics of the experience vary, one is at least to encounter some of the familiar aspects of NDEs. The ideal case is a person rising above their dying or deceased physical body, seeing all the hustle and bustle going on, then leaving the body behind to enter a tunnel or hallway, where one encounters dead friends and relatives, that give them an option of going back to the realm of the living, then encountering a bright light. All the while, the person experiences a sense of well-being, and a lack of fear or uncertainty. Then, abruptly, they are yanked out of the experience, and put back into their body. Recorded cases do not usually have every element present, but share a few.

Near death experiences, while profound in themselves, elicit powerful changes in the life of the one experiencing it. Those who have had an NDE appreciate each day more, and no longer exhibit a fear of death. While one may argue that anyone who survives a brush with death will be more thankful for each day, it would seem that such a person would still fear dying. Not so with those who have had a near death experience. Their experience of feeling as though everything would be all right during the NDE gives them knowledge, or at least a feeling that physical death is not the end. Whether this notion is ultimately justified, we don’t know.

The near death experience is an interesting phenomenon. It does not rule out different conceptions of an afterlife. Perhaps the near death experience is a release of chemicals that produce strange and powerful hallucinations—the body’s way of letting the mind down easy—helping us die, with a calm feeling before the ultimate nothingness of death. Perhaps NDEs are really a gateway to the afterlife, and when we do finally die, we take the experience one step further, and go to what lies beyond- whether it is continued survival of the spirit, reincarnation, or a unification of all beings into one. While near death experiences offer the best evidence of something happening to us after our bodies die, we can’t really be sure. The best we can hope for is to collect more accounts from those who have had near death experiences, and try to analyze and understand the nuances, subtleties, differences, and similarities in cases coming from different peoples and cultures of the world. While there are sure to be interpretive differences in understanding of the symbols and people encountered in NDEs between different religious backgrounds, we can hope to establish a basic premise for what NDEs are, and what they could potentially mean for the existence of an afterlife and ongoing survival of the self.