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Near Death Experience: A second chance?
It is described by those who have experienced it as instantaneous, unfathomable, soul-chilling darkness…a complete absence of light. Yet this harrowing experience lasts only briefly as, just as suddenly, an inexplicable feeling of calmness and serenity overwhelms the subject. Moments later, a brilliant and pristine radiant light blazes forth. Described as having the appearance of a “light at the end of tunnel,” this moment of illumination, no doubt, feels like a reprieve from an unimaginable fate for the previously-frightened observer. Finally, if the incident is prolonged enough, the witness is able to pass into the light.
This scenario has been retold by people innumerable times throughout history. People experiencing what has come to be known as a “near death experience” often begin the recitation of their adventure with a description similar to the one above. So much so, that the imagery of “walking toward the light” has become synonymous with the experience within the popular culture. Yet there is more than one rendition of the near death experience; and more than one potential explanation for what this unusual phenomenon might actually be.
The concept of the near death experience can trace its origin to an era prior to the birth of Christ. The earliest known reference to an occurrence of this nature comes from an extremely renowned source. In his masterpiece, Republic, Plato records the “Myth of Er,” in which a soldier from the Fourth Century BC recalls a handful of near death experiences.
Centuries later, in the 1890s, French psychologist Victor Egger identified the expérience de mort imminente (experience of imminent death) as a result of discussions between philosophers and psychologists. The two groups were analyzing the precipitous and panoramic life reviews that mountain climbers experience during falls. And by 1968, a sufficient number of near death experience cases had accumulated that Celia Green was able to publish an analysis of 400 first-hand experiences; and not just near death experiences…all 400 were out of body experiences! This was the first foray into providing a definitive reference work for the phenomenon.
Since science first recognized the existence of, and began to evaluate, the near death experience, the majority sentiment seems to be that the sensations and visions experienced in these situations is nothing more than hallucination. The ultimate traumatic experience (death) has so unsettled and confused the mind, that it reacts by retreating to the imagery and experience which the subconscious has been conditioned to expect upon the body expiring. When the body is enduring extreme thirst in an arid climate, the mind “produces” water; and when the body’s autonomic systems fail, the mind “produces” death. However, there are segments of the scientific community which are not as readily disposed to dismissing near death experience as simple hallucination.
Additionally, practitioners of medical science have been quick to point out that the vast majority of near death experiences seem to occur after particularly traumatic episodes or injuries. Cardiac arrest, shock due to a variety of causes, electrocution, cerebral hemorrhage, near-drowning, asphyxia, and attempted suicide have all proven to be capable in triggering a near death experience. Naysayers point to this data as proof that the experience is nothing more than comforting hallucination produced by a grievously-injured mind. Despite this opposition to the legitimacy of the phenomenon, the near death experience has relentlessly gained burgeoning acceptance by society as a whole.
In 1975, after an extensive number of interviews with a large sample size, psychiatrist Raymond Moody identified several commonalities within the near death experience. Building on Mr. Moody’s work, subsequent research has pinpointed elements which are present in nearly all of these experiences. As such, in 1980, Kenneth Ring encapsulated the experience into five general phases: peace, body separation, entering darkness, seeing the light, entering the light.
Intriguingly, when reviewing this list of cohesions between incidents, the line between science and religiosity becomes blurred. Particularly in the areas where light becomes the seminal factor, it seems that everyone- regardless of personal belief up to that point in his or her life- experiences something best that can best be described as “Heavenly.”
While the pervading sense of well-being and painlessness, positive emotions, and (what is described after the fact as) a sense of “removal” from the secular world are ubiquitous theological tenets believed to be inherent in the existence of a true believer; there are visual components subsequent to this feeling of euphoria which have merited further analysis. Particularly, the report that many subjects of a near death experience see deceased relatives and friends (who still retain humanoid appearance) bathed in the brilliant light as the witness draws closer to it. Some have even claimed to have viewed iconic biblical figures interspersed among a multitude of beings present only to warmly greet their visitor.
Intriguingly, the theology to which the subject adheres seems to dictate which historical figure of faith he or she might see. A Christian might see Jesus or one of the Apostles, a Muslim might see Mohamed, or a Hindu might see Yamaraja (the Hindu king of death). Opponents of near death cite this as further evidence of projections from a mind that is shackled by its value system and frame of reference. Proponents of the experience believe that each person entering the afterlife will have his or her own individualized and personalized welcoming committee based on his or her beliefs and experiences.
Additionally, a number of veterans of the near death experience recall receiving “knowledge about one’s life, and the nature of the Universe.” This facet of the experience seems to hearken back to the story of the Fall of Man from the biblical book of Genesis. In the text, Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden due to their lust to gain the immortal understanding offered by the tree of knowledge of good an evil. But beyond that, some subjects claim experiencing prophetic visions relating to the fate of man during their near death episode. Some foresee an apocalyptic end-of-days scenario; others envision a species that has evolved into a radically advanced life form. Is the “knowledge” imparted to the subject of the near death experience just a dream conjured from an innate desire and a stunned subconscious, or is there something legitimate and otherworldly being shared from a source external to the human mind?
Religious supporters of the veracity to near death experience have found an unusual ally in their cause. Often times at odds with religious orders and their precepts, parapsychologists and believers in the paranormal in general concur with the religious factions in endorsing the phenomenon. The very premise of the near death experience legitimizes an existence after death, and re-enforces the existence of the mind-body duality that is central to reincarnation, out of body experiences, and other paranormal events of the like. In spite of finding themselves paired with this rather unusual bedfellow, religions of the world are something of a house divided when the factuality along with the purpose of near death experience are considered.
“Religious believers tend to be divided on and uncertain about their interpretation of near death experiences, given that while they verify some aspects of the faiths, they also explicitly falsify other aspects” (Thonnard, 2013). As might be expected, conservative faiths utilize this paradox to debunk the existence of the near death phenomenon; while more progressive faiths maintain that the contradictory portions of the experience are utilized by malignant forces to lead believers astray. While dark forces might involve themselves in a near death experience; purportedly, the tactics utilized by these forces are far less subtle.
Nearly 20% of near death experiences are decidedly negative in nature. Generating extreme panic, fear, or anger, this fifth of the phenomena endured is classified on a scale of: “partially negative” to “Hellish.” The environment in which these particular experiences are acted out ranges from dark, gloomy, and threatening, to literally occurring on the precipice of a pit or abyss. The soundtrack to these episodes is rather unsettling as well, featuring the moans and shrieks of the despairing and the tortured.
One such case which transpired during the 1990s was particularly sensational. Cardiologist Maurice Rawlins recorded the tale of a patient who was struggling to hang on to life. On a few occasions, while drifting in and out of consciousness, the man was heard to scream: “I am in Hell!” Upon reviving, the patient could recollect the majority of the near death experience…excluding the damnation portion. Yet, both doctor and patient were shaken by the experience; and became devoutly religious afterward (Bush, 2012).
Can near death experience be a warning leading to a second chance? If it is a positive experience, is the subject being told to stay the course? The implications and even the existence of the near death experience will probably never achieve consensus within the world of religion; perhaps, like everything else in life, each subject’s life experience and personal beliefs will individually serve to legitimize or discredit his or her experience on a case-by-case basis.
Meanwhile, if science is to solve the riddle, tenacious research must continue. As with other irregular phenomena, genuine interest in near death experience ebbs and flows within the scientific realm. Yet, there is a prevailing sentiment that if a breakthrough is going to be attained, it must be achieved by neuroscientists. Science continues to believe that the key to this mystery remains buried in the human mind.