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Near-Death Experiences

Toni Lange

Augustana University College

 

A paper submitted to Dr. Jayne Gackenbach as part of the course requirements for Psy 473 (Sleep and Dreams), April, 1997

 

Near-death experiences (NDE) are real experiences. The effect NDEs have on a person’s life is substantial and it is something we can all witness. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate what a NDE is, show that they are real especially to the person who had the experience and explain why we have them. It is important to realise that, this experience is not something that happens to one out of a million. In fact, Dr. Schoonmaker found that 60% of his patients who were resuscitated had a NDE, whereas, Dr. Ken Ring and Dr. Mike Sabom studied more critically ill patient and found that 45% of the patients had a NDE (cited in, Daniel Redwood interview with Raymond Moody, 1995). Since, this phenomena has such a great effect on a person’s life and because so many people have this experience I think it is important that we learn about NDEs.

What is a NDE? The term NDE was coined by, Dr. Raymond Moody. His book, Life After Life (1975), was the first academically recognised book on NDEs. Dr. Moody was the first to systematically describe what a person felt and went through when they had a NDE. A NDE is often defined, and most commonly understood, as an experience usually triggered by a traumatic life threatening experiences that has a significantly noticeable effect on a person’s out look on life. The length and realness of a person’s NDE depends on a how close to death they were and it also depends on the length of time they were in the "dead" state (Moody, 1975). Obviously, people who were closer to death have more vivid and detailed experiences. In addition, people who were "dead" for only a short time have shorter experiences to report than people who were "dead" for a longer period of time. Below is a model of a NDE created by Dr. Moody. Dr. Moody’s model contains 15 elements, which he identified as the elements commonly found in NDEs. The 15 elements include; ineffability, hearing the news, feelings of peace and quiet, the noise, the dark tunnel, out of the body, meeting others, the being of light, the review, the borders of limit, coming back, telling others, effects on lives, new views of death, corroboration.

A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment, and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval.

After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notices that he still had a "body," but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind . Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving, warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before--a being of light--appears before him. This being asks him a question, nonverbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet, he finds that the must go back to the earth, that the time for his death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with his experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return. He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love, and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives.

Later he tries to tell others, but he has trouble doing so. In the first place, he can find no human words adequate to describe these unearthly episodes. He also finds that others scoff, so he stops telling other people. Still, the experience affects his life profoundly, especially his views about death and its relationship to life. (Moody 1975, p.21-23)

It should be noted that, no two experiences are identical and no one experiences every element in Dr. Moody’s model. However, people who have had a NDE describe some combination of the elements found in Dr. Moody’s model (1975). Also, the sequence of the elements in a person’s NDE do not always come in the same order. For example, some people have met the being of light at the beginning of their experience and others met the being of light much later in their experience.

Is this experience pleasant? Over all, the NDE is reported as being very delightful. Dr. Moody (1975) asserts that typically in the beginning people are scared and they usually want to get back into their body but as the experience progresses the person starts to enjoy their NDE more. Many people have reported intensely pleasant feelings and sensations during their experience. Moody gives the example of a man who claimed, "There was no pain, and I’ve never felt so relaxed" (Moody 1975, p.28).

However, even thought most people have a good experience, this is not always the case. Sometimes, a NDE can be very frightening for a person. Moody (1975) noted that this is especially true for people who have attempted suicide. He found that in all cases the problems they were trying to escape from were carried over to their NDE. During their NDE their problems seemed to be even more complex than before. In some instances people, who attempted suicide, were even forced to view the consequences of their actions. Most of these people felt that during their NDE it was communicated to them that the two worse things they could do was kill themselves or someone else.

Is there any corroboration or support for people’s NDEs? Since, a NDE story sounds so incredible and unbelievable (sometimes even to the person who had the experience) I thought it would be a good idea to show some corroboration and support that something is really happening. When Dr. Moody was researching his book, Life After Life (1975), he found that occasionally he was able to check up on his subjects. For example, he talks about cases where a person could describe the medical techniques and the comments the medical staff made while reviving him/her. Doctors were genuinely surprised because the average person does not know these techniques and when this person supposedly learned it they were thought to be dead. In other cases Moody found that people could describe events which were occurring in the hospital while they were "dead". For example, one women could describe what her sister was saying in a different room while the medical staff was trying to revive her.

Support, to the fact that something is happening, can also be found in a interview with Ken Ring (cited in David Cherniack: Transcripts - The Group Discussion ,1992). He supplied proof that when people claim they had a NDE science can demonstrate that something has happened to that person. Ring claims that people who have had a NDE displayed physiological changes and neurological changes. He believes these changes signify a development of higher consciousness. Ring goes as far as to say that a NDE may be the catalysts to the evolution of higher consciousness for humanity. I will discuss this idea later.

In Ken Ring’s (cited in, Cheniack, 1992 b) experiment he has found that the physiological changes in his experiment group were a decrease in blood pressure, in metabolic rate, in body temperature and a considerable number of people in his study report that their nervous system functioned differently now. Neurological changes were observed, when a third of his subjects claimed that not only have their brain functioning changed but also their brain structure. In addition to these changes many of these people now have problems with electrical devices. When they are around them or when they touch them the devices malfunction. The control group did not show these changes. Ring, also, notes that other researches have reported, that after a NDE some people claim that they now have strange healing capabilities. Ring sees all these changes as psycho physical and psycho spiritual transformation and because we can witness these changes we know that these people are truly experiencing some thing.

Dr. Moody and Ken Ring’s evidence reveal that there is something real and physical happening to these people. Obviously, if NDEs were some kind of hallucination or illusion the people in Dr. Moody’s book, Life After Life, would not have been able to accurately describe the medical techniques the doctor used. In concordance if nothing happened these people would not have changed psychically or spiritual. These research results both corroborates and supports the claim that NDEs are real and that something happens to the person when they claimed they had their NDE.

How does a NDE effect a person’s life? For me the most intriguing aspect of a NDE is the effect it has on the person. While researching NDEs I found that the effects ranged from mild to huge. In Dr. Moody book, Life After Life (1975), he found that after a NDE people became, "more reflective and more concerned with ultimate philosophical issues" (p.93). In some cases people felt that life became more dear to them. Dr. Moody talked about how some people claimed that they now have intuition abilities bordering on psychic. Some people believed that the experience was a lesson and now they are here to love others and acquire knowledge.

Dr. Moody (1975) also noticed that peoples views of physical death profoundly changed. These people are were no longer scared of death because they claim that they know they continue after death and that they know now what is waiting for them. Dr. Moody points out that their previous models of death, before their NDE, resembled ideas like "forgetting" or "sleeping". Now these people believe death is a transition from one state to another. Dr. Moody stresses that no one described the after life as a traditional hell or heaven but as an awaking or shift in consciousness.

Ken Ring (cited in, Gackenbach, 1993) described the effects on a person’s life as a spiritual awakening. He explains by saying that people who had a traditional Christian belief moved to a "universalistically spiritual orientation" (p. 12). To accomplish this transformation a person goes through seven changes. These changes include;

1. A tendency to characterise oneself as spiritual rather than religious per se.

2. A feeling of being inwardly close to God.

3. A deemphasis of the formal aspects of religious life and worship.

4. A conviction that there is life after death, regardless of religious belief.

5. An openness to the doctrine of reincarnation ( and a general sympathy toward Eastern religions).

6. A belief in the essential underlying unity of all religions.

7. A desire for a universal religion embracing all humanity.

(Ken Ring, cited in Gackenbach, 1993, p.12)

The story of Dannion Brinkley (cited in, Lightworks, 1995) is a excellent example of how profoundly a NDE can and does effect a person’s life. Brinkley was not a very religious man and he spent most of the early part of his life being a bully. He entered the marine crops during Viet Nam and after the war he was recruited into the intelligence operation of the United States. He became a trained killer for his government. When he was 25 years old he was hit by lighting and he had a NDE. When he recuperated from his accident he felt that his life has completely changed. He wanted to benefit from the experience and help people. As of 1995 he has been working with Raymond Moody for 19 years (researching NDEs), he has been a hospice volunteer for 17 years, a nursing home volunteer for 12, and he has assisted 149 people while they were dying. Evidently, this experience has radically changed Brinkley’s life. Not every person will go through this transformations but I think the story of Brinkley shows us just how deeply a NDE can effect a person. Simply by recognising the effect this experience has on a person’s life you can not deny some think happened to that person.

Thus far I have explained what a NDE is, I have showed corroboration of the NDE story, supported the fact the something is happening, and explored the effects of the experience on a person’s life. I think it can be assumed without much doubt that NDEs are real and because of the profound effect of this experience we should try to understand what causes it and why we have it. People who have this experience usually develop a more enlightened view of their life and the after life.

What happens to people who have NDEs and why does it effect their lives so profoundly? In the final section of my paper I would like to give some possible explanations of what might be causing a NDE and the change we see in a person. The first explanation I will explore is a transpersonal explanation suggested by Ken Ring, then I will talk about a physical explanation supplied by Susan Blackmore, and final I will explore a biological explanation of NDEs.

According to Ken Ring (cited in, Cherniack, 1992), it is possible for any one to have this experience but he thinks there is what he calls, an encounter prone personality who is more likely to report a NDE than other person. These people are more open to a broad assortment of unusual experiences because of their psychological structure. Ring thinks that these people are more attuned to the realm which lies outside of our waking state which is beyond delusions and hallucinations. These people who are attuned to this realm may have a variety of related experiences. These experiences may include NDEs, UFO encounters, they may channel and many others mystical experiences like these. He calls this realm the imaginal realm. This imaginal realm is an alternate reality where these open people can have a NDE. This place is not physically real but it is real to a person’s imaginal vision. Ring thinks because this alternate reality is so real it causes problems for the person when they come back and they have no physical proof of it.

Ring (cited in, Cherniack, 1992) proposed that before science most people had access to this realm but after science became a dominate force this realm was no longer explored. Science would say, it was not physical therefor it is not real. Ring believes that the experiences people are now having are "corrective for a kind of paternalistic mechanistic scientific philosophy that has...got us into a lot of deep water because of it" (p.3). The reason why Ring feels we are in deep water is because we are exploiting the earth. NDEs and experiences of its kind are posing problems for science because it is not physical and after people have had the experience these people have a great ecological concern for earth. As I said before, Ring sees this experience as a catalysts to the development of higher consciousness for humanity.

Susan Blackmore (1993) suggest that NDEs trigger, " a breakdown of the model of the self along with the breakdown of the brain’s normal processes". When this happens the person realises that there are no separate selves and since they never did exist there is nothing their to die. When people drop the idea that there is someone in their who can die a person becomes nicer. They no longer fear death because they can not die. Susan maintain that this is the true cause of the transformation we see.

Sceptics of the spiritual view argue from a biological view point (NDE FAQ, 1996). They believe the experience is a deep rooted biological reaction to an profound physical trauma. The area where the NDE is from is the oldest regions of the brain. A NDE occurs when a immense strain on the brain (i.e. lack of oxygen) causes the brain to shut down to its basic level of consciousness. This state is like a dream but it is more intense so it can better survive the physical distress it going through. If this was true than one would expect that a EEG scan would pick up some brain wave activity, but sceptics of the spiritual explanation claim that when the brain shuts down to its basic level its activity can not be detected by a EEG scan.

I personally believe that this experience is more than a biological reaction to a physical strain. That is why I favour the theory Ken Ring Proposes. As I have demonstrate in my essay, this experience is real and the effect it has on a person’s life is significant and can not be ignored. I doubt this experience and the effect of it is merely a side effect of a dream or a realisation their is no one their to die. I believe that this experience is a spiritual awakening.

References

Blackmore, S. (1993). Near-Death Experience: a physical explanation. [On-line] Available: http://www.newciv.org/GIB/reinv/RIS-233.HTML

Cherniack, D. (1992). David Cherniack Films: Transcripts - Ken Ring. [On-line] Available: http://www.myna.com/~davidck/ring.htm

Cherniack, D. (1992 b). David Cherniack Films: Transcripts - Group Discussion. [On-line] Available: http://www.myna.com/~davidck/group.htm

Gackenbach, J., (1993). Childhood Transpersonal Childhood Experiences of Higher States of Consiousness: Literature Review and Theoretical Integration. [On-line]. Available: http://www.sawka.com/spiritwatch/papers/cehsc/intro.htm

Lightworks, (1995).A Conversation with Dannion Brinkley. [On-line]. Available: http://www.lightworks.com/MonthlyAspectarian/1995/September/08-1w995.html

Moody, R.A., (1975). Life After Life. Covington, Georgia: Bantam Books, Inc.

Redwood, D. (1995). Raymond Moody, MD., PhD "Life After Life". [On-line] Available: http://www.doubleclickd.com/raymoody.html

 

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