Deathbed phenomena

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William F. Barrett, early deathbed phenomena researcher.

Deathbed phenomena refers to a range of experiences reported by people who are dying. There are many examples of deathbed phenomena in both non-fiction and fictional literature, which suggests that these occurrences have been noted by cultures around the world for centuries, although scientific study of them is relatively recent. In scientific literature such experiences have been referred to as death-related sensory experiences (DRSE).[1] Dying patients have reported to staff working in hospices they have experienced comforting visions.[2][3]

Modern scientists consider deathbed phenomena and visions to be hallucinations.[4][5][6]

Deathbed visions[edit]

Deathbed visions have been described since ancient times. However, the first systematic study was not conducted until the 20th century.[7] They have also been referred to as veridical hallucinations, visions of the dying and predeath visions.[1] The physician William Barrett, author of the book Death-Bed Visions (1926), collected anecdotes of people who had claimed to have experienced visions of deceased friends and relatives, the sound of music and other deathbed phenomena.[8] Barrett was a Christian spiritualist and believed the visions were evidence for spirit communication.[9]

In a study conducted between 1959 and 1973 by the parapsychologists Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson, they reported that 50% of the tens of thousands of individuals they studied in the United States and India had experienced deathbed visions.[7] Osis, Haraldsson and other parapsychologists such as Raymond Moody have interpreted the reports as evidence for an afterlife.[10][11]

The neurologist Terence Hines has written that the proponents of the afterlife interpretation grossly underestimate the variability among the reports. Hines also criticized their methodology of collecting the reports:

The way in which the reports are collected poses another serious problem for those who want to take them seriously as evidence of an afterlife. Osis and Haraldsson’s (1977) study was based on replies received from ten thousand questionnaires sent to doctors and nurses in the United States and India. Only 6.4 percent were returned. Since it was the doctors and nurses who were giving the reports, not the patients who had, presumably, actually had the experience, the reports were secondhand. This means they had passed through two highly fallible and constructive human memory systems (the doctor’s or nurse’s and the actual patient’s) before reaching Osis and Haraldsson. In other cases (i.e., Moody 1977) the reports were given by the patients themselves, months and years after the event. Such reports are hardly sufficient to argue for the reality of an afterlife.[6]

The skeptical investigator Joe Nickell has written deathbed visions (DBVs) are based on anecdotal accounts that are unreliable. In not reviewing the entire context of accounts he believed he had discovered contradictions and inconsistencies in various DBVs reported by the paranormal author Carla Wills-Brandon.[12]

Research within the Hospice & Palliative Care fields have studied the impact of deathbed phenomena (DBP) on the dying, their families, and palliative staff. In 2009, a questionnaire was distributed to 111 staff in an Irish hospice program asking if they had encountered staff or patients who had experienced DBP. The majority of respondents that they had been informed of a deathbed vision by a patient or the patient's family. They reported that the content of these visions often seemed to be comforting to the patient and their family.[13] Another study found that DBPs are commonly associated with peaceful death and are generally under-reported by patients and families due to fear of embarrassment and disbelief from medical staff.[14]

In response to this qualitative data, there is a growing movement within the palliative care field that emphasizes "compassionate understanding and respect from those who provide end of life care" in regards to DBPs.[15]

According to DRSE researchers, such as Peter Fenwick (neuropsychologist), the common experiences include; a visual or auditory vision of (usually deceased) loved ones (most commonly parents), visions of a brightly colored 'afterlife' realm (usually a garden), a vision of light (often personified as important spiritual figures in the dying patient's spiritual or religious beliefs), and a 'letting go' of one's personal attachments, and personal identity (ego) as a whole, termed ego death in some psychedelic communities.

Along with these personal experiences from the dying themselves, occasionally loved ones and hospice nurses experience similar things as well, termed 'Deathbed coincidences' by researchers such as the aforementioned Peter Fenwick (neuropsychologist). Included in this wide branch of interpersonal death-related phenomena includes; alleged knowledge of one's passing through a 'visitation' before being told by others (often with the experiencer across a large distance from the dying individual and supposedly having no prior knowledge of the individual's condition or death), experiences of light protruding from the patient's body (often interpreted as a soul) and 'heavenly music' coinciding with the patient's death. Along with this comes an experience known in parapsychology as 'Shared Death Experiences', an experience in which a bystander, a friend, relative, nurse or other have an experience that is similar to a Near Death Experience, but from the perspective of accompanying the dying individual.[16][17]

Some parapsychologists, including Raymond Moody, Peter Fenwick, and William Peters (Head of Shared Crossing Research Initiative), have interpreted these reports as evidence for an afterlife, pointing out similarities to near death experiences. Limited skepticism has come to these claims so far, except from the psychological truism arguments from Joe Nickell and philosopher Keith Augustine. As of yet, there remains very few research projects into these shared DRSE phenomena, and thus neither the paranormal 'afterlife' nor the neurobiological or psychological approaches can be supported.

Terminal lucidity[edit]

Sometimes, people with severe mental impairments, usually victims of neurodegenerative diseases, recover their cognitive functions shortly before death.[18]

Scientific evaluation[edit]

According to Ronald K. Siegel, noted American psychopharmacologist and researcher, there is a high degree of similarity between deathbed visions and drug-induced hallucinations. Hallucinations caused by drugs frequently contain images of otherworldly beings and deceased friends and relatives.[4] Some scientists who have studied cases of deathbed phenomena have described the visual, auditory, and sensed presences of deceased relatives or angelic beings during the dying process as hallucinations. These hallucinations are theorized to occur due to a number of explanations including but not limited to cerebral hypoxia, confusion, delirium, body systems failures (e.g., renal, hepatic, pulmonary), and a mental reaction to stress.[19]

When the brain does not have adequate blood flow, as is the case when someone suffers from cardiac arrest, the brain is deprived of oxygen. A short period of cerebral hypoxia can result in the impairment of neuronal function. It is theorized that this neuronal impairment accounts for deathbed visions.[20][21][22]

See also[edit]





  1. ^ a b Ethier, A (2005). "Death-related sensory experiences". Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing. 22 (2): 104–111. doi:10.1177/1043454204273735. PMID 15695352. S2CID 53763992.
  2. ^ Brayne, S; Farnham, C; Fenwick, P (2006). "Deathbed phenomena and their effect on a palliative care team: a pilot study". American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. 23 (1): 17–24. doi:10.1177/104990910602300104. PMID 16450659. S2CID 31182022.
  3. ^ Lawrence, M; Repede, E (2013). "The incidence of deathbed communications and their impact on the dying process". American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care. 30 (7): 632–639. doi:10.1177/1049909112467529. PMID 23236088. S2CID 21926304.
  4. ^ a b Siegel, Ronald (1980). "The Psychology of Life after Death". American Psychologist. 35 (10): 911–931. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.35.10.911. PMID 7436117.
  5. ^ Houran, J. & Lange, R. (1997). Hallucinations that comfort: contextual mediation of deathbed visions. Perceptual and Motor Skills 84: 1491-1504.
  6. ^ a b Hines, Terence (2003). Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. Prometheus Books. p. 102. ISBN 978-1573929790
  7. ^ a b Blom, Jan. (2009). A Dictionary of Hallucinations. Springer. pp. 131-132. ISBN 978-1441912220
  8. ^ Barrett, William. (1926). Death-Bed Visions. Methuen & Company Limited. ISBN 978-0850305203
  9. ^ Oppenheim, Janet. (1985). The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. Cambridge University Press. p. 365. ISBN 978-0521265058
  10. ^ Moody, Raymond. (1975). Life After Life. Mockingbird Books. ISBN 978-0553122206
  11. ^ Osis, K. and Haraldsson, E. (1977). At The Hour of Death. Avon. ISBN 978-0380018024
  12. ^ Nickell, Joe. (2002). "Visitations": After-Death Contacts. Skeptical Inquirer.the Volume 12. Retrieved November 6, 2013.
  13. ^ MacConville U, McQuillan, R. Surveying deathbed phenomena. Irish Medical Times. 2010, May 6.
  14. ^ Fenwick P, Lovelace H, Brayne S. Comfort for the dying: five year retrospective and one year prospective studies of end of life experiences. Arch of Gerontology & Geriatrics. 2010;51:173-179.
  15. ^ Fenwick P, Brayne S. End-of-life experiences: Reaching out for compassion, communication, and connection – meaning of deathbed visions and coincidences. Am J of Hospice & Pall Med. 2011;28(1):7-15.
  16. ^ Fenwick, Peter. "Dying: a spiritual experience as shown by Near Death Experiences and Deathbed Visions" (PDF). Royal College of Psychiatrists. Retrieved on 20 August 2022.
  17. ^ "Shared Death Experiences: A Little-Known Type of End-of-Life Phenomena Reported by Caregivers and Loved Ones". American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. Shared Crossing Research Initiative. Retrieved on 20 August 2022.
  18. ^ M.Nahm, "Terminal Lucidity in Patients with Chronic Schizophrenia and Dementia - a Survey of the Literature" in "Issues in Neurology Research and Practice, 2011 Edition"
  19. ^ Brayne S, Lovelace H, Fenwick P. End-of-life experiences and the dying process in a Gloucestershire nursing home as reported by nurses and care assistants. Am J of Hospice & Pall Med. 2008;25(3):195-206.
  20. ^ Brierley, J. and D. Graham. (1984). Hypoxia and Vascular Disorders of the Central Nervous System. In Greenfield’s Neuropathology edited by J. Adams, J. Corsellis, and L. Duchen. 4th edition. New York: Wiley. pp. 125–207.
  21. ^ French, Chis. (2009). Near-death experiences and the brain. In Craig Murray, ed. Psychological scientific perspectives on out-of-body and death-near experiences. New York: Nova Science Publishers. pp. 187-203. ISBN 978-1607417057
  22. ^ "Scientists discover what happens to the brain as you die". MSN.
  23. ^ Fenwick, Peter. "Dying: a spiritual experience as shown by Near Death Experiences and Deathbed Visions" (PDF). Dying: a spiritual experience as shown by Near Death Experiences and Deathbed Visions. Royal College of Psychiatrists. Retrieved 20 August 2022.
  24. ^ Greyson, Bruce. "Seeing Dead People Not Known to Have Died: "Peak in Darien" Experiences". ResearchGate. Retrieved 20 August 2022.
  25. ^ Shared Crossing Research Initiative (SCRI) (2021). "Shared Death Experiences: A Little-Known Type of End-of-Life Phenomena Reported by Caregivers and Loved Ones". American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. Shared Crossing Research Initiative. 38 (12): 1479–1487. doi:10.1177/10499091211000045. PMID 33813876. S2CID 233027619. Retrieved 20 August 2022.