Near-death experience

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A near-death experience (NDE) is a personal experience associated with death or impending death. Such experiences may encompass a variety of sensations including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of a light.[1] NDEs are a recognized part of some transcendental and religious beliefs in an afterlife.[1][2][3][4]

Neuroscience research suggests that an NDE is a subjective phenomenon resulting from "disturbed bodily multisensory integration" that occurs during life-threatening events.[5]

Etymology[edit]

Ascent of the Blessed by Hieronymus Bosch is associated by some NDE researchers with aspects of the NDE.[6][7]

The equivalent French term expérience de mort imminente (experience of imminent death) was proposed by the French psychologist and epistemologist Victor Egger as a result of discussions in the 1890s among philosophers and psychologists concerning climbers' stories of the panoramic life review during falls.[8][9] In 1892 A series of subjective observations by workers falling from scaffolds, war soldiers who suffered injuries, climbers who had fallen from heights or other individuals who had come close to death (near drownings, accidents) was reported by Heim. This was also the first time the phenomenon was described as clinical syndrome.[10] In 1968 Celia Green published an analysis of 400 first-hand accounts of out-of-body experiences.[11] This represented the first attempt to provide a taxonomy of such experiences, viewed simply as anomalous perceptual experiences, or hallucinations. These experiences were popularized by the work of psychiatrist Raymond Moody in 1975 who coined the term "near-death experience" (NDE).[10]

Characteristics[edit]

Common elements[edit]

Researchers have identified the common elements that define near-death experiences.[3] Bruce Greyson argues that the general features of the experience include impressions of being outside one's physical body, visions of deceased relatives and religious figures, and transcendence of egotic and spatiotemporal boundaries.[12] Many common elements have been reported, although the person's interpretation of these events often corresponds with the cultural, philosophical, or religious beliefs of the person experiencing it. For example, in the USA, where 46% of the population believes in guardian angels, they will often be identified as angels or deceased loved ones (or will be unidentified), while Hindus will often identify them as messengers of the god of death.[13][14]

Common traits that have been reported by NDErs are as follows:

  • A sense/awareness of being dead.[3]
  • A sense of peace, well-being and painlessness. Positive emotions. A sense of removal from the world.[3]
  • An out-of-body experience. A perception of one's body from an outside position. Sometimes observing medical professionals performing resuscitation efforts.[3][15]
  • A "tunnel experience" or entering a darkness. A sense of moving up, or through, a passageway or staircase.[3][15]
  • A rapid movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light (or "Being of Light") which communicates with the person.[16][citation needed]
  • An intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance.[17][citation needed]
  • Encountering "Beings of Light", "Beings dressed in white", or similar. Also, the possibility of being reunited with deceased loved ones.[3][15]
  • Receiving a life review, commonly referred to as "seeing one's life flash before one's eyes".[3]
  • Receiving knowledge about one's life and the nature of the universe.[citation needed]
  • Approaching a border or a decision by oneself or others to return to one's body, often accompanied by a reluctance to return.[3][15]
  • Suddenly finding oneself back inside one's body.[18]
  • Connection to the cultural beliefs held by the individual, which seem to dictate some of the phenomena experienced in the NDE and particularly the later interpretation thereof.[13][page needed]

Stages[edit]

Kenneth Ring (1980) subdivided the NDE on a five-stage continuum. The subdivisions were:[19]

  1. Peace
  2. Body separation
  3. Entering darkness
  4. Seeing the light
  5. Entering the light

He stated that 60% experienced stage 1 (feelings of peace and contentment), but only 10% experienced stage 5 ("entering the light").[20] According to Alana Karran, the NDE stages resemble the so-called hero's journey.[21]

Clinical circumstances[edit]

Clinical circumstances associated with near-death experiences include cardiac arrest in myocardial infarction (clinical death); shock in postpartum loss of blood or in perioperative complications; septic or anaphylactic shock; electrocution; coma resulting from traumatic brain damage; intracerebral hemorrhage or cerebral infarction; attempted suicide; near-drowning or asphyxia; apnea; and serious depression.[citation needed] In contrast to common belief, Kenneth Ring argues that attempted suicides do not lead more often to unpleasant NDEs than unintended near-death situations.[22]

NDE variants[edit]

Some NDEs have elements that bear little resemblance to the "typical" near-death experience. Anywhere from one percent (according to a 1982 Gallup poll) to 20 percent of subjects may have distressing experiences and feel terrified or uneasy as various parts of the NDE occur, they visit or view dark and depressing areas or are accosted by what seem to be hostile or oppositional forces or presences.[23]

Persons having bad experiences were not marked by more religiosity or suicidal background. According to one study (Greyson 2006) there is little association between NDEs and prior psychiatric treatment, prior suicidal behavior, or family history of suicidal behavior. There was also little association between NDEs and religiosity, or prior brushes with death, suggesting the occurrence of NDEs is not influenced by psychopathology, by religious denomination or religiosity, or by experiencers' prior expectations of a pleasant dying process or continued postmortem existence.[24] Greyson (2007) also found that the long term recall of NDE incidents was stable and did not change due to embellishment over time.[25]

Greyson Bush, former Executive Director to the International Association for Near-Death Studies, holds that not all negative NDE accounts are reported by people with a religious background.[26] Suicide attempters, who should be expected to have a higher rate of psychopathology according to Greyson (1991) did not show much difference from non-suicides in the frequency of NDEs.[27]

After-effects[edit]

NDEs are associated with changes in personality and outlook on life.[3] Kenneth Ring (professor of psychology) has identified a consistent set of value and belief changes associated with people who have had a near-death experience. Among these changes one finds a greater appreciation for life, higher self-esteem, greater compassion for others, less concern for acquiring material wealth, a heightened sense of purpose and self-understanding, desire to learn, elevated spirituality, greater ecological sensitivity and planetary concern, and a feeling of being more intuitive. Changes may also include a need for being alone more often, increased physical sensitivity; diminished tolerance of light, sound, alcohol, or drugs; a feeling that the brain has been "altered" to encompass more; and a feeling that one is now using the "whole brain" rather than a small part.[3] However, not all after-effects are beneficial[28] and Greyson describes circumstances where changes in attitudes and behavior can lead to psychosocial and psychospiritual problems.[29]

Historical reports, incidence and prevalence[edit]

NDEs have been recorded since ancient times.[30] In the 19th century a few studies moved beyond individual cases - one privately done by the Mormons and one in Switzerland. Up to 2005, 95% of world cultures are known to have made some mention of NDEs.[30]

A number of more contemporary sources report incidences of near death experiences of:

  • 17% amongst critically ill patients, in nine prospective studies from 4 different countries.[31]
  • 10-20% of people who have come close to death.[10]

Research[edit]

Near-death studies[edit]

Contemporary interest in this field of study was originally spurred by the writings of Raymond Moody such as his book Life After Life, which was released in 1975, brought public attention to the topic of NDEs. This was soon to be followed by the establishment of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) in 1981. IANDS is an international organization that encourages scientific research and education on the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual nature and ramifications of near-death experiences. Among its publications are the peer-reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies and the quarterly newsletter Vital Signs.

Bruce Greyson (psychiatrist), Kenneth Ring (psychologist), and Michael Sabom (cardiologist), helped to launch the field of near-death studies and introduced the study of near-death experiences to the academic setting. From 1975 to 2005, some 2,500 self-reported individuals in the US had been reviewed in retrospective studies of the phenomena[30] with an additional 600 outside the US in the West,[30] and 70 in Asia.[30] Prospective studies, reviewing groups of individuals and then finding who had an NDE after some time and costing more to do, had identified 270 individuals.[30] In all, close to 3,500 individual cases between 1975 and 2005 had been reviewed in one or another study. All these studies were carried out by some 55 researchers or teams of researchers.[30]

Melvin Morse, head of the Institute for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, and colleagues[15][32] have investigated near-death experiences in a pediatric population.

Research scales used to classify a near-death experience[edit]

Major contributions to the field include Ring's construction of a "Weighted Core Experience Index"[33] to measure the depth of the near-death experience, and Greyson's construction of the "Near-death experience scale"[34] to differentiate between subjects that are more or less likely to have experienced an NDE.

The latter scale is also, according to its author, clinically useful in differentiating NDEs from organic brain syndromes and non-specific stress responses.[34] The NDE-scale was later found to fit the Rasch rating scale model.[35]

Research in animals[edit]

Heightened brain activity has been recorded in experimental rats directly following cardiac arrest, though there has been no similar research in humans.[36][37][38][39]

Clinical research in cardiac arrest patients[edit]

Parnia 2001 study[edit]

In 2001, Sam Parnia and colleagues published the results of a year-long study of cardiac arrest survivors that was conducted at Southampton General Hospital. 63 survivors were interviewed. They had been resuscitated after being clinically dead with no pulse, no respiration, and fixed dilated pupils. Parnia and colleagues investigated out-of-body experience claims by placing figures on suspended boards facing the ceiling, not visible from the floor. Four had experiences that, according to the study criteria, were NDEs but none of them were able to identify the figures.[40][41][42]

Psychologist Chris French wrote regarding the study "unfortunately, and somewhat atypically, none of the survivors in this sample experienced an OBE".[41]

Van Lommel's study[edit]

In 2001 Pim van Lommel, a cardiologist from the Netherlands, and his team conducted a study on NDEs including 344 cardiac arrest patients who had been successfully resuscitated in 10 Dutch hospitals. Patients not reporting NDEs were used as controls for patients who did, and psychological (e.g. fear before cardiac arrest), demographic (e.g. age, sex), medical (e.g. more than one cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)) and pharmacological data were compared between the 2 groups. The work also included a longitudinal study where the 2 groups (those who had had an NDE and those who had not had one) were compared at 2 and 8 years, for life changes. One patient had a conventional out of body experience where he reported being able to watch and recall events during the time of his cardiac arrest. His claims were confirmed by hospital personnel. “This did not appear consistent with hallucinatory or illusory experiences, as the recollections were compatible with real and verifiable rather than imagined events”.[42][43]

Awareness during Resuscitation (AWARE) study[edit]

While at University of Southampton, Parnia was the principal investigator of the AWARE Study, which was launched in 2008.[13] This study which concluded in 2012 included 33 investigators across 15 medical centers in the UK, Austria and the USA and tested consciousness, memories and awareness during cardiac arrest. The accuracy of claims of visual and auditory awareness was examined using specific tests.[44] One such test consisted in installing shelves, bearing a variety of images and facing the ceiling, hence not visible by hospital staff, in rooms where cardiac-arrest patients were more likely to occur. The results of the study were published in October 2014; both the launch and the study results were widely discussed in the media.[45][46]

A review article analyzing the results reports that, out of 2060 cardiac arrest events, 101 of 140 cardiac arrest survivors could complete the questionnaires. Of these 101 patients 9% could be classified as near death experiences. 2 more patients (2% of those completing the questionnaires) described "seeing and hearing actual events related to the period of cardiac arrest". These two patients' cardiac arrests did not occur in areas equipped with ceiling shelves hence no images could be used to objectively test for visual awareness claims. One of the two patients was too sick and the accuracy of her recount could not be verified. For the second patient instead, it was possible to verify the accuracy of the experience and to show that awareness occurred paradoxically some minutes after the heart stopped, at a time when "the brain ordinarily stops functioning and cortical activity becomes isoelectric." The experience was not compatible with an illusion, imaginary event or hallucination since visual (other than of ceiling shelves' images) and auditory awareness could be corroborated.[42]

AWARE II[edit]

As of May 2016, a posting at the UK Clinical Trials Gateway website described plans for AWARE II, a two-year multicenter observational study of 900-1500 patients experiencing cardiac arrest, which said that subject recruitment had started on 1 August 2014 and that the scheduled end date was 31 May 2017.[47]

Explanatory models[edit]

In a review article psychologist Chris French,[41] has grouped approaches to explain NDEs in three broad groups which "are not distinct and independent, but instead show considerable overlap": spiritual theories (also called transcendental), psychological theories and physiological theories that provide a physical explanation for NDEs.

Spiritual or transcendental theories[edit]

French summarizes this model by saying : "the most popular interpretation is that the NDE is exactly what it appears to be to the person having the experience".[41] The NDE would then represent evidence of the supposedly immaterial existence of a soul or mind, which would leave the body upon death. An NDE would then provide information about an immaterial world where the soul would journey upon ending its physical existence on earth.[41]

According to Greyson[10] some NDE phenomena cannot be easily explained with our current knowledge of human physiology and psychology. For instance :

  • item at a time when they were unconscious patients could accurately describe events as well as report being able to view their bodies “from an out-of-body spatial perspective”. In two different studies of patients who had survived a cardiac arrest, those who had reported leaving their bodies could describe accurately their resuscitation procedures or unexpected events, whereas others “described incorrect equipment and procedures”.[10]
  • Other patients report that while out of their bodies they saw events that they could not have witnessed even had they been conscious, because outside the range of their senses. These include reports by blind individuals, or reports of events occurring at locations too far to be visible.[10]

Out-of-body perceptions have been reported as accurate and “corroborated by independent witnesses”, hence contradicting the hypothesis that they are hallucinations. Though these consisted exclusively of “uncontrolled observations reported spontaneously after the fact”.[10]

Limitations of spiritual or transcendental theories[edit]

Five prospective studies have been carried out, to test the accuracy of out of body perceptions by placing “unusual targets in locations likely to be seen by persons having NDEs, such as in an upper corner of a room in the emergency department, the coronary care unit, or the intensive care unit of a hospital.” Twelve patients collectively reported leaving their bodies, but unfortunately none could describe the hidden visual targets. Although this is a small sample, the failure of purported out-of-body experiencers, to describe the hidden targets, raises questions about the accuracy of the anecdotal reports described above.[10]

Psychological explanations[edit]

French summarises the main psychological explanations which include: the depersonalization, the expectancy and the dissociation models.[41]

Depersonalization model[edit]

A depersonalization model was proposed in the 1970s by professor of psychiatry Russell Noyes and clinical psychologist Roy Kletti, suggested the NDE is a form of depersonalization experienced under emotional conditions such as life-threatening danger, potentially inescapable danger and that the NDE can best be understood as a fantasy based hallucination.[41][48][49][50][51]

Expectancy model[edit]

Another psychological theory is called the expectancy model. It has been suggested that although these experiences could appear very real, they had actually been constructed in the mind, either consciously or subconsciously, in response to the stress of an encounter with death (or perceived encounter with death), and did not correspond to a real event. In a way, they are similar to wish-fulfillment: because someone thought they were about to die, they experienced certain things in accordance with what they expected or wanted to occur. Imagining a heavenly place was in effect a way for them to soothe themselves through the stress of knowing that they were close to death.[41]

Dissociation model[edit]

The dissociation model proposes that NDE is a form of withdrawal to protect an individual from a stressful event. Under extreme circumstances some people may detach from certain unwanted feelings in order to avoid experiencing their emotional impact and suffering associated with them. The person also detaches from one's immediate surroundings.[41]

Birth model[edit]

The birth model suggests that near death experiences could be a form of reliving the trauma of birth. Since a baby travels from the darkness of the womb to light and is greeted by the love and warmth of the nursing and medical staff, and so, it was proposed, the dying brain could be recreating the passage through a tunnel to light, warmth and affection.[41]

Physiological explanations (organic theories)[edit]

A wide range of physiological theories of the NDE have been put forward including those based upon cerebral hypoxia, anoxia, and hypercapnia; endorphins and other neurotransmitters; and abnormal activity in the temporal lobes.[41]

Neurobiological factors in the experience have been investigated by researchers in the field of medical science and psychiatry.[52] Among the researchers and commentators who tend to emphasize a naturalistic and neurological base for the experience are the British psychologist Susan Blackmore (1993), with her "dying brain hypothesis".[53]

Malfunctions in the temporal lobe[edit]

Cognitive neuroscientist Olaf Blanke (2009),[54] from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, has published a review article presenting evidence for a brain-based explanation of near-death experiences. Neuroscientists Olaf Blanke and Sebastian Dieguez (2009) have written that NDE experiences can best be explained by different brain functions and mechanisms without recourse to the paranormal. They suggest that damage to the bilateral occipital cortex and the optic radiation may lead to visual features of NDEs such as seeing a tunnel or lights, and interference with the hippocampus may lead to emotional experiences, memory flashbacks or a life review. They concluded that future neuroscientific studies are likely to reveal the neuroanatomical basis of the NDE which will lead to the demystification of the subject.[55]

Animation of the human left temporal lobe

French has written that the "temporal lobe is almost certain to be involved in NDEs, given that both damage to and direct cortical stimulation of this area are known to produce a number of experiences corresponding to those of the NDE, including OBEs, hallucinations, and memory flashbacks".[41]

Vanhaudenhuyse et al. 2009 reported that recent studies employing deep brain stimulation and neuroimaging have demonstrated that out-of-body experiences result from a deficient multisensory integration at the temporoparietal junction and that ongoing studies aim to further identify the functional neuroanatomy of near-death experiences by means of standardized EEG recordings.[56]

Neurochemical models[edit]

Some theories hypothesize that drugs used during resuscitation induced NDEs, for example, ketamine or as resulting from endogeneous chemicals that transmit signals between brain cells, neurotransmitters:[41]

  • In the early eighties, Daniel Carr wrote that NDE has characteristics are suggestive of a limbic lobe syndrome and that the NDE can be explained by the release of endorphins and enkephalins in the brain.[57][58] Endorphins are endogenous molecules "released in times of stress and lead to a reduction in pain perception and a pleasant, even blissful, emotional state." [41] The main difference between NDEs and neurochemicals is the duration of the effect. Endorphins' injections lead to hours-long pain relief, whereas NDEs' effects are determined by the duration of the experience itself (few seconds for instance). Another difference is that endorphins do not produce transformative aftereffects, do not lead to out-of-body experiences, a life review etc., which are all components of NDEs.[30]
  • Judson and Wiltshaw (1983) noted how the administration of endorphin-blocking agents such as naloxone had been occasionally reported to produce "hellish" NDEs.[59] This would be coherent with endorphins' role in causing a "positive emotional tone of most NDEs".[41]
  • Morse et al. 1989 proposed a model arguing that serotonin played a more important role than endorphins in generating NDEs [60] "at least with respect to mystical hallucinations and OBEs".[41]
Ketamine by intravenous injection can reproduce all the features of the NDE.

Multi-factorial models[edit]

The first formal neurobiological model for NDE, included endorphins, neurotransmitters of the limbic system, the temporal lobe and other parts of the brain.[61] Extensions and variations of their model came from other scientists such as Louis Appleby (1989) and Karl Jansen (1990).[62][63]

Other authors suggest that all components of near death experiences can be explained in their entirety via psychological or neurophysiological mechanisms, although the authors admit the these hypotheses have to be tested by science.[64]

Altered blood gas levels: low oxygen levels (and G-LOC)[edit]

Low oxygen levels in the blood (hypoxia or anoxia) have been hypothesized to induce hallucinations and hence possibly explain NDEs.[13][41] This is because low oxygen levels characterize life-threatening situations and also by the apparent similarities between NDEs and G-force induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC) episodes. These episodes are observed with fighter pilots experiencing very rapid and intense acceleration that result in lack of sufficient blood supply to the brain. Whinnery[65] studied almost 1000 cases and noted how the experiences often involved "tunnel vision and bright lights, floating sensations, automatic movement, autoscopy, OBEs, not wanting to be disturbed, paralysis, vivid dreamlets of beautiful places, pleasurable sensations, psychological alterations of euphoria and dissociation, inclusion of friends and family, inclusion of prior memories and thoughts, the experience being very memorable (when it can be remembered), confabulation, and a strong urge to understand the experience."[41][65] However, hypoxia-induced acceleration's primary characteristics are "rythmic jerking of the limbs, compromised memory of events just prior to the onset of unconsciousness, tingling of extremities ..." that are not observed during NDEs.[13] Also G-LOC episodes do not feature life reviews, mystical experiences and "long-lasting transformational aftereffects", although this may be due to the fact that subjects have no expectation of dying.[41]

Altered blood gas levels[edit]

Some investigators have studied whether hypercarbia or higher than normal carbion dioxide levels, could explain the occurrence of NDEs. However, studies are difficult to interpret since NDEs have been observed both with increased levels as well as decreased levels of carbion dioxide, and finally some other studies have observed NDEs when levels had not changed, and there is little data.[13]

Other models[edit]

French said that at least some reports of NDEs might be based upon false memories.[66]

According to Engmann (2008) near-death experiences of people who are clinically dead are psychopathological symptoms caused by a severe malfunction of the brain resulting from the cessation of cerebral blood circulation.[67] An important question is whether it is possible to "translate" the bloomy experiences of the reanimated survivors into psychopathologically basic phenomena, e.g., acoasms (nonverbal auditory hallucinations), central narrowing of the visual field, autoscopia, visual hallucinations, activation of limbic and memory structures according to Moody's stages. The symptoms suppose a primary affliction of the occipital and temporal cortices under clinical death. This basis could be congruent with the thesis of pathoclisis—the inclination of special parts of the brain to be the first to be damaged in case of disease, lack of oxygen, or malnutrition—established eighty years ago by Cécile and Oskar Vogt.[68]

Professor of neurology Terence Hines (2003) claimed that near-death experiences are hallucinations caused by cerebral anoxia, drugs, or brain damage.[69] A 2006 study by Lempert et al. induced syncopes in 42 healthy subjects using cardiovascular manipulations. They found that the subjects reported NDE experiences such as seeing lights, tunnels, meeting deceased family members and visiting other worlds.[70]

Afterlife claims and skeptical responses[edit]

Some prominent researchers have provided evidence that, in their opinion, would support the transcendental model.[41] If researchers could demonstrate that the information obtained by a patient during an out of body experience (a component of an NDE) was veridical and could not be obtained by conventional means, then this would count as supportive evidence for the supposedly immaterial nature of the mind (soul).[41]

Cross-cultural aspects[edit]

Gregory Shushan published an analysis of the afterlife beliefs of five ancient civilizations (Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, Sumerian and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, Vedic India, pre-Buddhist China, and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica) and compared them with historical and contemporary reports of near-death experiences, and shamanic afterlife "journeys". Shushan found similarities across time, place, and culture that he found could not be explained by coincidence; he also found elements that were specific to cultures; Shushan concludes that some form of mutual influence between experiences of an afterlife and culture probably influence one another and that this inheritance in turn influences individual NDEs.[71]

Keith Augustine analyzed NDEs as well of studies of NDEs, and found that NDE researchers tend to ascribe different descriptions to what they perceive as similar underlying experiences; Augustine found this to be invalid. Augustine noted that some aspects of NDEs appear to culturally bound (a Christian may see Jesus, while a Hindu may see Yamaraja), that there are few elements of NDEs that are actually common within any given culture, and that the only possible universal elements across cultures is an experience of another realm and meeting other beings. Augustine also noted that studies of non-Western NDEs are few, and that the paucity of data hampers efforts to draw conclusions.[72]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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  4. ^ Vanhaudenhuyse, A.; Thonnard, M.; Laureys, S. (2009). "Towards a Neuro-scientific Explanation of Near-death Experiences?". In Vincent, Jean-Louis. Yearbook of Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine (PDF). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. ISBN 978-3-540-92276-6. 
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  21. ^ theatlantic.com
  22. ^ Ring, Kenneth. Heading toward Omega. In search of the Meaning of Near-Death Experience, 1984, p. 45. "Subsequent research on suicide-related NDEs by Stephen Franklin and myself [Ring] and by Bruce Greyson has also confirmed my earlier tentative findings the NDEs following suicide attempts, however induced, conform to the classic prototype."
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