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Frequently Asked Questions About Near-Death Experiences

1. What is a near-death experience?

Kevin Williams

A near-death experience (NDE) refers to personal experiences associated with impending death, encompassing multiple possible sensations including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of a light. These phenomena are usually reported after an individual has been pronounced clinically dead or very close to death. Many NDE reports, however, originate from events that are not life-threatening. With recent developments in cardiac resuscitation techniques, the number of reported NDEs has increased.

Although most people who have come close to death say they remember nothing, a third or more may later report that “something happened” such as an NDE. There are also many factors that can trigger an NDE.

No two NDEs are exactly identical, but within a number of experiences a pattern becomes evident. Researchers have identified the common elements that define near-death experiences. 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.

Kenneth Ring subdivided the NDE on a five-stage continuum. The subdivisions were: (Stage 1) feelings of peace and contentment, (Stage 2) body separation, (Stage 3) entering a profound darkness, (Stage 4) seeing an unearthly light, and (Stage 5) entering the light. Ring stated that 60% experienced Stage 1, but only 10% experienced Stage 5 of entering the light.

Many different elements have been reported, though the exact elements tend to correspond with the cultural, philosophical, or religious beliefs of the person experiencing it. The traits of a classic NDE are as follows

a. Feeling that the “self” has left the body and is hovering overhead. Sometimes a “silver cord” is seen connected to the body. Sometimes the person may later be able to describe who was where and what happened, sometimes in detail. Some people who were born blind can see while out of their body.

b. Moving through a dark space or tunnel and having a sense of timelessness. Sometimes the Earth can be seen from outer space.

c. Experiencing intensely powerful emotions, ranging from bliss to terror. Sometimes heavenly music is heard.

d. Encountering a light. It is usually described as golden, or white, and as being magnetic and loving; occasionally it is perceived as a reflection of the fires of hell.

e. Receiving some variant of the message, “It is not yet your time” from a heavenly being by means of mental telepathy.

f. Meeting others; may be deceased loved ones, recognized from life or not; sacred beings; pets; guides; angels; orbs; unidentified entities and/or “Beings of Light”; sometimes symbols from one’s own or other religious traditions.

g. A life review, seeing and re-experiencing major and trivial events of one’s life, sometimes from the perspective of the other people involved, and coming to some conclusion about the adequacy of that life and what changes are needed.

h. Having a sense of understanding everything, of knowing how the universe works.

i. Reaching a boundary – a cliff, fence, water, some kind of barrier that may not be crossed if one is to return to life.

j. In some cases, entering a city or library or receiving station.

k. Rarely, receiving previously unknown information about one’s life – i.e., adoption or hidden parentage, deceased siblings. Some bring back scientific discoveries. Some bring back knowledge concerning the future. Some bring back knowledge of past lives. Some bring back information concerning astrology.

l. Decision to return may be voluntary or involuntary. If voluntary, it usually associated with unfinished responsibilities.

m. Returning to life and to the body. Afterward, an increase in spirituality may be found. Often, dramatic changes within the person are discovered.

n. Some interesting facts concerning NDEs are: A group of people can die together and share the same NDE. Some NDEs have occurred when the brain is verified to be dead. NDEs have been occurring for thousands of years. They happen to people of all backgrounds: atheists, apostles, children, suicides, Buddhists, gays, Hollywood stars, Muslims, drug users, Jews, fighter pilots, psychics, alien abductees, epileptics, Christians, meditators, people having orgasms, and dreamers.

o. Most near-death experiences are pleasant, but others are deeply frightening. For additional information about frightening near-death experiences, contact IANDS (International Association for Near-Death Studies) for a special publication.

2. How many people have had this experience?

Popular interest in NDEs became widespread by Raymond Moody‘s 1975 book Life After Life and the founding of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) in 1981. The Gallup Organization and near-death research studies have estimated some 13 million adult near-death experiences in the U.S. Add children’s NDEs, and all experiences worldwide, and the figure would be much larger. Near-death experiences are uncommon, but not rare. Some commentators claim the number of near-death experiencers may be underestimated. People who have had a near-death experience may not be comfortable discussing the experience with others, especially when the NDE is understood as a paranormal incident or an experience of hell. NDEs are among the phenomena studied in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and hospital medicine.

3. Why doesn’t everybody close to death have one?

No one knows why some people do and others do not report a near-death experience under similar circumstances. Near-death experiences occur to sane and ordinary people all over the world, people of all religions, races, backgrounds, and ages.

4. What causes a near-death experience?

More than a dozen theories have been put forward to explain the near-death experience and its physical causes, but none of them singly or together fits all cases. NDEs have been described by some medical professionals in medical journals as brain anomalies such as (a) neurotransmitters flooding the dying brain, (b) hallucinations, (c) anoxia, (d) cortical dysinhibition, (e) right temporal lobe stimulation, (f) depersonalization, (g) memory of birth, (h) endorphins, (i) disassociation, (j) REM state intrusion, and even (k) Darwin’s theory of evolution. But NDE experts in the field of NDE studies have ruled out all such brain anomalies as being the cause of NDEs; even though the cause(s) of NDEs have nothing to do with the question of whether they are real afterlife experiences or not. Thus, the Afterlife Hypothesis may be the simplest explanation accounting for NDEs. Developments in quantum physics have made some brain anomaly theories of the NDE outmoded as the new physics can account for elements found in NDEs such as (a) quantum superposition, (b) non-locality, (c) a holographic universal interconnectedness, (d) the many-worlds and (e) many-minds interpretations, (f) the zero-point field, and (g) the concept of subjectivity just to name a few.

Clinical circumstances associated with NDEs 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. In contrast to common belief, Kenneth Ring argues that attempted suicides do not lead more often to unpleasant NDEs than unintended near-death situations.

The distressing aspects of some NDEs are discussed more closely by Bruce Greyson and Nancy Bush. Karlis Osis and his colleague Erlendur Haraldsson argued that the content of near death experiences does not vary by culture, except for the identity of the figures seen during the experiences.

5. This is the nuttiest thing I ever heard.

Like other things which have no rational explanation at the present time, near-death experiences may at first seem “nutty.” A near-death experience is a genuine experience – an event which one individual experiences and remembers – and it has consequences, but it cannot yet be explained in terms of what we usually think of as “normal.”

6. This sure doesn’t sound very scientific.

Individual cases of NDEs in literature have been identified into ancient times including Plato’s account of Er. In the 19th century a few efforts moved beyond studying individual cases – one privately done by Mormon pioneers and one in Switzerland. Up to 2005, 95% of world cultures have been documented making some mention of NDEs.

Modern research of NDEs have recently involved the academic discipline of neuroscience as reported from the NDEs of Dr. Eben Alexander M.D. (neurosurgeon), Dr. David Eagleman (neuroscientist), Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor (neuroanatomist), and the research of Dr. Mario Beauregard (neuroscientist). But in the past, neuroscience in general tended to ignore NDE research because brain activity scans are not typically performed when a patient is undergoing attempts at emergency resuscitation.

Existing research is mainly in the disciplines of medicine, psychology and psychiatry. Interest in this field of study was originally spurred by the writings of Jess E. Weiss (combat veteran who collected near-death testimony from soldiers in World War II), Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (psychiatrist), Dr. George Ritchie (psychiatrist), and Dr. Raymond Moody Jr. (psychologist and MD). Moody’s book Life After Life, which was released in 1975, brought much 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.

Dr. Bruce Greyson (psychiatrist), Dr. Kenneth Ring (psychologist), and Dr. 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 2500 self reported individuals in the US had been reviewed in retrospective studies of the phenomena with an additional 600 outside the US in the West, and 70 in Asia. 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. In all, close to 3500 individual cases between 1975 and 2005 had been reviewed in one or another study. And all these studies were carried out by some 55 researchers or teams of researchers.

Greyson and Ring developed statistical tools usable in clinical studies of NDEs. Major contributions to the field include Ring’s construction of a “Weighted Core Experience Index” to measure the depth of the near-death experience, and Greyson’s construction of the “Near-death experience scale” 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 nonspecific stress responses. The NDE-scale was later found to fit the Rasch rating scale model. Greyson has also brought attention to the near-death experience as a focus of clinical attention, while Melvin Morse, head of the Institute for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, and colleagues have investigated near-death experiences in a pediatric population.

Neurobiological factors in the experience have been investigated by researchers in the field of medical science and psychiatry. 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” and the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer (1998). More recently, cognitive neuroscientists Jason Braithwaite (2008) from the University of Birmingham and Sebastian Dieguez (2008) and Olaf Blanke (2009) from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland have published accounts presenting evidence for the brain-based nature of near death experiences.

In September 2008, it was announced that 25 U.K. and U.S. hospitals would examine near-death studies in 1,500 heart attack patient-survivors. The three-year study, coordinated by Sam Parnia at Southampton University, hopes to determine if people without heartbeat or brain activity can have an out-of-body experience with veridical visual perceptions. This study follows on from an earlier 18-month pilot project. On a July 28, 2010 interview about a recent lecture at Goldsmiths, Parnia (internal medicine physician by training with specialty in pulmonology, critical care, and sleep medicine) asserts that “evidence is now suggesting that mental and cognitive processes may continue for a period of time after a death has started” and describes the process of death as “essentially a global stroke of the brain. Therefore like any stroke process one would not expect the entity of mind / consciousness to be lost immediately”. He also expresses his disagreement with the term “near death experiences” because “the patients that we study are not near death, they have actually died and moreover it conjures up a lot of imprecise scientific notions, due to the fact that [death] itself is a very imprecise term”.

The top peer-reviewed journals in neuroscience, such as Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Brain Research Reviews, Biological Psychiatry, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience are generally not publishing research on NDEs. Among the scientific and academic journals that have published, or are regularly publishing, new research on the subject of NDEs are Journal of Near-Death Studies, Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, British Journal of Psychology, American Journal of Disease of Children, Resuscitation, The Lancet, Death Studies, and the Journal of Advanced Nursing. Some researchers have complained about the resistance of the scientific establishment to the implications of NDEs.

The first clinical study of NDEs in cardiac arrest patients was conducted by Pim van Lommel, a cardiologist from the Netherlands, and his team ( The Lancet, 2001). Of 344 patients who were successfully resuscitated after suffering cardiac arrest, 62 (18%) expressed an intraoperative memory and among these, 41 (12%) experienced core NDEs, which included out-of-body experiences. The patients remembered details of their conditions during their cardiac arrest despite being clinically dead with flatlined brain stem activity. Van Lommel concluded his findings supports the theory of consciousness continuing despite lack of neuronal activity in the brain. Van Lommel hypothesized how continuity of consciousness may be achievable if the brain acts as a receiver filtering the cosmic information bombarding it in a process where memories and other conscious information are stored just as radio, television and internet information existed independently of the instruments receiving it.

Van Lommel et al., reported that 62 of the 344 patients with cardiac arrest reported some recollection. Of these 62, 50% reported an awareness or sense of being dead, 24% said that they had had an out-of-body experience, 31% recalled moving through a tunnel, whilst 32% described meeting with deceased people. Moreover, while near-death experiencers commonly report feelings of peace and bliss, only 56% associated the experience with such positive emotions. No patients reported a distressing or frightening NDE.

7. Don’t near-death experiences prove that there is life after death?

Certainly this is a very popular interpretation, although there is no “proof” in a statistical sense and no consensus on what this may mean. A more cautious expression is that near-death experiences suggest that some aspect of human consciousness may continue after physical death. At this time, no one can demonstrate whether this is true. However, there is a “mountain” of scientific evidence suggestive of consciousness surviving bodily death include: (a) verified out-of-body perception suggestive of mind-body dualism, (b) NDE perception of people born blind, (c) the vivid retaining of NDE memories which are not possible with brain anomalies, (d) the dramatic after-effects resulting from NDEs which do not occur with brain anomalies, (e) unbiased young children having the same experience as adults, (f) scientific discoveries resulting from NDEs, (g) verified visions of the future given to experiencers, (h) their absolute conviction of their NDE being a real afterlife experience, plus the many supporting scientific fields of discovery such as (i) consciousness research, (j) deathbed visions, (k) dream research, (l) out-of-body research, (m) after-death communications research, (n) reincarnation research, (o) hypnotic regression, and (p) remote viewing. Note that this is an incomplete list.

8. Are the people who have near-death experiences very religious?

People who report near-death experiences are no better or worse – and no more or less religious – than in any other cross-section of the population. They come from many religious backgrounds and from the ranks of agnostics and even atheists. The experience seems more closely related to a person’s life afterwards than to what it was before.

9. How do people react when they come back?

A person who has just had a near-death experience probably has very mixed feelings. One person may express anger or grief at being resuscitated; another struggles to stay awake. Other typical reactions:

a. Fear that the near-death experience was a psychotic episode.

b. Disorientation because reality has shifted.

c. Euphoria, feeling special or “chosen.”

d. Withdraw to ponder the experience.

10. Does a near-death experience really change a person’s life?

Almost every near-death experiencer reports a changed understanding of what life is all about. The changes may be numerous and almost impossible to describe or explain.

Besides losing the fear of death, a person may also lose interest in financial or career success. “Getting ahead” may seem like an odd game that the person chooses not to play any more, even if it means giving up friendships. This can be hard on some families.

Becoming more loving is important to most near-death experiencers, though they may have difficulty explaining what they mean by that. They may seem to love everyone indiscriminately, with no personal favorites.

Religious observance may increase or lessen, but a deepened belief in God, or a “Higher Power,” is almost certain. People say, “Before, I believed; now I know.”

Some people find they have an increase in intuitive or psychic abilities. This is a common stage in Christian, Jewish, and other major religious traditions when an individual spends much time in deep prayer and meditation. If this becomes a problem, the IANDS office can suggest a source of information.

11. I had one of these experiences, but no one told me I was in danger. Was my doctor lying to me?

Probably not. The “near-death experience” was named in 1975 by Dr. Raymond Moody to describe the clinical death experiences of the people in his book, Life After Life. However, although being close to death is a reliable “trigger“, identical experiences happen under very different circumstances, even to people who are in no way ill. The best known are the experiences of saints and religious mystics. Deep prayer, meditation, and even mirror-gazing can produce events like near-death experiences, as can other kinds of altered states of consciousness.

12. When my mother was dying, we thought she was hallucinating, but what she described sounds like a near-death experience. Could this be true?

People who are dying often mention seeing a wonderful light or a landscape they want to enter. They may talk with people who are invisible to everyone else, or they may look radiant and at peace. Read the book by Maggie Callahan, Final Gifts, for more about “Deathbed visions.”

13. What if I have had a near-death experience?

You are not alone, and you have not lost your mind. A near-death experience is an extraordinary experience, but it happens to normal people.

You may want to tell the world about your near-death experience, or you may want to think about it, possibly for a long time, before trying to say anything. You will probably feel frustrated trying to find words to describe it, and fearful that no one else will understand. If you have difficulty with aftereffects, try reading P.M.H. Atwater‘s books, Coming Back to Life, or Beyond the Light.

When you first decide to talk about the experience, choose a person who is a good listener, someone with whom you are comfortable. Should they have difficulty with the idea, reading Dr. Raymond Moody‘s book, Life After Life, may help them feel more comfortable with near-death experiences. If you want to talk with another near-death experiencer, or someone who will not need too many explanations, contact IANDS for the name of someone reliable.

14. What if someone I know has had a near-death experience?

It is as if the other person has returned from a country you have never visited and cannot even imagine. The best thing you can do is listen. Simply being with the person and letting him talk will be more helpful than you may think; you are not expected to have answers or opinions. There are many interpretations of near-death experiences, and only the individual can decide the meaning of his/her particular experience.

A near-death experience is not a psychotic episode, but its effects are often powerful. Some people adjust easily afterwards, while others find the experience deeply troubling or are unable to get on with daily life. In these cases, professional help may be needed for the person to get back on track. If you need help finding a qualified therapist, IANDS may be able to suggest ways of finding someone trustworthy.

15. Where can I get more information?

Read the testimonies of the many near-death experiences and visit the IANDS website. A listing of books available on the subject is also available. Check your local library, or bookstore, for the title of autobiographical accounts of near-death experiences as well as for other book titles. Also, look for magazine articles.

There are IANDS-affiliated groups all over the world that meet regularly to offer information and support about near-death experiences, with more groups forming. Some are open to near-death experiencers only; others welcome the public. Ask the IANDS office whether there is a group near you. For members living where there is no group, IANDS networking service connects near-death experiencers and people with similar interests.