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Dr. Kenneth Ring’s Near-Death Experience Research

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Kenneth Ring (born 1935) (www.kenring.org) is Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut, and a highly-regarded researcher within the field of near-death studies. Dr. Ring is the co-founder and past president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and is the founding editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. In 1977, Kenneth Ring, a brilliant young professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, read Raymond Moody‘s book, Life After Life, and was inspired by it. However, he felt that a more scientifically structured study would strengthen Moody’s findings. He sought out 102 near-death survivors for his research. The following article documents some of Ken Ring’s basic insights based on his meticulous research. Dr. Ring’s research also involves the groundbreaking work of investigating near-death experiences among blind persons. His findings are detailed in his latest book Mindsight (1999) which is bound to become a classic in the annals of near-death research much like his previous books, Waiting to Die (2019), Letters From Palestine (2010), Lessons From The Light (2000), The Omega Project (1992), Heading Toward Omega (1984), and Life At Death (1980). Visit Ken Ring’s Amazon Author Page for more books by Ken Ring. Dr. Ring researched NDEs that involve the experiencer witnessing events while out of their body which is later proven to have taken place. Ken has also researched NDEs that affirms reincarnation. Ken has also examined NDEs among those who attempted suicide. During his extensive research, Ken was also able to examine NDEs where the future was foretold.

1. About Ken Ring and His Research

Kenneth Ring

In the Foreword of Dr. Ring’s book Lessons From The Light, NDE expert Bruce Greyson had this to say about Dr. Ring:

“If any one person can claim to be an authority on near-death experiences (NDEs) without having had one, that person must surely be Kenneth Ring. After Raymond Moody sowed the seeds of modern near-death research by coining the term ‘NDE’ in his 1975 ‘Life After Life,’ it was Ken who watered and nurtured them till they grew into a self-sustaining phenomenon. It was Ken who was the first president of that band of scattered researchers who formed the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) 20 years ago. It was Ken’s office at the University of Connecticut that housed the organizations volunteers, phones, and growing archives for its precarious first decade. And it was Ken who founded the only scholarly journal for near-death studies and organized symposium on NDEs at annual meetings of mainstream academic societies.

“If anyone has interviewed more NDErs than Ken – and I don’t know that anyone has – then surely no one has done it with the depth, open-mindedness, and insight as he. For many years, Ken’s home was known to experiencers across the country as ‘The Near-Death Hotel,’ where itinerant NDErs trying to rediscover their place in this world could and did ‘drop by’ and end up staying however long it took. And each one to whom Ken opened his home in return opened his or her heart and added to Ken’s growing comprehension of the true essence of the NDE. No other researcher has been able to meld the large-scale controlled study with the passionate friendships, the philosophical theories with the intuitive understandings, the command of the scholarly literature with the personal stories. And more importantly, no other researcher has been able to transmit to the rest of us the true meaning and impact of near-death phenomena for our planet.”

2. Ken Ring’s NDE Study

The following are Ken Ring’s research conclusions from his Connecticut Study.

(1) Those cases who came closest to death, or were clinically dead, just as Moody’s cases reported, told of being outside of their bodies, of moving through a void or dark tunnel toward a luminous light, of meeting with departed relatives and friends, of having a feeling of great comfort and bliss and of being surrounded by compassionate love, a feeling so beautiful they longed to remain, and when they returned to the “earthly” realm, they were affected by this feeling the rest of their lives.

(2) No one type of person was especially likely to have this experience. It cut across race, gender, age, education, marital status, and social class.

(3) Religious orientation was not a factor affecting either the likelihood or the depth of the NDE. An atheist was as likely to have one as was a devoutly religious person.

(4) Regardless of their prior attitudes – whether skeptical or deeply religious – and regardless of the many variations in religious beliefs and degrees of skepticism from tolerant disbelief to outspoken atheism – most of these people were convinced that they had been in the presence of some supreme and loving power and had a glimpse of a life yet to come.

(5) Drugs, anesthesia and medication did not seem to be a factor in inducing these impressions and exquisite feelings of an NDE. Indeed, drugs and anesthesia seemed to be more likely to cause a person to forget memories of an NDE.

(6) He definitely concluded that NDEs are not hallucinations because hallucinations are rambling, unconnected, often unintelligible and vary widely, whereas NDEs tend to have similar elements of a clear, connected pattern.

(7) Based on the information of those who had reported such incidents, the moment of death was often one of unparalleled beauty, peace and comfort – a feeling of total love and total acceptance. This was possible even for those involved in horrible accidents in which they suffered very serious injuries. Dr. Ring found there was a tremendous comfort potential in this information for people who were facing death.

(8) After going through an NDE, people reported a loss of fear of death as well as a greater appreciation of life. They also reported stronger feelings of self-acceptance and a greater concern and sense of caring for other people. They had less interest in material things for their own sake. Many tended to become more spiritual – though not necessarily more involved in organized religion.

(9) Almost all subjects who experienced an NDE found their lives transformed and a change in their attitudes and values, and in their inclination to love and to help others. Dr. Ring was convinced that these were absolutely authentic experiences and noted that since returning, many of them had occasion to think about ‘what might have been.’ And their subsequent lives were powerful testimony to our common ability to live more deeply, more appreciatively, more lovingly, and more spiritually.

3. Ken Ring Applies the Holographic Paradigm to NDEs

In Chapter 12 of Dr. Ring’s book, Life At Death, “Beyond the Body: A Parapsychological-Holographic Explanation of the Near-Death Experience,” Dr. Ring applies the current holographic paradigm in quantum physics to near-death experiences. The current holographic paradigm uses the Holographic Principle to describe the universe – and everything within it as a hologram with every point within the hologram intimately connected to every other point within the hologram which is the current “Theory of Everything” involving String Theory. The Holographic Principle, developed by physicist Leonard Susskind, corresponds with David Bohm and Karl Pribram‘s Holonomic Brain Theory which theoretically describes the brain as functioning like a hologram. A holographic brain functioning as a hologram and storing memory as a hologram within a holographic universe and reality, would perfectly solve many scientific materialist problems of accepting various “paranormal” aspects of near-death experiences. Indeed, the bizarre “paranormal” qualities of near-death experiences correspond to the bizarre “paranormal” qualities found in quantum mechanics which has falsified classical physics as far as (1) locality, (2) causality, (3) continuity, (4) determinism, and (5) certainty in the last century by the modern science of quantum electrodynamics. The following is an excerpt (pages 246-252) of Chapter 12 where Dr. Ring defines the NDE “world of light” in terms of the holographic paradigm and the conclusions he draws from it.

The World of Light

The last stage of the core experience seems to fulfill the promise implied by the encounter with the brilliant golden light. Here one appears to move through that light and into a “world of light.” At this point, the individual perceives a realm of surpassing beauty and splendor and is sometimes aware of the “spirits” of deceased relatives or loved ones.

What is This World?

In holographic terms, it is another frequency domain – a realm of “higher” frequencies. Consciousness continues to function holographically so that it interprets these frequencies in object terms. Thus, another “world of appearances” (just as the physical world, according to holographic theory, is a world of appearances) is constructed. At the same time, this world of appearances is fully “real” (just as our physical world is real); it is just that reality is relative to one’s state of consciousness.

In esoteric terms, this is the – or one – level of the so-called astral plane. As I have already mentioned, the esoteric literature is replete with descriptions of this world of light.

If one reads the literature that purports to describe this realm or if one simply rereads the accounts of stage V (entering the Light) provided by our respondents (or some of Moody’s in Reflections on Life After Life), one quickly forms the impression that everything in this world is immeasurably enhanced in beauty compared to the things of our physical world. That is why it is often characterized as a world of “higher vibrations.”

That such talk isn’t mere metaphor was suggested by the comment of one of our respondents, who, in attempting to describe the music of this realm, likened it to “a combination of vibrations … many vibrations.” Of course, music does consist of vibrations, but it isn’t ordinarily spoken of in that way. Such observations again hint that those near-death survivors who reach this stage are responding directly to a frequency (vibratory) domain of holographic reality.

But in just what sense is this realm a holographic domain? Just where do the landscapes, the flowers, the physical structures, and so forth come from? In what sense are they “real”?

I have one speculative answer to these questions to offer – a holographic interpretation of the astral plane. I believe that this is a realm that is created by interacting thought structures. These structures or “thought-forms” combine to form patterns, just as interference waves form patterns on a holographic plate. And just as the holographic image appears to be fully real when illuminated by a laser beam, so the images produced by interacting thought-forms appear to be real.

There might appear to be a serious imperfection in this holographic analogy: The pattern produced on the physical holographic plate is, after all, only a meaningless swirl. It only becomes coherent when a coherent beam of light (that is, a laser) is used to illuminate the swirl. What, then, is the equivalent of the laser in the stage V realm?

The logic of my speculation seemingly leads to a single conclusion: It is the mind itself. If the brain functions holographically to give us our picture of physical reality, then the mind must function similarly when the physical brain can no longer do so. Of course, it would be much simpler if one merely assumed, as some brain researchers (for example, Sir John Eccles and Wilder Penfield) appear to have done, that the mind works through the brain during physical life but is not reducible to brain function. If the mind can be supposed to exist independent of the brain, it could presumably function holographically without a brain. If one is not willing to grant this assumption, one would seem forced to postulate a non-physical brain of some kind that operates on this “astral” level. At this point, we would have passed over the limit of tolerable speculation. In my view, it is preferable merely to assume that sensory-like impressions at this level are functionally organized in a way similar to sensory impressions of the physical world, that is, holographically.

If we can assume this (leaving the question of the “mechanism” open), then the attributes of stage V would fall neatly into place. Since individual minds “create” this world (out of thoughts and images), this reality reflects, to a degree, the “thought-structures” of individuals used to the world of physical reality. Thus, the “forms” of the stage V world are similar to those of the physical world. However, since this is a realm that is also (presumably) composed of minds that are more clearly attuned or accustomed to this higher frequency domain, those minds can shape the impressions of the “newly arrived.” The holographic result – an interaction of these thought patterns – thus tends to create a “higher gloss” to the perceived forms of this realm – that is, they are experienced in an enhanced way. One is tempted to say that what is seen is, at least at first, largely determined by preexisting schemata of near-death survivors, but that how (finely or beautifully) it appears is influenced primarily by minds used to that frequency domain.

The gist of this speculative holographic interpretation, then, is that “the world of light” is indeed a mind-created world fashioned of interacting (or interfering) thought patterns. Nevertheless, that world is fully as real-seeming as is our physical world. Presumably – and this is an admitted and obvious extrapolation – as one becomes increasingly accustomed to this holographic domain and to “how it works,” the correspondences between the physical world and this realm grow increasingly tenuous. Eventually one would suppose that an individual’s consciousness would become anchored in the four-dimensional reality of the holographic domain and the familiar structures of our world would be radically changed there in ways we can only surmise.

The holographic interpretation can obviously also be used to account for the perception of “spirit-forms,” a common feature of stage V experiences and deathbed visions. Just as object-forms are, theoretically, from a holographic point of view, a function of interacting mind patterns, so, too, are encounters with “persons” in “spirit bodies.” Such “entities” are, then, the product of interacting minds attuned to a holographic domain in which thought alone fashions reality. The fact that communication between the near-death survivor and the “spiritform” is usually said to be telepathic in nature again points to a world of existence where thought is king. From this angle, one can easily see that the manifestations in this high order of reality could easily transcend the forms of our sensory world. As individuals whose consciousnesses are rooted in the natural world, we can only speculate on the levels of mind that may be able to influence perceptions in the frequency domain associated with stage V experiences.

Before concluding our discussion of this domain, we must return to an issue we raised but did not resolve earlier: the matter of hell.

Stage V experiences, as we have seen, are almost always described in terms of paradisical imagery; the individual appears to enter a world of incomparable delight. Yet, in discussing Rawlings‘s work, we saw evidence that near-death survivors sometimes have hellish experiences. The bulk of the evidence plus the methodological shortcomings and tendentiousness of Rawlings’s research led us to conclude that such experiences are probably very much rarer than Rawlings himself claims, but that they sometimes do occur.

The question is how to account for them.

Rawlings’s own interpretation is that hellish experiences simply reflect a lack of a personal commitment to Christ. In this respect they serve as a warning of the ultimate consequences of failing to make such a commitment.

Without wishing to get entangled in theological issues, I must confess that I find this interpretation too simplistically doctrinaire for my taste. But quite apart from my personal opinion, even some of Rawlings’s own evidence fails to square with his interpretation. For example, Rawlings cites the case of one man, described as “a staunch Christian, the founder of a Sunday school, and a lifelong supporter of the church,” who had multiple near-death experiences, the first of which was hellish while the remaining two conformed to the Moody pattern. That kind of variation is not explicable on the basis of Rawlings’s interpretation. Neither is the fact that, according to Osis and Haraldsson’s cross-cultural research, Hindus have very much the same kind of paradisical (or stage V) deathbed visions as do Christians.

My own interpretation, naturally, is quite different. Rawlings is not the only investigator to find evidence of an occasional near-death experiential sequence that begins unpleasantly and ends well. Robert Crookall has also described this sequence (sometimes, however, in connection with out-of-body experiences only) and so has Moody. In addition, George Ritchie has recounted a detailed personal example of this kind. The sequence, in fact, when it is reported, always seems to be from “bad to good.” My interpretation of hellish near-death experiences is predicated on this particular sequence.

In my view, what is happening in these cases is that the individual is “passing through” a lower frequency domain (although he may occasionally – temporarily – “get stuck” there). This domain is also a holographic reality and is organized in precisely the same way as the paradisical realm we have already considered. The principal difference is in the nature of the minds that are interacting to create this reality.

Even if this kind of interpretation is correct, however, there would still seem to be a problem. Why is this domain so rarely reported compared to the paradisical realm? One proposal has it that the tunnel phenomenon serves as a shield to protect the individual from an awareness of this domain. It will be recalled that the tunnel effect itself was interpreted as representing a shift in consciousness from one level to another. Functionally, this state of affairs can be compared to a traveler riding a subway underneath the slums of a city: the subway tunnel prevents him ever being directly aware of his surroundings although the slums are there. Instead, like the typical near-death survivor, he begins his trip in darkness and emerges into the light.

That this is no mere fanciful analogy is suggested by one of Moody’s cases. One woman, who was believed to be “dead” for fifteen minutes, reported that during one stage of her experience she became aware of what Moody calls a “realm of bewildered spirits.” In describing this realm she says that:

“…what I saw was after I left the physical hospital. As I said, I felt I rose upward and it was in between, it was before I actually entered this tunnel . . . and before I entered the spiritual world where there is so much brilliant sunshine that I saw these bewildered spirits”

In my opinion, then, the near-death survivor is usually kept from having a direct awareness of this realm, just as, for perhaps different reasons, he usually has no recall for his “return trip.” Hell may exist as a “lower frequency domain,” but most near-death survivors never seem to encounter it and, if they do, only a tiny fraction seem to “get stranded” there. What may happen after the initial stages of death – something this research cannot speak to—remains an open question.

4. Conclusions

So much for the interpretation of the core experience. Since I have taken up so much space in presenting my parapsychological-holographic formulation, I will make only a few brief comments here before concluding this chapter.

First of all, by no means do I want to leave the impression that I feel that I have totally “explained” the core experience in a theoretically satisfactory way. There are many loose threads still lying about, as any perceptive reader undoubtedly will have noticed. For example, the whole question of whether the core experience is really in the nature of a “stored program” that is released at the point of death (or perhaps in other ways), as Stanislav Grof and Joan Halifax have proposed, was never resolved. The relevance of the possible neurological basis of near-death experiences is likewise still largely an uncharted territory. I can only hope that my discussion of such issues and my own interpretation will motivate other researchers to probe these matters more deeply.

Of course, it is at this point an unanswerable question whether the mysteries of the near-death experience can ever be fully understood through scientific investigation alone. Such experiences may well have an infrangible or nonphysical quality that will prevent us from providing a truly comprehensive scientific accounting of them. Try as we may (and I believe, should) to articulate such an understanding, it may finally prove to be the case that science can take us only so far in shaping that understanding.

These observations bring us, finally, to the role of religious and spiritual concepts in the interpretative matrix of the near-death experience. It is obvious that my own interpretation, though I tried to keep it grounded in scientific theory and research, occasionally was forced to stray into the spiritual realm. I confess that I did so with considerable intellectual reluctance, but also with a sense that it would have been intellectually cowardly to avoid doing so. In my opinion – and I could be wrong – there is simply no way to deal with the interpretative problems raised by these experiences without confronting the spiritual realm. Indeed, Pribram himself says, in a passage already quoted, that:

“Spiritual insights fit the description of this [holographic] domain. They’re made perfectly plausible by the invention of the hologram.”

In my view, not only plausible but necessary. In the paradigm shift (which I have previously alluded to) that seems to be leading to a recognition of the primary role of consciousness, the world of modern physics and the spiritual world seem to reflect a single reality. If this is true, no scientific account of any phenomenon can be complete without taking its spiritual aspect into account.

This position, of course, is hardly new. It has been espoused in one form or another, not only by mystics, but by large numbers of influential scientists and intellectuals as well. I could list many names of well-known men and women to buttress this point, but instead let me conclude simply by quoting the most eminent scientist of our century. To me, his attitude suggests not only the proper spirit in which to approach the study of near-death experiences but also its likely effect on the world view of those who do explore them.

Perhaps it is ironically fitting that Albert Einstein himself did not believe in life after death, but his words nevertheless speak to the emotions kindled by familiarity – either direct or vicarious – with the near-death experience itself:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. This insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.”