Can There Be a Science of Near-Death Experiences?
A science paper catalogs near-death experiences. But can science boldly go where no one has ever gone before?
Perhaps you’ve heard of near-death experiences: visions of lights, tunnels, out-of-body experiences and other tales coming from people who were pronounced clinically dead—usually after cardiac arrest—but were resuscitated. The stories are intriguing, but what is to be made of them? Can science deal with them? Can they be a basis for beliefs about the afterlife?
A new paper appeared on the topic in PLoS One, an open-access journal where anyone can read the whole paper. In “Qualitative thematic analysis of the phenomenology of near-death experiences,” nine scientists collected 34 narratives from people who survived cardiac arrest. Since this was a “qualitative” study, they could only list and count similarities between them (obviously, there is no ‘quantitative’ study or test about experiences beyond death).
Without adequate precautions, people might get excited about these stories and ascribe too much validity to them. Some are pleasant; others are not. Some felt great peace and light; others, visions of horror. Some saw themselves drifting over their hospital beds, looking down at their bodies; others had a sense of walking through a long tunnel. Some were ‘told’ they had to go back; others felt they were yanked back. What is science to make of these stories? Science can be very good at counting and statistics, but validating the internal experiences of people is impossible for science. People feel they ‘know’ what they experienced. Science can’t compare one person’s experience to another’s and say one is more valid than the other. All a scientist can do is count similarities and differences. For 34 accounts (11 female), here are the statistics for the 10 ‘time bounded themes’ collected in the 34 ‘NDErs’ (near-death experiencers):
Light: Considering all narratives, 25 NDErs mentioned seeing a light. This light was attached to a feeling of attractiveness for 10 NDErs. 2 NDErs felt enveloped in this light. The description of the light comprised the following characteristics: intense (n = 16), white (n = 15), indescribable/unusual (n = 5), soft and diffuse (n = 3), not dazzling (n = 3), and yellow (n = 1). The physical sensations reported during this experience were an absence of body (n = 3) and an absence of pain (n = 1). NDErs expressed a feeling of happiness, serenity and tranquility (n = 15). The origin of the light was at the end of a tunnel or a corridor (n = 9), diffused (it came from everywhere; n = 7), or from an unknown origin (n = 1).
Return: 19 NDErs detailed the moment they got back from the NDE. 5 NDErs received a message that compelled them to get out of the experience. 4 of them reported being expelled or ejected from the experience. Getting back from the NDE was associated with an intense sleep (n = 2) or with a state of confusion (n = 2). 1 NDEr mentioned he had woken up after a period of dark night and 3 others characterized the return as brutal, without transition. 2 narratives included the idea of being brought back into the body. 2 NDErs did not remember how it happened. 1 NDEr attempted to live the experience again (which ended up in failure) and 12 NDErs mentioned an opposition between the feeling of well-being during the NDE and the problems they encountered when they got back to “everyday life”.
Meeting/encounter: A meeting with other beings (human or imaginary) was described in 15 narratives. The environment in which this meeting happened varied: a landscape (n = 1), a waiting queue (n = 1), an office (n = 1), in a light (n = 4), during a walk (n = 1), and on a river (n = 1). The message/the content of the interaction was mostly about getting back to life (n = 7). The type of interaction with the being also varied: unilateral message (only one being communicates towards the other; n = 4), telepathy (n = 4), or dialogue (n = 3). NDErs mainly saw their interlocutor (n = 11), however, others described the sensation of a presence (n = 2). The meeting happened with human beings that were unknown to the individual, relatives, family members (deceased (n = 8) or not (= 3)), and non-human beings. This experience was accompanied by a feeling of well-being (n = 4), an absence of pain (n = 3), fear (n = 2), unbearable sadness (n = 2), pain (n = 1), and confidence (n = 1).
Hyperlucidity: 14 NDErs reported a feeling of power and extreme lucidity. Hyperlucidity was associated with absolute clarity/understanding (n = 3), the feeling of being a genius (n = 2), clear and quick wit (n = 2), or exceptional intelligence (n = 1). This experience was in some cases accompanied by a physical release (n = 4). 5 NDErs described this experience as being accompanied by a sense of power and omniscience: direct control over the thoughts of others (n = 2), omnipotence (n = 2), or having an answer to everything (n = 1). 3 NDErs linked this supreme intelligence to the fact of being united with everything that surrounded them, to the global and universal character of this theme. This experience was associated with a feeling of well-being (n = 6), a lack of physical pain (n = 4), astonishment (n = 4), and an inability to describe the feeling (n = 1).
Description of scenes: 14 NDErs provided a detailed description of the setting in which they were immersed. 6 NDErs highlighted the indescribable aspect of the place (i.e., they showed difficulties in finding words). 4 NDErs evoked the idea of nature (e.g., vast meadow). This experience was accompanied by an intense feeling of well-being (n = 10), a feeling of infinity (n = 5), a lack of pain (n = 4), astonishment (n = 3), and fear (n = 1).
Darkness: 13 NDErs mentioned the idea of “black” or “dark”. They described a gloomy/dark environment with no objects or way out. For several NDErs (n = 7), this darkness occurred in contrast to or following a bright environment. More specifically, NDErs mentioned an absolute darkness (n = 7), a gloomy environment (n = 5), a gloomy tunnel (n = 2), a period of dark night (n = 1), and a waiting room with no walls (n = 1). 2 NDErs described an idea of movement (i.e., passing through a dark night). This experience was associated with the absence or the presence of sound (respectively n = 2 and n = 1), and the absence of sight (n = 2). This theme was linked to varied emotions: fear (n = 1), calmness (n = 1), and amazement (n = 1).
Out-of-body experience: 12 NDErs reported leaving their body. NDErs “saw” themselves (i.e., observer’s perspective). 4 NDErs evoked the awareness of being out of their bodies. A detailed visual description of the emergency situation was reported by 9 NDErs. 6 of them reported observing the scene from a higher position (positioned above). 3 of them reported having felt a real detachment of their body and 1 expressed the feeling of reintegrating his body. 2 NDErs said they wanted to communicate with the people they were observing, in vain. This experience was accompanied by an absence of pain (n = 3), thirst (n = 1), extreme cold (n = 1), and body perception (n = 1). The experience was also accompanied by a feeling of well-being (n = 7), amazement (n = 3), exasperation (n = 1), and rejection of the observed body (n = 1).
Awareness of death: 9 NDErs stated being aware that they were dying.
Life events: 8 NDErs out of 34 described a past or future life event. During these visions, NDErs perceived different moments of their past or future lives. Life was reviewed (n = 5) or relived (n = 2). The vision referred to the future life (n = 1) or, in the majority of cases, to the past life (n = 6). 3 NDErs stated that life passages comprised an alternation between happy and unhappy moments. These passages were imposed (n = 2) or selected (n = 1). This life review was associated with curiosity or surprise (n = 3), happiness (n = 2), difficulties in reviewing (n = 2), or with a feeling of indifference (n = 1).
Entrance in the NDE: 6 NDErs detailed the moment they entered the NDE. For 3 of them, the entrance was progressive and soft. For 2 others, the entrance followed a period of dark night. Another NDEr wrote he did not know how it all started.
In addition, most of the study participants mentioned a feeling of “transversal of time” where time seemed to go slow, or else the NDEr felt a complete loss of the sensation of time. Obviously, though, the experiences show very little commonalities, and are about as unique as the personalities and worldviews of the individuals.
That’s about all science can do: listen, describe, and count (and remember, this is a very small sample compared to the number of people who die around the world each day). Validating the stories, judging the stories, or glimpsing the nature of the afterlife are outside the bounds of the scientific method. It’s possible that some of the voices heard or people sensed were glimpses of doctors in the operating room trying to revive them. The feeling of ‘peace’ could be just the satisfaction of being in a state of physical rest. Even if a majority were to describe peace and light, that could be a physiological response to the brain being cut off from the senses – not empirical evidence of what’s on ‘the other side’ of death.
There are two things Bible believers should note about NDEs.
First, the stories could be purely physiological. The brain is a very complex organ with a huge memory. In certain states, such as sleep, all kinds of weird things can be imagined, drawing on memories but also creating new worlds in the imagination by combining memories with possibilities. They can seem so convincingly real during sleep, that waking up to reality can be quite shocking. We all know that. And dreams often have common elements: the feeling of falling, the shame at being found naked in public, sexual fantasies, a feeling of being trapped, etc. I remember one time dreaming that I was drowning and couldn’t reach the surface in time. It was so realistic I woke up with a jolt, gasping for breath. I’ve dreamt of swimming in the air over people’s heads, like it was a commonplace skill. Dreams can be repeated, too: several times, my mind has returned to a particular hiking trail in the mountains I remembered in previous dreams, but during the dream, it felt so real and visually rich I could swear I could find it on a map after waking up, only to realize it was purely fictional. We see lost loved ones in our dreams. Artists and musicians have created new works in their dreams, and when lucky enough, can remember them to bring them to reality. For our mental health, dreams are apparently vital for refreshing the brain during sleep, allowing the memory to collate the day’s experiences with past memories and make room for new ones (see Medical Xpress about the “Sleep Homeostasis Hypothesis”).
Second, the stories could have a spiritual reality to them. The problem is that they are untrustworthy. Satan and his minions can deceive people before they are fully dead into thinking that the other side is all bright and happy, when judgment is waiting around the corner. That could explain a lot of the pleasant experiences that non-Christian NDErs come back with. Some claim to see Jesus welcoming them, but how do they know it is not Satan masquerading as an angel of light, as Paul warned in II Corinthians 11:14? Satan knows just how to put on a good act, too, because he was ‘Lucifer’ (the light bearer) before he sinned. Why would he do this? Naturally, it’s a great propaganda tool for him, to keep people from trusting in God. And yet other people express feelings of terror and dread on their deathbeds, screaming out in agony as their lives slip away.
True, God has revealed himself through dreams in the past (e.g., Jacob, Joseph, Daniel, Paul), but now with Christ the Logos having come, having inspired the writers of the New Testament, we have the complete and sufficient Word of God as our revelation (Hebrews 1:1-2), and the ending command not to add to or subtract from His Word (Revelation 22:18-19). No experience should be allowed to contradict what God has already revealed. We may not have exhaustive knowledge of the afterlife, but we have the necessary and sufficient knowledge from God’s word, which is forever settled in heaven (Psalm 119:89, and all of Psalm 119). Who needs NDEs?
People tend to latch onto the near-death stories they prefer. Unbelievers take false comfort in ‘happy’ NDEs, thinking they must be OK in their sin. Some Christians fall into the trap of believing the stories of NDErs who supposedly went to heaven, talked with Jesus, and came back. They also tend to believe the horror stories of sinners getting their first glimpse of hell. We just don’t know. Science cannot tell, and we cannot validate another person’s experience. We can, however, judge those that contradict God’s revealed Word. Old Testament prophets strongly condemned the false prophets who trusted in dreams they had (Jeremiah 23).
The only safe and reliable path when encountering NDE accounts is to trust the Bible. Jesus is the only one who conquered death and came back after three days in the tomb. Before and after He rose from the dead, He told us all we need to know about life and death. There is a heaven (“I go to prepare a place for you”) and a hell: “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:5). Jesus, the Creator of all and Lord of heaven and earth, also trained his disciples and endowed them with the Holy Spirit who inspired the writings of the New Testament (John 16). He appeared to Paul, who gives the world a stern warning that he repeated for emphasis: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8-9). That “anyone” applies to individuals with near-death experiences. If they don’t line up with the gospel of Christ, do not trust them.