The Near-Death Experience

What is it going to be like when I die? Will I be lonely and frightened, in pain and in anger? Will the grim reaper thrust me into darkness and terror against my will?


One way to know is to listen to what people who have almost died have to say about their near-death experience (NDE). In the early 1970s, an American doctor and philosopher named Raymond Moody began collecting accounts of NDEs as part of his clinical practice. It was in 1975 that his ground-breaking book Life After Life was published. It was a simple book but dramatic in its impact. It was no more than a compilation of accounts from people who has come close to death and lived to tell the tale. Many had had cardiac arrests and been resuscitated, though some had had their close encounters through other, less medically demanding means. All of them, however, described similar experiences, which enabled Moody to produce his now famous composite account:

A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment, and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from his unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval.

After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notices that he still has a "body," but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving, warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before -- a being of light -- appears before him. This being asks him a question, non-verbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet, he finds that he must go back to the earth, that the time for his death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with his experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return. He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives.

Later he tries to tell others but he has trouble doing so. In the first place, he can find no human words adequate to describe these unearthly episodes. He also finds that others scoff, so he stops telling other people. Still, the experience affects his life profoundly, especially his views about death and its relationship to life.

Of course, not all the accounts in Moody's book fitted this formula precisely. Some were much shorter and included fewer elements. Others seemed to dwell on some parts of the experience to the exclusion of others. Nevertheless, the pattern was clear and the similarity obvious.

At the time there was something of an outcry from other doctors and from psychologists and physiologists. This was all too fanciful, they said; after all, the experiences were just hallucinations. Some critics claimed they could not be proved or they were invented or exaggerated. Others said they were just products of Western peoples' expectations. This last argument is important. Moody was claiming far more than the simple fact that a lot of Americans being resuscitated from cardiac arrests had had similar experiences. He was claiming, or at least strongly implying, that the experience he outlined so graphically was common to all human beings; that this is what happens when we die and it is relevant to every one of us.

If this is really true we should expect NDEs to be substantially the same the world over. There are at least three ways of looking at this: the historical, the cross-cultural and the developmental. Have people always reported these experiences throughout the ages or are they just a twentieth-century phenomenon? Do they occur in other cultures or are they a product of Western education, religion or medicine? Are they the same in children who have had less chance to take on religious and cultural expectations?

Susan Blackmore (1993) reviews briefly the available evidence from myths, medieval manuscripts, cross-cultural, and developmental studies and reaches the following conclusion:

There is consistency but not invariance. Yes, the NDE is universal in the sense that something like the modern NDE has been reported in adults and children and in many ages and cultures. And 'no,' it is not always the same but varies with the individual, the culture and the circumstances.

The Stages of Dying

Moody, from his collection of accounts, has made several lists of the typical features of the NDE. In his first book (1975) he lists fifteen aspects of the NDE:

  1. Ineffability (or being impossible to describe)
  2. Hearing the news
  3. Feelings of peace and quiet
  4. The noise
  5. The dark tunnel
  6. Going out of the body (usually known as an out-of-body experience or OBE)
  7. Meeting others
  8. The review
  9. The border or limit
  10. Coming back
  11. Telling others
  12. The effects on people's lives
  13. New views of death
  14. Corroboration

This list was derived by Moody directly from the accounts. Moody makes it clear that his is not a 'scientific' analysis, his sampling is not random and he provided only a collection of cases as he found them...

The order of these elements is important. [...] It was Kenneth Ring (1980) who carried out the the first systematic investigation of whether there is an orderly progression of these experiences. Ring is a psychologist at the University of Connecticut who was much impressed by Moody's findings and wanted to investigate the many unanswered questions. In 1977 he began to collect accounts systematically from adults who had come close to death through serious illness, accident or suicide attempt and who were recovered enough to be able to talk about it. There was no stipulation that they had to have had any 'experiences.'

Insufficient number of such people could be found through hospital referrals alone, but finally, through advertising and word of mouth, 102 people were included in the study. Of these, the vast majority were white and Christian. Half had nearly died as a result of a serious illness, about a quarter from accidents and the remainder from suicide attempts.

To many critics' surprise the interviews confirmed most of Moody's claims. Similar experiences were reported and Ring was able to describe what he called the 'Core Experience.' This consisted of five core features rather than Moody's fifteen:

  1. Feeling of peace (60%)
  2. Body separation (the OBE; 37%)
  3. Entering the darkness (Moody's dark tunnel; 23%)
  4. Seeing the light (16%)
  5. Entering the light (10%)

Using this categorization it became clear that not only do these features usually occur in the above order, but that the earlier ones in the sequence are the most common. This is shown by the percentages in the parentheses above. A solid 60 per cent of Ring's sample reported peace but only 10 per cent had an experience of entering the light. [...] So, Ring had apparently confirmed Moody's claim about the depth of the NDE.

But what do these replicable, systematic reports mean? Do they mean that there is life after death, or is this just the last products of a dying brain? In her thoughtful and scholarly book Dying to Live, Susan Blackmore considers the arguments for and against these two hypotheses.

Excerpts from Susan Blackmore's book
Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences,
1993. New York: Prometheus Books. Check the validity of this page's XHTML Check the validity of this site's Cascading Style Sheet Page maintained by Alex Petrov
Created 2006-05-10, last updated 2006-05-10.