Hello. I want to begin by telling you a story.
In 1990 my wife and I attended a publicized meeting of a local “skeptics” organization. We arrived just before the meeting began, so had no chance to meet and talk with other attendees.
The meeting began with a short talk by a large, dark-haired and spectacled man who was almost giddy about magazine and newspaper articles he was reading aloud. These articles spoke of events directed by people’s faith and beliefs, such as the death of a child who was denied medical help by a Christian Scientist parent, the promise that city crime would be reduced by a critical mass of Transcendental Meditation mantra-chanters, or the pilgrimage of thousands to a site where Mary was to appear. The fifty-or-so persons in the audience were enthusiastic.
After this arrogance and sarcasm, another man presented a lengthy talk on the ignorance of superstitious mankind. At the end of that talk, the audience seemed even more pleased.
His talk was followed by a comment and question period moderated by the same large man who had introduced the speaker. Members of the audience began to add short stories of their own. Their criticism of the spiritual and paranormal was total, leaving no possibility for the extraordinary. I was moving closer and closer to feeling compelled to speak.
There was no need to stand in that small room to be noticed by everyone. I have wished since then that I’d packed a cassette recorder. Near the end of the comment period, I raised my hand, as had others, for recognition. In a slow, even, and I might even say dignified manner, I told the group that with the great evidence that existed for several kinds of paranormal events, ranging from the statistical significance of psi phenomena studied by Dr. Rhine at Duke University to the strong evidence for the reality of near death experiences, I couldn’t understand how they could ignore those publicized events and presume them false. I mentioned my personal knowledge of events, such as an instance of verified telepathy between a U.S. soldier in Vietnam and his fiancé in Rochester New York, and the ghostly appearance to a friend of her mother at the exact time of her death. For several minutes I was given silent and serious attention. That period was followed by one of the most memorable experiences of my life. In a cascade of response, several people in the audience, in succession, blurted out paranormal stories of their own to the great displeasure of the large man in the front who was now being interrupted by his audience. A woman to my right said that she’d seen a ghost and wanted to tell everyone about it. Another person admitted to also seeing a ghost. Others, all now directing their attention to my wife and me, were competing to tell us of their own experiences. Some began to ask for comments from me, and I would limit my responses to statements like, “That’s interesting.” After five or ten minutes of this new direction, the moderator succeeded in closing the meeting, and my wife and I prepared to leave. As we rose and walked the few steps to the room’s rear door, at least a quarter of the audience followed us out of the room and down an L-shaped hallway toward the main elevators, asking questions and making supportive comments along the way. Feeling disinclined to stop and field questions in a narrow hallway, and very aware that I had disrupted a meeting of otherwise zealous agnostics, we headed the group down the packed elevator to the lobby and disengaged from them with a parting wish that they include such events in their future discussions.
Most apparent from this interaction was the excitement displayed by this audience over the prospect of learning more of the real truth about our existence. Seemingly equally apparent was their initial desire to comfort themselves by feeling that they “had it all figured out”, possibly helping them to avoid feelings of uncertainty, fear, or perhaps even religion-engendered guilt.
Since I have the impression that audiences like stories more than cold facts, I’d like to tell you a few other stories.
There are hundreds of exemplary stories that could introduce tonight’s topic. I’d like to read a few of them because they reveal aspects of what has only recently been termed the near death experience. Then, we’ll concentrate on listing these variously typical aspects and follow that with a brief history of these experiences. Finally, we’ll leave time for questions to be asked. There should be about a thousand questions that arise from this material, so please write them on paper so that you don’t forget them. If you write them down, I’ll ask to collect them in time to precede that section. I’ll try to answer them, and when I can’t, we’ll give the experiencers a chance. And, don’t hesitate to ask even personal questions. I can be embarrassingly self-revealing.
In 1918 Ernest Hemmingway was a 19-year old soldier, serving in Italy. He was badly wounded in the legs and had a spontaneous out of body experience. He described it in these words: "I felt my soul or something coming right out of my body, like you'd pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner. Hemmingway was able to make good use of this experience when he wrote "A Farewell to Arms". In his book his hero had an out of the body experience.
A prisoner had a near death experience and was shown aspects of his life. He described it as being like a scroll that was unrolling before his vision, saying, “And the only pictures on it were the pictures of people I had injured. It seemed there would be no end to it. A vast number of those people I knew or had seen. Then there were hundreds I had never seen. These were people who had been indirectly injured by me. The minute history of my long criminal career was thus relived by me, plus all the small injuries I had inflicted unconsciously by my thoughtless words and looks and omissions. Apparently nothing was omitted in this nightmare of injuries, but the most terrifying thing about it was that every pang of suffering I had caused others was now felt by me as the scroll unwound itself. (P.23, Whole in One by David Lorimer.)
A seventeen-year-old girl was injured in a car accident and had severed a toe. A young doctor and nurse began to suture her foot when she felt like she was leaving her body and was immediately looking down on them. She reported, “I knew that was me down below, but I also knew the important part of me was up where I was. I hadn’t had any anesthetic or anything, and I was really quite concerned because I knew they were going to operate on my foot to sew my toe back on. I was trying to say to the, ‘Listen, I really am quite conscious, you know, this is going to hurt. I really don’t want you to start sewing me without giving me something to kill the pain.’ But they were obviously not communicating with me; they were flirting with one another. (After I came back I made a facetious comment to the doctor about this. He went white with shock and was speechless. He appeared embarrassed, but didn’t discuss it further.)
“… I was sort of first of all looking down over what was happening, but then it became an Alice in Wonderland type of experience, looking down a tunnel. I felt a black, spinning, falling sensation, but then it changed to a rising sensation. There was a momentum being gathered. It was very dark but not at all terrifying, and I was being pulled upward through a tunnel that became brighter and brighter. There was this light at the end of the tunnel. It was yellow/white, more white than gold, but indescribable and beautiful. It was a person, but not a person; a god, perhaps, but with no real shape. I took the person to be God, but God of all, not just one religion. It was a really pleasurable experience. I was conscious of someone speaking to me but not with words. It was a thought-transference type of arrangement. I was met at the thoroughfare, and wasn’t allowed to go past, and I was told, ‘No, you’re too young; you have a life of service in front of you. You must go back.’ I felt a deep sense of regret at that, but I knew I couldn’t argue. Normally I’d argue with people, but this was a final sort of decision. It wasn’t something that you intervened in. I didn’t want to let it go, but the choice wasn’t there. I felt very rejected at first. I wanted to hold on to the experience, but being told, ‘You go away,’ I felt great disappointment and a profound sense of loss. But later, when I recovered, I became curious and began to wonder what was meant by ‘a life of service,’ because at that stage I hadn’t really done much.
“In the meantime, I had been taken away from the operating room. I had died. My parents were notified that I was dead and my father was severely shocked – he had a heart attack. My aunt, who knew the ambulance driver, was coming in to visit, to see how I was getting along. She didn’t know at that stage that I was dead. But it was she and my uncle who finally came in and found me. I was just lying there naked on one of those stainless-steel trolleys, in the morgue. By then they had been told I was dead and presumably they had come in to identify me, but when they put their heads around the door I looked up at them! I had never been so cold, and I asked them for a blanket.
“… I was quite aware that I was at the crossroads, I was quite aware that that was the point where one died. But there wasn’t any fear, and since having that experience, death has no fear associated with it. I have been working with dying patients in my job and I know I can share my experience with them. They sense that death doesn’t hold any fear for me and therefore they feel able to talk about their own death. I think usually people are just afraid of the unknown.
“…I have a lot of psychic experiences. I was very, very close to my father, and I always knew how he was going – we could sort of communicate without communicating. And sometimes I’ll get up to answer the phone and it hasn’t rung, and I’ll say, “Oh, I’d better answer the…’ and before I finish the sentence the phone starts to ring… I’d say about eighty percent of the time I’ll know who’s there… Once, I remember, in the early seventies, I woke up in the middle of the night and said to my husband, ‘Oh, there’s this terrible fire!’ and I described everything that was happening, and the people that couldn’t get out. He said, ‘Don’t be stupid, you’re having a nightmare.’ And then in the morning we heard on the news that there’d been this awful fire in Belgium, and everything I described had happened. I really can’t understand why that occurred except that I did have a Belgian pen pal. I never heard from her again, so I presumed that she died in that fire. It was a terrible sort of feeling, it was almost as if I’d been there – I could smell it.” (Within the Light, by Cherie Sutherland, Ph.D., p. 55-60)
Portions of that experience are good examples of some of the aspects of near death experiences. Perhaps you’ve heard some of these accounts before; in fact, the existence of these stories would be hard to avoid since they’ve been the subjects of hundreds of national and local television and radio programs, tabloid newspapers, magazine articles, and popular books authored by a handful of experiencers. They have informed the public that NDE’s exist, but they have been unsuccessful in presenting them as much more than a superficial curiosity. You may have suspected that NDE’s may be more than this if you’ve heard about famous people who have had them. Some of those have included Senator Robert Kerrey of Nebraska who lost a foot to a grenade in Viet Nami, Debra Winger who had an NDE as a teenager ii, and the late King Hussein of Jordan, when an anticoagulant prescribed in 1984 for his heart caused him to hemorrhage iii. Jean Ritchie, in her book “ Deaths Door”, lists the following celebrities who have had NDE’s: Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Seymour, Hughie Green, Stacey Keach, Burt Reynolds, Rebecca DeMorney Robert Pastorelli, Donald Sutherland, Erik Estrada, Ronnie Dukes, Ann Todd, and even Bart Simpson and his dog.
Instead of reading more accounts of these, let’s move on to a comprehensive list of typical attributes that can be found in the collection of NDE’s. Note that most experiences contain less than the full complement of these aspects and that it’s rare that they have every one of them.
Usually, following a traumatic stimulus, a person having an NDE begins to feel a sense of peace, which remains or increases in intensity during the experience. Soon after feeling this peace, the person sees his or her body (remarkably even if the person is blind when in the physical body) yet not necessarily knowing that the body is his or hers. With heightened sensing capability, the person hears, sees and senses the physical environment including people’s actions, conversations, and often, even thoughts. The person may, at first, be confused, or may feel a sort of detachment and that what is being experienced is connected with a physical dying process. The person is ultimately aware that what’s being observed is real and not a dream or hallucination. For those who don’t rejoin their physical bodies at this stage, a dual awareness is rather thrust upon them in that another reality, which is to say, another environment, or setting may be seen, either along with the familiar physical reality or environment, or replacing the physical environment entirely. They find that, either willingly or unwillingly, they are drawn into the new reality which typically will have the character of a tunnel or a void that will seem like a peaceful environment, although at times, beings may be encountered that can seem fearsome, or as in the case of some negative near death experiences, beings that will be physically combative. In this latter category, experiencers have related these events as being hellish, absolutely real, and sometimes excruciatingly painful, ending only when desperately, or prayerfully, requesting help.
Many experiencers continue on and, sooner or later, sense or see a presence, which communicates telepathically. This presence is often described as a light, or a being of light. A clear telepathic dialog takes place, and the person completely understands everything. The person is often asked questions about his or her life, and a review of that life is often shown in detail, not only from that person’s perspective but also from the perspectives of those with whom that person interacted. From this interaction, the person often understands the sources of problems in his or her life, allowing a new sense of self-forgiveness and acceptance. Especially during this period of communication, it becomes clear to the person that in this other reality, that time and space have no meaning, as inexplicable as this may seem. The person may interact with other presences or beings, some of which may be deceased loved ones. The person’s interaction with at least some of these beings often includes ecstatic feelings of being totally loved, accepted and understood.
At some point, the person is told that it’s not yet time for permanent passage into the other reality, or is sometimes given a choice to either stay or return to the physical life. Often, thinking of one’s loved ones, the person makes the decision to return. Upon making this decision, or sometimes simply unexpectedly, the person is abruptly returned to the body.
After re-entering the body, the person immediately loses connection with, or we could say, the ability to see, the other reality. Bodily sensations associated with that body return, including pain if the body has suffered trauma. The person finds it difficult to convey the nature of the experience to others because, rather than being like a visit to a foreign country, guideposts such as elapsed time and separate regions of countryside are missing. The person often successfully conveys details such as conversations, events witnessed, and large amounts of new information, but often finds that the unusual details make the experience too difficult for a listener to believe. Frequently, listeners will consider the stories to be evidence of mental instability.
Those are the main characteristics of an NDE in a nutshell. If the major characteristics on that list are experienced, the experience is termed a core experience in modern research “lingo”.
But that’s our modern understanding of the NDE. Let’s consider what was reported in the past and try to find similarities to present accounts.
In various world cultures, stories have survived that have described travels to another world, followed by a return, to provide messages to the living. Some of these stories described a descent into the underworld to rescue people or learn secrets of the afterlife. Some cultures spoke of travel to the higher worlds, including the story of Muhammad as God’s messenger, describing events along the pathway to death. In the Christian tradition, both Enoch and St. Paul are reported to have contacted celestial beings.
As described by Dr. Carol Zaleski in her book Otherworld Journeys, aside from these better-known figures, interested scholars have investigated such stories “in primitive and tribal religion, Oriental, Mesopotamian and Greek mythology, in the works of Homer, Plato and Virgil, in the multiple strands of Hellenistic religion, in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature, and in Zoroastrian, Islamic, and medieval Christian traditions.” Dante used this rich background as source material for The Divine Comedy.
In contemporary culture, Zaleski points to eyewitness accounts of life after death that can be found throughout the folklore and religious literature of the world. Here’s how she summarizes the pattern of recorded events: “…in Western culture, return-from-death stories developed within and alongside the apocalyptic traditions of late antiquity, flourished in the Middle Ages, declined during the Reformation, and reappeared in connection with some of the evangelical, separatist, and spiritualist movements of the nineteenth century.” Although that is true, we know comparatively little about the majority of these stories because they weren’t as well communicated or analyzed as they are today.
Zaleski presents a comparison between a contemporary NDE and an account of a sixth-century holy man who spent a night, lifeless, on a funeral bier, who claimed to be revived when God sent him back to serve as a Church bishop. This sixth-century man reported, “Four days ago, I died and was taken by two angels to the height of heaven. And it was just as though I rose above not only this squalid earth, but even the sun and moon, the clouds and stars. Then I went through a gate that was brighter than normal daylight, into a place where the entire floor shone like gold and silver. The light was indescribable, and I can’t tell you how vast it was.” Contrast this with the story of a man that I met at the home of a mutual experiencer-friend in the late 1980’s. The modern-man is Tom Sawyer, a heavy-equipment operator who lives in Rochester New York, where I was raised about three miles from his home. His account, related on the TV show 20/20, is the same story he told others and me at that time: “My heart had stopped … Everything was just completely black … this void became the shape of a tunnel, and then before me was the most magnificent light; it’s The Light in capital letters, and it’s – very bluntly – the essence of God.”
The two accounts are considered together by Zaleski who asks, “What do the similarities and differences between these narratives, fourteen centuries apart, tell us about the history of otherworld journey narration, its recurrent features, its social function, and its ultimate significance?” She mentions that these have to be examined in historical context so that they aren’t affected by the different idioms of our times.
Zaleski states that common aspects include “sudden exit from the body; travel across tunnels, paths, or fields; encounters with luminous guides and spirits; glimpses of heavenly bliss; reluctant reentry into life; and an aftermath of psychological and spiritual transformation.” That seems to say a lot for their similarity. She also described historical accounts of terrifying experiences but calls that a contrast, saying that for modern journeys, “gone are the bad deaths, harsh judgment scenes, purgatorial torments, and infernal terrors of medieval visions; by comparison, the modern other world is a congenial place, a democracy, a school for continuing education, and a garden of unearthly delights.” One might think that this is evidence for dissimilarity, and therefore something more associated with age and culture than with reality, but this would be an incorrect conclusion because Zaleski lacked information on what are now termed “negative near death experiences”. When her book was published, few accounts of these more-modern hellish experiences existed in the more recent literature. One local example of a negative experience is the well-publicized experience of Howard Storm, the earlier-mentioned NDE’er from Kentucky, who experienced a long, painful and horrifying encounter with demonic beings. If this seems scary, I’d say that’s a natural feeling; estimates of the frequency of these negative experiences range from a few percent to far higher percentages by a Christian cardiologist named Maurice Rawlings (author of To Hell And Back and Beyond Death’s Door). So, the “bad deaths” and “purgatorial torments” are not gone. They are simply less frequent than positive NDE’s. A better conclusion that can be drawn is that modern accounts are generally quite similar to their more ancient counterparts.
I think this similarity supplies ample reason to concentrate on experiences that occurred in the twentieth century. I’ve personally had less interest in ancient reports, reports that are found within Gnosticism and other ancient esoteric mysticism, or biblical prophets, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Islam, Buddhism, and an abundance of other journeys. In addition, there is more complete and trustworthy information from present-day accounts, or reports, of NDE’s. For those interested in the older material, though, much of interest can be found in The Tibetan Book of the Dead and other manuals that deal with the between-life existence, or the bardo state.
I’d like to move on to the late nineteenth century, and then move forward into the twentieth century. Perhaps you’ve heard of The American Society for Psychical Research and its counterpart in England, The Society for Psychical Research. If not, perhaps you’ve heard of the movement known as Spiritualism, claimed to have begun in Rochester New York, again, less than ten miles from my old home. Deathbed visions, reported in a few articles in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research between 1903 to 1918, stimulated investigators to look for evidence that would support the claims of Spiritualism, a religious organization that has mediums for pastors who regularly “read”, and supposedly receive messages from the dead relatives of the congregants. Indeed, an experience of mine in such a church seems to have been a psychic experience, and I’d like to interrupt the chronology to describe that visit.
My first visit to a Spiritualist church occurred shortly before I moved from Rochester to Cincinnati. Since I’d lived on the opposite side of the city, and since I knew no one, and had spoken to no one at that church (except the young woman I’d talked into accompanying me), I felt quite sure that if I were given a message of statistical significance, it could possibly be real. Sitting in a “circle” into which it cost something like fifty cents to enter, I was the fourth person, as I recall, who would be “read” by one of three or four visiting mediums on this “medium Sunday”. By the time this person moved to my position, I was nearly ready to tell him that I believed him to be phony and that nothing I’d heard thus far sounded more impressive than general comments that could apply to anyone. After about thirty seconds of what sounded like the same sort of generality, he stopped his customary peering into the upper extremities of the room and looked directly at me and asked, “Do you have a brother who died?” I replied that I did, having lost my brother in the crash of a small plane that was carrying him home for a vacation while on leave from Chanute Air Force Base. After asking that question, he continued to look directly at me, and said, exactly, (I think), “He’s here with me now and he’s telling me that you have a horrible relationship with your mother and he wants you to do something about it.” Since that accusation was accurate, reflecting the way I blamed my mother for family misunderstandings that grew from religious fanaticism, I thought the message practically prophetic, and not something from my conscious mind. (To answer an anticipated question, the resolution of my relationship with my long-suffering mother was several years later after I took a course called the est training that helped me to mature enough to realize the real worth and loving nature of my mother.)
So, that is one aspect of Spiritualism, and it had numerous followers. In Britain, a few scientists had become involved in séances and speculation about after-death communications, one of which was the English physicist and chemist Sir William Crookes (who invented the Crookes tube that demonstrated cathode rays, a discovery that made our modern picture tubes possible). Another was William James, one of the most respected turn-of-the-century scientists. Both had tried to find evidence for the existence of the spirit. James defended his investigations of that notoriously fraud-ridden profession by noting that it was only necessary to catch one white crow to disprove the axiom that all crows are black. James and a third scientist, Sir William Barrett, a prominent British physicist, co-founded the already mentioned British society, and in 1926, following the Deathbed Vision articles, published a study by that name describing apparitions and glimpses of the next world provided by dying patients.
Other work had its beginnings before 1900 when early hospice literature, known as “euthanasia” books, revealed medical and psychiatric studies of response to the threat of death. Personal testimony and medical observations indicated that dying wasn’t always painful. In 1892, the study of visionary experiences at death became better known when a Swiss geologist and Alpine mountain climber Albert Heim published accounts of mountain climbers who survived nearly fatal falls. He interviewed thirty survivors who reported feeling calm, detached from the scene of danger, and even joyful, and wrote that, “They had, so to speak, fallen into heaven”. Although this evidence has been criticized, two modern researchers, a psychiatry professor named Russell Noyes, Jr., and an associate of his, a clinical psychologist named Roy Kletti, both at the University of Iowa, have studied such people and describe their experiences as including “vivid, racing thoughts, detachment from the body and surroundings, feelings of unreality, lack of emotion, an expanded sense of time, freedom from pain, calm objectivity, narrowed focus of attention, and sharper vision and/or hearing”; that this “…phase is sometimes followed by life-review elements and then in some cases by a stage of transcendent or mystical experience.”
Deathbed Vision research is also being pursued today, in this case by Karlis Osis of the Parapsychology Foundation, and the American Society for Psychical Research. His study has been extended to India by the work of an Icelandic psychologist named Erlendur Haraldsson. The most interesting aspect of disparate studies such as these is that there may be links between them that reveal patterns that may lead to a better understanding of these phenomena. Other studies, such as reincarnation research by University of Virginia professor Ian Stevenson who wrote a book titled Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, have also helped to identify commonality between accounts of psychic events.
Deviating from early twentieth-century research was a notable pioneer named Elizabeth Kubler Ross. Most of her work dealt with what has become known as the grief process and its stages (shock/denial, searching/yearning, disorganization, reorganization), the thrust of which was to get people to acknowledge their grief rather than hide it or suppress it. Her first of many books, On Death and Dying, is a book that is still required reading in many medical, nursing, psychiatry, and theology programs. She was recognized as one of the foremost authorities in the field of death and dying for over twenty years. The motivation for her work came from her childhood visit to a German concentration camp in 1945 and later experiences including her idolization of Mother Theresa, her medical education, her preparation to become a doctor in India, and her own illness in a Manhattan hospital after she was married. She became Clinical Professor of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry at the University of Virginia (where such researchers seem to congregate) and received many awards and honors in recognition of her work. I mention these details because she was a strong public voice for this information before Raymond Moody’s first book, and she wrote extensively about this topic. For example, she wrote that nobody can die alone because the deceased one is able to visit anyone he likes, and that there are people awaiting you who died before you. She said that the church’s claims of guardian angels are based in fact and that there’s proof that every human being is guided from birth to death by a spirit entity, no matter what your religion may be, and that when children are very young, they see and talk to these angels, considering them to be playmates until they become convinced by older children and parents that they are not real, but rather are manifestations of childishness. When describing this in her book On Life After Death, she wrote, “A dying old lady conveys to me: ‘Here he is again.’ Since I do not know what she is referring to, I ask this lady if she could share with me what she has jest seen. She tells me: ‘You must know, when I was a little kid he used to always be around me. But I have totally forgotten that he existed.’ A day later she dies, full of joy, knowing that someone who loves her dearly is waiting for her.”
In the same book, she writes, “One of our female patients was blinded in a laboratory explosion, and the moment she was out of her physical body she was able to see, was able to describe the whole accident and describe people who dashed into the laboratory. When she was brought back to life she was totally blind again. This may help you to understand why many, many of these patients resent attempts to artificially bring them back when they are in a far more beautiful, more perfect place.” Although this quote was from this later book, this was the kind of thing she was writing about and saying in interviews when I discovered her in the early 70’s.
Studies have been conducted to validate the first stages of these experiences, namely, the out-of-body experience. In the late 1960s, a psychologist named Charles Tart began the first laboratory tests with subjects who could have out-of-body-experiences, or OBEs, voluntarily. In addition to his physiological research he also tested subjects' abilities to see targets hidden from their normal sight. His first subject, who he called Miss Z., was tested in a laboratory where a target was placed on a shelf about five and a half feet above the bed where she lay. The target was a five-digit number prepared in advance by Tart and placed on the shelf. Miss Z. slept in the laboratory on four occasions. On the first she had no OBE; on the second, she managed to get high enough to see the clock, and on third night she had an OBE but traveled elsewhere. However, on her fourth and last night she awoke and reported that she had seen the number and it was 25132. She was right on all five digits, a claim that has a probability of one in 100,000 of being right by chance. Tart, now retired from the University of California, Davis, has spent much of his career exploring the paranormal. He hosts a website from his home in Berkeley which he describes as a "safe" outlet for scientists to report experiences that "seem to transcend the ordinary limits of the physical world." Contributors may use pseudonyms, but many do not. I believe he now has the largest bibliography of OBE’s in the world. He claims, "I'm offering people anonymity for a real reason: People are afraid of the consequences. Many of these people have said (things such as), 'If I ever told people in my physics department, I'd be laughed at.' They've heard of people who have admitted to this and they didn't get promoted." He attributes the fear to a cultural belief that the scientific method is the only legitimate means of investigating the universe. He maintains that such thinking is as close-minded as some religions. Over the course of a 40-year career, Tart said that many times after giving talks, listeners confided experiences they'd not told anyone before. Since the site was established in 1999, it has logged some 124,000 visits -- more than 1,000 visits a week. The address (http://www.issc-taste.org) is rather obscure, and Tart says he relies on word-of-mouth for publicity.
Another pioneer in this area was a medical doctor and philosopher, Dr Raymond Moody Jr, who began his work as a skeptic and is now totally convinced that the extent of the available evidence confirms the reality of life after death. His first book Life After Life in 1975 is considered the classic work which opened this area to modern research. It was followed by two other books in 1983 and 1988. Moody found a striking similarity in accounts of 150 people who had these experiences. Moody identified fifteen levels of experience among his accounts, and Dr Kenneth Ring, who produced a scientific study of Near-Death Experiences in 1980, confirmed Moody's findings but found that people went through the experience in stages and a large number of people experienced only the first ones. Other studies by Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson (1977), Michael Sabom and Sarah Kreutziger (1976), Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1983), Craig Lundahl (1981) and Bruce Greyson and Ian Stevenson (1980) all essentially confirmed Moody's description. Incidentally, it was Moody who coined the expression, Near-Death Experience.
Since 1975 there have been many studies in many countries – so much so that there are now several international associations and journals for the investigation of near-death studies. Cherie Sutherland's excellent Australian book (1992) contains a selected bibliography of over 150 scholarly research reports.
Here’s an example of another study that has served to validate the aspects of NDE’s. Shortly after Raymond Moody’s book Life After Life was published, Dr Sabom, a Georgia cardiologist, interviewed 100 hospital patients who had narrowly escaped death. Of these, 61 per cent reported experiencing classical NDE’s of the type closely corresponding to those published in 1975 by Moody. Many of the patients who had been revived were able to describe in great technical detail exactly what went on in the operating room while they were supposedly unconscious or dead. Dr Sabom, investigated the hypothesis that these patients were merely using their creative imagination, or knowledge that they had subconsciously picked up through earlier exposure to emergency care. He interviewed a group of seasoned cardiac patients who had not undergone Near-Death Experiences and asked them to imagine watching a medical team reviving a heart attack victim and to describe in as much detail as possible the steps being taken. To his surprise 80% of them misdescribed the procedures. On the other hand none of the group which claimed to have witnessed their resuscitation while out of their bodies made an error about the procedure (The Light Beyond by Raymond Moody Jr., MD, 1988, page 139).
There are now literally millions of people from all over the world who have undergone a Near-Death Experience. In 1983 a major American survey by George Gallup Jr reported that eight million Americans, approximately five per cent of the adult population, had experienced an NDE or an experience very similar to one (Gallup 1982). A 1989 Australian survey by Allan Kellehear and Patrick Heaven found that ten percent of 179 people claimed to have experienced at least five typical elements of a NDE.
Studies in widely differing geographic locations have produced remarkably similar findings; for example, Margot Grey's study of NDEs in England (Grey 1985), Paola Giovetti's study in Italy (Giovetti 1982), Dorothy Counts' study in Melanesia (Counts 1983), Satwant Pasricha and Ian Stevenson's (1986) study in India. More studies are coming out from different countries on a regular basis, and historical examples show that the experience has been remarkably consistent over time (see Plato's example of Er's NDE in The Republic reprinted 1973). Yet while these experiences have been happening throughout human history, in western culture it is only in the last twenty years that people have felt free to talk about them and the effect that they have had on their lives.
There are many accounts of people having near death experiences returning with factual information that they had no prior knowledge of. These include being able to identify ancestors from pictures, learning about siblings who had died before their own birth, learning about family secrets etc. Others were able to document information they had learned about future events.
Cherie Sutherland, an Australian researcher, interviewed 50 NDE survivors in depth and found that the effects on the lives of survivors had been remarkably consistent and quite different from the effects of drug or chemical induced hallucinations. She identified many effects which have been substantiated by other studies; e.g., Ring (1980 and 1984) Atwater (1988). These included:
• a universal belief in life after death
• a high proportion (80%) now believed in re-incarnation
• a total absence of fear of death
• a large shift from organized religion to personal spiritual practice
• a statistically significant increase in psychic sensitivity
• a more positive view of self and of others
• an increased desire for solitude
• an increased sense of purpose
• a lack of interest in material success coupled with a marked increase in interest in spiritual development
• 50% experienced major difficulties in close relationships as a result of their changed priorities
• an increase in health consciousness
• most drank less alcohol
• almost all gave up smoking
• most gave up prescription drugs
• most watched less television
• most read fewer newspapers
• an increased interest in alternative healing
• an increased interest in learning and self-development
• 75% experienced a major career change in which they moved towards areas of helping others.
An independent American study by Dr Melvin Morse found that NDE survivors have three times the number of verifiable psychic experiences as the general population, were frequently unable to wear watches and often had electrical conduction problems such as shorting out lap top computers and erasing credit cards (Morse 1992). He also found that adults who had near-death experiences gave more money to charity than control subjects, volunteered more in the community, were more frequently involved in helping professions, did not suffer from drug abuse and ate more fresh fruit and vegetables than control populations (Morse 1992).
Here are more studies suggesting the reality of the NDE.
The most famous veridical OBE experience involved Maria's shoe. Kim Clark Sharp (1995) was a social worker in Harborview Hospital in Seattle when Maria was brought in unconscious from cardiac arrest. Sharp visited her the following day in a hospital room at which point Maria described leaving her body and floating above the hospital. Among other things, she described a tennis shoe on the ledge outside the window on the far side of the hospital, which could only be seen from a vantage point outside. She also described minute details of the shoe. Sharp checked the ledge on the entire floor by pressing her face against the sealed windows and eventually found a shoe that matched in all the details, Maria had related. Ken Ring (1993) published an article with three similar cases in which there was veridical evidence for an OBE, two of which, oddly enough, involved shoes. (A shoe conspiracy?)
There have been attempts to study this in a more systematic way, all of which go back to Charles Tart's (1968) protocol of placing a target on a shelf facing upwards well above eye level. Janice Holden (1990) did research in her hospital, but had a hard time because the cleaning staff at the hospital kept taking her target down. The target was problematic in that it was not emotionally meaningful for subjects, and the chaplain of the hospital was strongly opposed to the experiment, neither of which helped her research effort. Madelaine Lawrence, an acquaintance of mine, did a more sophisticated study at Hartford Hospital with a scrolling LED display spelling out a nonsense phrase. She was working in the electrophysiology clinic where, in order to heal severe arrhythmias, they stop people's hearts and then resuscitate them, a situation artificially productive of NDEs. No one on the hospital staff knew what the LED device was displaying. Unfortunately, Lawrence's position as head nurse was eliminated after about six months of this, which ended the project without any results. However, the creator of the targets is eager to construct them for others who attempt similar research.
Another approach to NDEs and OBEs is to attempt to detect whatever it is that leaves the body such as via weighing the body at death, using temperature sensors around the body, or utilizing human or animal indicators of discarnate presence. "Blue" Harary attempted to validate his OBEs by having his cat in a remote room on a grid while Bob Morris (1974), the principal investigator, monitored the experiment. (When "out" of his body, Blue would go to the cat's room where researchers measured the cat's activity level. The cat was indeed more active during those times he reported OBEs. The experimenters at the site were blind to the condition.)
One of the best studies now is Kenneth Ring's (1999) study of blind people. He had thirty-one people, many of whom are blind from birth, who had either NDEs or OBEs in which they were able to see. They varied in detail, but some were quite impressive. In one case, a birth-blind subject had received a tie from a friend without his friend describing it. After his OBE, he was able to accurately describe the tie and its colors. Ring did not conclude that these people were actually seeing; he posited an extracorporeal sense of which we are not normally aware. If this were true, though, Aaron DeGlanville pointed out, we would expect to see cases where people blind from birth had dreams in which they could see. Bruce Greyson related a relevant story from his practice in which a client attempted suicide and changed his mind after taking an overdose. He went to dial 911 but was distracted by hallucinations of little people. He then experienced himself leaving his body and watching his corporeal self, which was still paralyzed by hallucinations. His out-of-body vision, however, was unaffected by hallucinations: from inside his body he was hallucinating, while from outside he was perceiving accurately.
Stories of flat EEGs abound in the NDE lore, but Bruce Greyson reportedly heard of a verified one, and it is one of the best cases for survival evidence (Sabom, 1998). A team in Phoenix specializes in an extreme form of neurosurgery called hypothermic cardiac arrest that has been created to allow operation on aneurysms deep in the brain. A 35-year-old woman undertook this surgery. Her eyes were taped shut to prevent them from drying out. Electrodes were placed in the auditory section of the brainstem and molded speakers were placed in her ears. These played a constant beep, a setup designed to gauge responsiveness in the brainstem, and simultaneously, these speakers prevented her from hearing anything in the room besides the beeps. Her body was cooled to 60 degrees F, a temperature that lowered her metabolic rate enough for the surgeons to operate on the brain for a relatively long time. Her blood was re-routed from a femoral artery into a heart-pump, though the surgeon had to switch legs because the first vessel was too small, thereby prolonging the surgery. When the EEG was flat and the brainstem stopped responding, she was by most standard medical criteria, dead. Blood flowed out into the heart-pump and back into the body. The pump was shut off and the table was tilted so that blood could drain from her brain. Only then was it safe to open her skull to clip off the aneurysm. The time of anesthetization in this procedure is about 90 minutes.
The woman reported leaving her body and hearing a D-natural buzzing sound. She watched the surgery and was puzzled by what appeared to be an electric toothbrush which one member of the team was using on her head. She also reported hearing the woman doctor say, "These vessels are too small. We can't use them for the pump." At that point, she got distracted, saw the light, went through a tunnel, and saw a deceased grandmother and a few other deceased relatives who told her she had to go back. As she was coming out of the surgery, she had a cardiac arrest. She was shocked twice to be resuscitated. After the procedure, she described to the neurosurgeon everything she saw, including the strange electric toothbrush and the box that it came in with several different attachable heads. It turned out she had accurately described a Midas Rex saw, which is used only for this procedure, and which makes a buzzing sound. So, with this case we have an example of someone who was visually and auditorally isolated, had a flat EEG, and should not have been able to think, and yet she commented that she had never thought so clearly in her life. This seems to be evidence that the mind can function while the brain is not functioning. The conferees agreed that patients who undertake this surgical procedure would be a very good group to follow. The surgical group in Phoenix has done about 40 such procedures and a few other groups do so as well. This also represents a way to take a proactive stance to the pool of research subjects.
Dr. Helen Wambach (1978), another researcher acquaintance of mine, did an extensive study to test the fantasy-projection hypothesis. She asked her hypnotized American subjects about their recall of lives around certain historical dates -- 1860's, 1700, and AD 25, with the expectation that, were they fantasizing, a disproportionate number would create lives focused upon, respectively, the American civil war, the early pilgrims to America, and ancient Rome or Israel. However, the data showed that this was not the case; of 1050 subjects, only 3 reported involvement with the Civil War. The lives reported were mostly banal rather than those of celebrated historical figures and they were scattered roughly parallel to the demographics of each era. Just as important is her research into period furniture and architecture that her past-life studies revealed, correlating these with historical facts of which the subject weren’t aware. Adam Crabtree commented that a psychiatrist in Toronto, Joel Whitton (1986, 154-6), had a client who spoke in an extinct language (while hypnotized) that was later verified by scholars. Whitten is the author of the book, Life Between Life, which reports the results of his studies with hypnosis of patients who reported between-life experiences and characteristics.
I think it’s time for questions and answers.
Extra topics for mention, if time permits:
Conjuring up Phillip
Multiple Personality Disorder
Ouija Board experience
Ed, thank you for sharing this historical overview. I've added a link on NHNE's Historical & Cross-Cultural Near-Death Experiences Resource Page and will start letting NHNE readers know about it on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Thanks for taking the time to put this informative overview together!