Are Near Death Experiences Real?


I recently listened to episode #47 on the podcast by the Dr. Michael Guillen in which he explored the latest scientific research on near death experiences (NDEs). Michael Guillen is a former Harvard physics professor. You can listen to the half hour episode through Spotify at this link:

I have written on the research by Gary Habermas on NDEs. I chased down a rabbit hole to follow the NDE of an atheist. I also did a candid piece on what NDEs prove and what NDEs do not prove. My fascination with NDEs continues in this article with some of the basic conclusions Dr. Guillen notes from his look at NDEs.

He acknowledges from the start that scientific study of NDEs provides few clear answers. Even defining something as seemingly simple as death has become more difficult, rather than simpler, over time. We have gotten so good at reviving people that people we once thought were dead have been brought back to life.

Most people today define death synonymously with brain death. When brain activity ceases is when death is declared. Even patients who cease brain activity, however, sometimes go on living in fashion. Circulation and breathing may continue, the body may continue to regulate temperature, and the body may continue to excrete urine and feces for instance.

Determining the exact time of death is not an exact science. Dr. Guillen calls death “the ultimate mystery”. Death has been the focus of poets, writers, prophets, and scientists for centuries. For millennia, civilized societies have built elaborate rituals around death and the hope of life after death. Recent scientific studies have begun to shed some light on death.

In the 1960’s Dr. Raymond Moody pioneered a new way of studying death. He began to chronicle the stories of people who had near death experiences. In fact, he coined the term. His research over the years provides data by which we can identify the characteristics of a typical NDE. NDEs typically include the following:

  1. An out body experience;
  2. A close encounter with a warm, white light;
  3. Experiencing an ethereal body that can pass through objects;
  4. Experiencing no pain and a sense of serenity or tranquility; and
  5. Experiencing liberation from infirmities or handicaps

Dr. Guillen describes some reported out of body experiences and reports of knowledge gained while out of body that could not be explained, including a detailed description of things seen by a person who had been blind for years. You can listen to the stories on the podcast.

Dr. Moody, the man who pioneered the study of NDEs wrote a book called, Life after Life, in which he reached the following conclusion,

“I don’t mind saying that after talking with over one thousand people who have had near death experiences, it has given me great confidence that there is a life after death. As a matter of fact, I must confess to you in all honesty I have absolutely no doubt on the basis of what my patients have told me that they did get a glimpse of the beyond.”

Of course, there are always critics. The experience could be caused by hallucinations, or drug, or chemical breakdowns in the brain at the time of death, among other things.

The stories of people who have experienced NDEs are anecdotal, but not all of the reports are purely anecdotal. Many reports are corroborated by impartial witnesses. Thousands and thousands of stories that yield coherent, intelligible, and predictable outcomes also become less anecdotal and more reliable evidence that something is going on that we do not fully understand.

Dr. Bruce Greyson, the Chester Carlson Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia, has been studying NDEs and publishing in peer-reviewed journals for the past 45 years. A couple of his documented discoveries include the following:

  1. NDEs are reported by people in every culture of every religion and of every age. Reports of NDEs date back to ancient Greece and Rome. It isn’t a current fad.
  2. When the brain shuts down, brain activity ceases, and a person is clinically brain dead, some part of the mind (consciousness) lives on.

These findings are remarkable in light of the existing consensus in the neurosciences today.

The consensus view is that there is no real difference between the mind and the brain. Most neuroscientists believe the brain is like a movie projector, and the mind, thoughts, and feelings are like images projected onto the screen from the movie projector (brain). If the brain shuts down, the mind should cease. This is the current dogma: that the mind is merely the projected images of the brain.

People have NDES, though, despite being clinically dead. Perhaps, they are not really dead, but the lack of any observable brain activity is still a puzzle in the people who experience NDEs in that state.

If you take the time to listen to the 30-minute podcast, you will hear some stories that are also impossible to square with known science – like the woman who saw and reported intimate details that are not explainable in her physical and mental state and by the fact that she has been blind for many years.

Another interesting point is that ninety-eight percent (98%) of NDEs are positive. Greyson says no credible evidence suggests that “good” people only have positive NDES and “bad” people have negative NDES. This doesn’t square with conventional views of religion.

People also tend to report that the NDE is life-changing in a positive and beneficial way. Dr. Guillen speculates from this that, perhaps, positive reinforcement is the best motivator for people to lead a good life.

Another very counterintuitive finding involves people who have experienced an NDE after committing suicide. Most of them have positive NDEs, and most of them no longer desire to commit suicide after the experience. They report finding meaning beyond themselves that causes them no longer to fear or to desire death.

Most people report encountering what they describe as a heavenly or divine being, but not necessarily with specific attribution. This is true across cultures, religious affiliations, and geographical locations. Most people who report having an NDE become convinced that death is not the end.

While much is unknown about NDEs, certain patterns are reported throughout the world in all cultures. NDEs are coherent, intelligible, and predictable across cultures, places, and times, and they almost always have a positive influence on people who experience them.

The reports of the people who have experienced NDEs have all the hallmarks of being “real”. People recall the details in the same way, even after significant lapses of time. The memories of NDEs do not fade.

The patterns suggest that NDEs are not unique to individuals, that there is some experience common to all people, in all times, and in all places. These facts do not seem to favor one religious view over another, but they run counter to the materialistic view that people are merely molecules in motion with no “spiritual” or metaphysical reality.

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