Near Death Experiences: Portal to Another Realm?

There are many who believe that near death experiences (“NDE”) provide evidence of the existence of a spirit-soul and that those who have these close encounters with death have glimpsed another realm.  Over at Brain Blogger, Jennifer Gibson discusses some recent studies of NDEs in a post titled “Light at the End of the Tunnel or Too Much Carbon Dioxide?”  She notes some common features of NDEs:

Most share the same description: accelerated thought processes, peacefulness, joy, and encounters with mystical entities or deceased persons. NDEs have features associated with the phenomenon of dissociation — a psychiatric disorder in which a person’s identity becomes disconnected from bodily sensation. However, most people who report NDEs do not have a pathological mechanism contributing to the psychiatric condition.

It appears that these experiences may be triggered by high carbon dioxide levels in the brain, which in turn has marked effects on conscious functioning:

NDEs were more common in patients with higher levels of carbon dioxide on admission to the hospital. The connection with carbon dioxide suggests that NDEs might be associated with changes in the acid-base equilibrium of the brain. Previous studies have proved that changes in the brain’s equilibrium can trigger visions of bright lights and out-of-body experiences. Inhaled carbon dioxide has been studied as a psychotherapeutic agent and caused NDE-like experiences.

Gibson concludes by suggesting that NDEs may be manifestations of the supernatural:

Many believe that NDEs are proof that humans are more than just a collection of cells and neural processes and that humans have a soul or level of consciousness that is separate from the physical body. But, have the researchers in the current study debunked that theory in explaining NDEs with scientific details?

The studies that Gibson reports may not answer this question, but in a comprehensive survey of NDE studies titled “The Near Death Experience,” Glenn Roberts and John Owen observe that the specifics of NDEs often correspond to a person’s particular religious beliefs:

Schoerer (1985) presented two historical accounts of core NDEs in American Indians where the dominant imagery is of moccasins, snakes, eagles, bows, and arrows.  [Asian] Indians have NDEs in which they are characteristically sent back to live because of a seeming bureaucratic mistake having been made in the after-life, and many encounter Yamraj, the Hindu king of the dead, and the Yamdoots, his messengers.

In one large and systematic cross-cultural study of 442 Americans and 435 Asian Indians who had NDEs, 140 people reported seeing religious figures; “where these [figures] were specifically identified, they were always named according to a person’s religious beliefs; no Hindu reported seeing Jesus, and no Christian reported seeing a Hindu deity.”

A person’s previously held religious beliefs, in other words, pattern the nature of the NDE, a fact which prompted Roberts and Owen to observe:

This supports the view of many authors that, whereas the central features the NDE are universally present [due to pan-human biological and neural systems], the specific imagery and interpretation is determined by the cultural expectations and beliefs of the individual.

Thus, a Muslim who has a near death experience might see Muhammad; a Buddhist may see Siddhartha; a Christian might see Jesus or an angel; a Hindu may see Krishna or Vishnu; a Lakota might see Thunderbirds, and so on. This patterning strongly suggests that NDEs are a matter of consciousness and not metaphysics.

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15 thoughts on “Near Death Experiences: Portal to Another Realm?

  1. v mcbride

    Or could it be that the experience is universal but the INTERPRETATION of the experience, including identification of dieties, depends on cultural expectations of the subject?

  2. admin Post author

    Hi Val! I certainly think your suggestion is a plausible possibility. The experience is not, however, universal. Not all people who have NDEs report or describe them in religious terms. From 20-25% of the people who have NDEs fit this category. Of this percentage, every single person provides a report that corresponds to their particular, and previously held, religious beliefs. I think this is a key piece of data. Why? If there is a metaphysical realm beyond death, the most likely hypothesis is that this realm is a universal one — it should be the same for everyone. It would be most unusual, at least in my thinking, for there to be a specifically Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon, etc. “spiritual realm” to which a believer repairs after death.

  3. admin Post author

    Thanks for the link! Looks like quite an interesting site; I have read a few books and several scholarly articles on NDEs, so this site is a nice find.

  4. Pingback: Out of Body Experiences & Soul Beliefs

  5. cristine

    If the person is not aware they are dying, then why would they see anything at all? Why see “Heaven” or Jesus?? Are there reports of people who just have regular dreams? What about people who saw dead relatives they didn’t know where actually dead?

  6. admin Post author

    Not all do, and it does not seem to require any awareness of dying or mortal danger. All near death experiences are culturally patterned; in other words, people “see” (or hallucinate) what they expect to see. There is a large literature on this.

  7. admin Post author

    In other words, Hindus see Hindu “gods” and Buddhists experience “nirvana” and Native Americans see hunting grounds and atheists experience “trips” and Mormons see the “prophet and relatives” and so on. It all takes place in the mind.

  8. jc

    Wouldn’t the possibility exist that each experience could be something like the “parallel dimensions”(unsure what the name of this is) theory where each experience could be different relating to the individuals consciousness and beliefs, but all exist simultaneously, in other words to each his own, but I’m unsure how something like this could disprove it’s existence?

  9. Cris Post author

    I suppose the possibility exists but this isn’t saying much. We can imagine all kinds of things but it does not make them likely. Rather than conjuring a parallel dimension to explain these experiences, why not just start with something that we know exists (i.e., the brain) and which we also know reliably generates these kinds of experiences, on a cross-cultural basis, under certain conditions? I prefer to use Occam’s Razor, and the most parsimonious explanation should be the one we prefer.

  10. Patricia Moor

    I suggest you look at near death experiences on u tube where there are a considerable number of people from Muslim and other non-Christian faiths converting to Christianity as a direct result of their near death experiences, and a meeting with Jesus – I haven’t yet found any meetings with Mohammed – Both Christians and Muslims might baulk at n.d.e.’s that suggest reincarnation. I am still exploring the whole phenomenon as to what exactly these experiences are about but I have read “Consciousness beyond Life” by Dutch Cardiologist Pim van Lomel where he cites n.d.e.’s and lucid conciousness as well as verified out of body perceptions taking place during the period of time when all brain stem reflexes have stopped, all body reflexes have stopped, respiration has stopped, and blood flow to the brain has stopped – he sites one particular case which was well documented with E.E.G. recordings taken at the time.

  11. Cris Post author

    The videos sound interesting but without knowing a great deal about who posted them, under what circumstances, and why they were posted, they don’t tell us much. They certainly won’t suffice as data; they are (interested or self-selected) anecdotes. The fact remains that every cross-cultural study of NDEs shows that when the person has an agent-based experience, the agents are nearly always culturally specific. In controlled or constrained studies, non-westerners and non-Christians don’t report they’ve visited the Christian heaven, cavorted with angels, or seen Jesus. Historic Native Americans who had NDEs reported that they visited hunting grounds filled with animals and relatives. What does that tell us?

  12. annieheineck

    I find this article less than relative to an ALL conclusive study of NDE’s. This is like saying all humans with blonde hair have blue eyes, because the “majority” we studied have blue eyes. Sorry, this is lacking in so many study arenas that I just cannot even see where an argument is entitled.

  13. Brenda

    I do not agree with the assessment of this article that people see a diety which corresponds with persons religious or spiritual belief system. Studying NDE experiences for 15+ years from all religions all over the world people report seeing a “light” or seeing Jesus Christ. Now someone could interpret the light to be a Mohammed or Hindu diety but the light has always appeared as Jesus Christ even to atheist/ agnostics people who don’t have a religion. I have for instance only read one experience out of thousands that I thought the light was Mohammed.

  14. Cris Post author

    Then you should read the studies and study the data because it clearly shows that many, many people have NDEs that are different from “light” and Jesus. I catalog NDE experiences among Native Americans and can tell you that these experiences were, before missionization, uniformly about something other than “light” or Jesus. When NDEs are something other than light/tunnel (which is just nerve action and sub-cognition), it’s culturally bound. Large scale studies from communist countries before 1989 unequivocally show this to be the case.

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