A near death experience is a collection of cognitive and emotional responses to an encounter with death, whether that encounter is related to a sudden accident or to an illness. The phenomenon has been recorded throughout history, and in various cultures around the world. "Although the term near-death experience…was not coined until 1975, accounts of similar events can be found in the folklore and writings of European, Middle Eastern, African, Indian, East Asian, Pacific, and Native American cultures," (Grayson, 2006, p. 394).
Near death experiences "are described at length in both the eighth-century Tibetan Book of the Dead, and in the 2500-year-old Egyptian Book of the Dead," as well as in Plato's Republic (Talbot, 1991, p. 240). There is also a strong history of near death experience testimony in the literature of Christian mystics (Zaleski, 1987). According to Michael Talbot, author of The Holographic Universe, near death experiences occur in about five percent of the American population. "Near-death experiences do not appear to be limited to any specific gender, race, social class, or religion," (San Filippo, 1991). Talbot (1991) concurs that there are no demographic characteristics, including lifestyle habits such as church attendance or place of residence, which impact the prevalence or type of experience.
Moreover, the phenomena and events associated with near death experiences "appear to be universal," (Talbot, 1991, p. 240). When determining the efficacy of the near death experience, it is important to remove any cultural bias that might be hampering the research. Blackmore, S.J. (1993) conducted a small study to determine any cross-cultural differences in near death experience. Of 19 people surveyed in India, seven reported no experiences, four reported "dreamlike" experiences, and eight reported the classically defined near-death experience (p. 205). A more extensive Indian survey was undertaken by Pasricha (1993). In the Pasricha (1993) study, 6430 individuals in four different villages in Southern India were surveyed. Results show that near death experiences occurred in about two out of every thousand persons. Research into near death experiences also shows that they resemble a diverse range of shamanic experiences (Green, 1998).
Qualities of the Near Death Experience
In Plato's Republic, a Greek soldier "came alive just seconds before his funeral pyre was to be lit and said that he had left his body and went through a 'passageway' to the land of the dead," (Talbot, 1991, p. 240)
Blackmore (1993) refers to the "universality" of the tunnel experience (p. 207).
However, Talbot (1991) notes that the tunnel experience is more common among Westerners who have experienced a near death experience than people fro non-European backgrounds. "Experiencers from other cultures might walk down a road or pass over a body of water to arrive in the world beyond," (Talbot, 1991, p. 241). Regardless of the particular details, the tunnel, road, or journey motifs can be linked together to form a cohesive universal phenomenon associated with the near death experience. All of these motifs are a form of travel, or going from one place to another.
Acute Sensory Perception
"even patients who are blind, and have had no light perception for years, can see and accurately describe what is going on around them when they left their bodies during a near death experience," (Talbot, 1991, p. 242).
Bryson (2006) found that individuals who have near death experiences "share with mystical experiences" qualities like "a sense of cosmic unity or oneness, transcendence of time and space, deeply felt positive mood, sense of sacredness,, noetic quality of intuitive imagination…ineffability, transiency, and persistent positive aftereffects," (p. 393). In fact, there are few cases in which a near death experience created adverse emotional sensations in the person.
Subsequent changes in outlook/worldview/attitude/behavior
According to San Filippo (1991), the near-death experience causes many if not most to "have a sense of a need to make positive changes in his/her life. These changes can be to seek atonement of things that he/she might have done wrong in his/her life prior to the experience or to make improvements in his/her life and to be more compassionate towards others." Furthermore, "these changes appear to be sincere and lasting." The changes have been likened to "spiritual transformation" in the sense that they have profound and lasting impacts on the person's attitudes, beliefs, worldview, and behaviors toward others (Bryson, 2006, p. 393).
Near death experiences have been too often delegated to the province of the spiritual, religious, supernatural, or cultural. As Zaleski (1987) points out, the science behind near death experiences has "perhaps only temporarily eluded science," (p. 183). "Some researchers argue that all the features of the NDE can be accounted for in terms of the processes going on in the dying brain," (Blackmore, 1993, p. 206). Among the specific neurological or neurophysiological features include hypoxia, temporal lobe dysfunction, limbic system dysfunction, and imbalance of neurotransmitters," (Blackmore, 1993). Specifically, the role of endorphins and serotonin has been investigated (Blackmore, 1993; Blackmore, n.d.).
Although some have posited that a near death experience represents hallucinatory "final visions produced by a massively disinhibited and dying brain," science has failed to come up with a clear and conclusive explanation of why, how, when, and to whom near death experiences occur (Braithwaite, 2008). In fact, there is no substantial evidence that the near death experience is a hallucination, especially given that many of the individuals reporting near death experience have had flat EEG readings at the time; in other words, the person was practically dead (Talbot, 1991). A hallucination would have corresponded to active EEG readings, notes Talbot (1991).
The perception of light can be easily attributed to the neurological functioning that occurs during the near death experience. As Blackmore (1993) points out, the organization of cells in the visual cortex has "many more cells devoted to the central area of the visual field, "(Blackmore, 1993, p. 207). Not only does this have the potential to create the sensation of light, but also of the tunnel with light at the end of it. The tunnel phenomenon can be explained by "any mechanism that causes disinhibition and consequent random firing in the cortex," (Blackmore, 1993, p. 206). Because of the universality of the near death experience motifs and particular phenomena such as moving through a tunnel and seeing light, there is even more plausibility for a brain structure or neurological component. If culture does not account for the near death experience, then at least science might.
Most of the controversy surrounding the near death experiences is not related to questioning the validity of the personal accounts or even the validity of their apparent universality. Sufficient research has shown that a small number of people experience similar phenomena when their bodies are close to death, but they still survive. The return to life comes with it memory of the near death experience, similar to the memory of a dream. Just as science does not question the "reality" of the dream state, even though it has no hard, concrete, tangible reality, neither can science deny the "reality" of the near death experience. As Braithwaite (2008) puts it, the near death experience as an altered state of consciousness can simply be described in terms of the brain. "According to the current scientific view, consciousness is an emergent property of the human brain in action," (Braithwaite, 2008). This does not negate the experience, but it does reduce it to a set of physiological phenomenon. A materialistic or reductionist view is not romantic, but it nevertheless offers a credible insight into the near death experience, and how to interpret or study them.
What is controversial is how to interpret the near death experience. Too many assumptions have been made about the near death experience, and science warns researchers to stick to the facts and not leap to illogical conclusions. One of the most common assumptions about the near death experience is that they prove that there is some kind of life after death. This conclusion is "untenable," as Blackmore (n.d.) notes. "Even though the boundary between life and death is pushed back by improved techniques, it is always possible to argue that the person did not actually die and that the experiences were part of life and not death," (Blackmore, n.d.). In the book Life at Death, Kenneth Ring also suggests that the conclusions drawn about the importance of near death experiences are spurious and culturally biased. Researchers like Talbot (1991) for example, jump to the conclusion that because of the prevalence and similarity of motifs in the near death experiences across cultures that the people are "actually making visits to an entirely different level of reality," (p. 242). In a study examining the Indian experience of near death experiences, Blackmore (1993) found that those who were near death physically, but who did not have a classic near death experience in terms of tunnel or other motif, also "experienced changes in their lives and beliefs," (p. 213). The ascription of an external reality that exists after death provides an existential salve for…