Introduction (Full Text)
Near-death Experiences (Full Text Extract from Chapter 1: “What is it Like to Die?”)
- Most of us at the very least wonder about our own immortality and many people are convinced that there is something beyond death, beyond the blackness of the grave. In Western Judaeo-Christian culture we absorb from an early age the idea that virtue now has its own reward — later. We are taught that the universe is essentially moral and that there are absolute human values.
- But increasingly, science presents us with a picture of a much more mechanical universe in which there is no absolute morality and man has no purpose and no personal responsibility except to his culture and his biology. We no longer live in an age when faith is sufficient; we demand data, and we are driven by data. And it is data — data that apparently throws some light on our current concepts of Heaven and Hell — that the near-death experience seems to offer.
- The near-death experience (NDE) is intriguing for two major reasons. First, it is very common and secondly, it is cross-cultural. The results of one NOP survey in America suggest that over 1 million Americans have ‘seen the light'. Any experience that is so common must have had some influence on the way we think about life and death. Indeed, it could be the very engine that drives our ideas of an afterlife1. Many people believe that in the NDE we are given glimpses of Heaven (or Hell). But it is just as reasonable to assume that it is the NDE itself which may have shaped our very ideas about Heaven and Hell.
- It is natural that we should want to examine such experiences in detail and subject them to scientific scrutiny. But it's also important to bear in mind that we may not be using the right tool for the job. The scientific method of analysis is essentially objective: are we justified in using it to analyse data which is mainly subjective? One aim of this book is to give space to those who have experienced the beyond and to give ourselves time to listen to them without preconceived prejudices. Then we may be able to decide whether their experiences can be explained by an entirely scientific approach or whether it is only by taking a wider view of man and of the universe that we can find any satisfactory answers.
- The experiences described in this book are all first-hand accounts from people who wrote to me or to David Lorimer, chairman of the International Association of Near Death Studies (UK), after a television programme, radio broadcast or magazine or newspaper article made them aware of our interest in near-death experiences. People wrote from all over England, though the greatest number were from the south-east. There were fewer responses from Wales; fewer still from Scotland, and only one or two from Ireland.
- We asked 500 of those who wrote to answer a detailed questionnaire about their experiences. Our aim was to gather in a standardised format as much detail as we could about the NDE, the people who have experienced it and the effect that the experience has had on their lives.
- Over 350 people replied. Of these 78 per cent were women and 22 per cent men. Eighty per cent were adult (over eighteen) at the time of their experience; 9 per cent were ten or younger. About half described themselves as Church of England, 12 per cent as Roman Catholic, 19 per cent as other Christian denominations and 1 per cent were Jewish. Eight per cent described themselves as agnostic and 2 per cent as atheist. But few were regular churchgoers — only 16 per cent went to church every week, though just over a third had been to church in the previous month. Asked whether religion was important to them, 39 per cent said it was, 41 per cent that it wasn't, and 20 per cent replied ‘Maybe'.
- As well as asking about the near-death experience itself, we tried as far as possible to discover when it occurred, and what state of consciousness the person was in when it began. Many people had their experience during an operation, while they were under anaesthetic. Others were asleep2 at the time of the catastrophe that induced the NDE. Just over a third were taking some form of drug at the time of their experience. It was common for patients who were having a heart-attack to report it that the NDE began while they were awake.
- Most experiences occurred during illness. The illnesses varied very widely but were usually severe though not always life-threatening. We had two accounts from people whose near-death experiences occurred at the time of an attempted murder when they were unconscious. Two per cent of our sample had NDEs during a suicide attempt.
- Most (79 per cent) had had one NDE only, though a surprising number (12 per cent) had had two and a few (9 per cent) said they had had three or more. Clearly the NDE does not confer lifelong immunity — in fact it looks as though there may even be an NDE-prone personality or that one experience in some way facilitates another.
- Kenneth Ring, an American psychologist, has suggested that NDEs are most likely to occur in people who have had a difficult birth and so are possibly mildly brain-damaged, or in people who have had a particularly unhappy childhood. We tested these ideas and found that in our sample they did not hold true. Only 27 per cent said they had had a difficult or prolonged birth, and only 17 per cent said their childhood had been unhappy: indeed, 50 per cent described their childhood as ‘very happy' or 'happy'.
- We asked about the effects that the NDE had on the subject. Seventy-two per cent said that the experience had changed them in some way. As might be expected, attitudes towards death and dying were often changed by the experience. Although the great majority (82 per cent) said that they now had less fear of death, it is interesting that fewer than half (48 per cent) believed in personal survival after death. Forty-two per cent reported that they were more spiritual as a result; 22 per cent claimed to be a ‘better person', and 40 per cent said they were more socially conscious than before. An increase in psychic powers is often reported in people who have had NDEs, and 47 per cent of our sample said they felt the experience had made them more psychically sensitive.
- We also wanted to know how many people had read about NDEs before their experience. This was important, since if the subject already knew about the experience before it occurred, then it would be reasonable to suppose that his or her NDE could to some extent be coloured by this. We found that only a tiny proportion (2 per cent) said they had first become aware of NDEs before their own experience. The vast majority (98 per cent) knew nothing about the phenomenon and became aware of what had happened to them only much later, when they happened to come across accounts of other people's experiences.
- It is from this database that the statistics quoted in this book have been drawn, and the accounts given to me by these people and by others who have written to me since then form the basis of the book. But their accounts provided much more than mere statistics. Each one was special in its own way, and provided a personal testimony which I found both moving and utterly sincere. It is very seldom that an author can so truthfully say that without others a book could not have been written — in this case, without these people there would, indeed, have been no book. I feel privileged to have been allowed to read their accounts, and I am grateful to everyone who, by being willing to share their experience with me, has helped in this search to find the truth in the light.
… Peter Fenwick, London, December 1994
- What actually happens in a near-death experience? No two are identical and yet, as anyone who has studied them has found, there are uncanny similarities between them. Certain features crop up again and again, regardless of the person's sex or age, or (even more intriguingly) of their religion or culture, so much so that Bruce Greyson, another American psychiatrist and NDE researcher, laid out a blueprint of a characteristic experience. The events described don't always occur in the same order, and few people experience every event. But virtually everyone who has had a near-death experience will recognise some features in the following brief outline, and will be able to say, ‘Yes, this is what happened to me.'
- Feelings of Peace: For many people overwhelming feelings of peace, joy and bliss are the first and most memorable part of the experience. Any feelings of pain that the earthly body may have been feeling drop away.
- Out of the Body: Often the experience begins with the person leaving his or her body. He feels as though he is slowly rising out of it, weightless, floating, and can look down on himself from some objective vantage-point, usually near the ceiling.
- Into the Tunnel: The person may enter darkness, usually a dark tunnel. They seem to pass very rapidly through this without making any physical effort. At the end of the tunnel they see a pinpoint of light which, as they approach it, grows larger and larger. For some people the whole tunnel is a tunnel of light, not darkness.
- Approaching the Light: For many people, the light is one of the most significant parts of the experience. Nearly always it is described as white or golden, a very brilliant light but not dazzling, so that it doesn't hurt your eyes. Very often the light seems to act almost as a magnet, drawing the person towards it.
- The Being of Light: At this point the person may meet a ‘being' of light. If the person is himself religious, this may be an obviously religious figure such as Jesus; sometimes it is simply a ‘presence' which is felt to be God or God-like. This is nearly always an intensely emotional experience, so much so that often the experiencer cannot find the words to describe his feelings. But the experience is nearly always a positive one. The descriptions that are given are of a presence that is warm and welcoming and loving.
- The Barrier: Sometimes people sense that there is some sort of barrier between them and the light, a barrier which in some way marks a point of no return. Several see this as a physical barrier — a person or a gate or fence - sometimes it is simply a feeling that they know this is a point beyond which they cannot pass.
- Another Country: Experiencers often say that they have visited another country — usually an idyllic pastoral scene, brilliantly coloured, filled with light — or that they have glimpsed such a place beyond the barrier.
- Meeting Relatives: Occasionally other people are encountered too, usually dead relatives, more rarely friends who are still alive, or strangers. In some instances these figures beckon to them, in others they wave them away, signalling that they should go back.
- The Life Review: At some point in the experience the person may see events from his life flash before him; a few people have felt they are being weighed, up, experiencing a sort of Day of Judgement in which their past actions are reviewed. Some have a life preview — events are unfolded to them which are to take place in their future, and sometimes they are told there are tasks ahead of them which they must go back to complete.
- The Point of Decision: Often people want to stay, more than anything they want to stay. But in every case they realise that this is impossible, that it is not yet their time to go. Sometimes they make the decision to go back themselves, usually because they realise that they are still needed by their families. Sometimes it's made for them; they are sent back either by the being of light, or by the friends or relatives they have met. Often they are given a sense that they have unfinished business to complete before they are finally allowed to ‘cross the barrier'.
- The Return: The return to the body is usually rapid; the person often shoots backwards down the tunnel at tremendous speed, and ‘snaps back' into their body as if on the end of an elastic cord.
- The Aftermath: For most people the near-death experience is one of the most profound they will ever have. It is vividly remembered for years — often for a whole lifetime. And very often the person who has had it reports that he or she returned changed in some way, often, though not always, permanently. Virtually everyone reports that afterwards they have no fear of death, though they don't particularly want to die — it's as if they value life even more and have a renewed sense of purpose. Their attitudes change. If they already have some religious faith the experience tends to confirm it. Even if they have no particular religious faith, many, probably most, return believing that death is not the end. A small proportion believe that they have been given psychic powers, precognition or the gift of healing, following their experience.
- As a neurophysiologist and neuropsychiatrist, I have always been interested in different states of consciousness. We know so little about the mind and whether or not it is entirely limited to the brain. The scientific evidence so far suggests that it is, but the question still remains open. It looked to me as though near-death experiences might be another way of looking at the relationship between brain, mind and consciousness.
- Near-death experiences also seemed to have a lot in common with other kinds of mystical experiences, for example those in which the subject feels that he has seen through the very texture of the universe into its ultimate structure. Often people feel that the experience is one of universal love, that the structure of the world is love. People who have NDEs often describe similar feelings of being surrounded by universal and complete love.
- These mystical experiences had always interested me because they seem to lie at the frontier of science; we can find partial scientific explanations for them, but they can't be explained entirely by the mechanisms we already know. And yet as an area of research they are unsatisfactory because they occur at random and totally unpredictably. Of course it is interesting when people say they have felt that they are part of the universe or report that visions of the Virgin Mary regularly appear to them. But they can't make these experiences happen to order; they just occur.
- This makes it impossible to set up a situation in which you can actually monitor what is happening to someone's brain during a mystical experience and correlate this with what they are feeling, their subjective experience. If you could do this then you would be able to set up a prospective study, that is a study in which you can watch things as they happen and so know what has actually occurred. If you cannot do this then you have to rely on the person's memory of what he thinks was happening to him at the time he had his experience. Such retrospective studies are inevitably distorted by memory, and this makes them much less reliable, and, scientifically, of much less value.
- Yet it looked as though in the near-death experience one might have a mystical experience which not only seemed to conform to a consistent pattern but occurred only in special circumstances, and as these circumstances were known there was real chance of predicting it and therefore of setting up a prospective study.
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