Final Thoughts

Brushes with death that do not involve oxygen deprivation seldom provoke visions of bright lights, guides, or out-of-body experiences. Final thoughts before what appears to be a fatal accident are often remarkably ordinary or humorous, rather than profound.

Gwynne Nettler, a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, spent 40 years collecting "firsthand accounts by people who knew they were in a disaster-the kind of event that can end life or make it unalterably worse." He was looking for reports of "moments of truth" such as those reported by the psychiatrist Russell Noyes.

Noyes reported near-death experiences such as these:

[From a young poet who nearly drowned] "A dazzling prismatic effulgence cleared my vision. Not only did I see and hear harmony, but I understood everything."

[From a Swiss professor of Geology who dropped 66 feet during a mountain climb] "Elevated and harmonious thoughts dominated and united individual images and, like magnificent music, a divine calm swept through my soul." (Nettler, 1985)

Nettler wanted to collect data systematically, so he went in search of every possible report of a near-death experience, great and small. He interviewed 56 people who survived death-threatening situations, and he collected 211 secondary reports including final statements by people who actually died. To his disappointment, Nettler discovered mostly very ordinary-even banal-"final thoughts." For example:

What sorts of "final thoughts" did Nettler discover?

"Bullfighter Carlos Arruza, hoist on a bull's horn, thinks, 'Now the bastard's ruined my whole afternoon.'"

A sailor, "bleeding to death on a California highway beside his wrecked car, mumbles before closing his eyes, 'This would have to happen on my birthday.'" (Nettler, 1985)

How often did Nettler come across great truths, new meanings, and inspiration in the moments before death? "Almost never," he says. As a result, Nettler is skeptical of articles and books reporting profound thoughts in the moments before death. He suggests, "...Interviewers, looking for the 'critical flashes,' may have led their crisis survivors to 'remember' them."


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey