This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 10 table of contents.

Near-Death Experiences

Brushes with death are emotionally powerful. They stick in our thoughts, alter our emotions, and put us through psychological changes.

One student turned in a dream report which sounds like a vignette from a surrealist movie. Her dream shows how a near-death experience affected her emotionally.

After a close call with death, when I almost drowned on a summer vacation, I had this dream. It was not until the lectures on dreams that I tried to analyze it.

I was on a rocky cliff high above some water. There was a struggle on the cliff between me and something. This something was not actually visual but I knew it was there, and I was threatened by it. I won the struggle because I saw a distorted figure with no facial features fall into the water. I felt a mixture of relief and victory as I saw it falling off the cliff. Then, when it hit the water, it began to swim away and I became frightened. It had survived the fall and could climb back up the cliff to where I was. I wanted to run but could not because the cliff was surrounded by water and there was no way down. I awoke suddenly and I have never forgotten that feeling of total helplessness as I was trying to find a way off the cliff.

The cliff represented life and the struggle was me fighting death to stay alive, just as I had fought to keep from drowning. I won the struggle and death fell into the water, which was symbolic because I almost died in the water. Maybe the water also represented death. Seeing death swim away represented the fact that I had not beaten death but just delayed it. Having no way off the cliff meant that I could not run from death because there is no way out of life except through death. [Author's files]

What are typical "afterlife" or near-death experiences?

Many people report a common pattern of experiences during near-death experiences: a bright light, a "guide" or angel to accompany them, and feelings of great peace. A report from one of my students is typical:

My father had a really unusual experience last fall. He had gone to Houston on a business trip and was sitting in a conference when he started having sharp chest pains. He thought he was having heart burn so he left the meeting. He was actually having a heart attack. If one of his associates hadn't followed him out he would have died. He passed out in the hallway. They rushed him to St. Mark's hospital. His heart stopped for several minutes while he was in the Emergency Room. Afterwards, he said that he could see himself lying on the table and could describe all the actions of doctors and nurses. It was as if he were standing up above himself looking down. Then he was walking down a dark tunnel toward a bright yellow light. As he got closer to the light he could see a man robed in a brilliant white robe who was motioning him to come. When Dad looked back, he saw my family waiting for him at the other end of the tunnel. Then the doctors brought him "back to life." I guess it was like he was going before God for Judgment. [Author's files]

Compare that with Kubler-Ross's description of near-death experiences in "hundreds of cases of persons who had clinically died and 'come back to life.'":

All reported traveling down a tunnel toward white, bright light, of being able to travel out of their bodies to watch doctors' efforts to revive them and of nonverbal communication with dead relatives (Harcus, 1978, p.B1)

Raymond Moody, in the book Reflections on Life after Life, describes the common themes of near-death experiences:

—ineffability (impossibility of describing the experience)

—hearing doctors or spectators pronounce them dead

—feelings of peace and quiet

—a loud ringing or buzzing noise

—a dark tunnel through which the person moves

—out-of-body experiences

—meeting others, including guides, spirits, dead relatives or friends

—a glowing light with a human shape

—a panoramic review of one's life

—a border or limit beyond which there is no return

—visions of great knowledge

—cities of light

—a realm of bewildered spirits

—supernatural rescues from real physical death by some spirit

—a return or coming back with changed attitudes and beliefs

Moody claimed that near-death experiences proved the existence of an afterlife. His claims received wide publicity. However, his credibility in the scientific community was not enhanced when he published Elvis After Life (1987).

What is Siegel's argument, concerning near-death experiences?

Siegel (1980;1981) argued that near-death experiences were due to oxygen deprivation and associated carbon dioxide build-up in the brain. He points out that drugs like LSD can stimulate all the phenomena described above. For example, Siegel offers the following description of a psychedelic hallucination:

"I'm moving through some sort of train tunnel. There are all sorts of lights and colors."

A different subject reports a drug-induced "bright light" hallucination:

"...It seems like I'm getting closer and closer to the sun, it's very white..."

As one would expect from Siegel's explanation, classic near-death experiences generally involve oxygen deprivation. Oxygen deprivation occurs when the heart stops, a great deal of blood is lost, someone nearly drowns, or someone nearly chokes to death.


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