Attitudes Toward Near-Death Experiences

Benjamin M. Linzmeier

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          Attitudes Toward Near-Death Experiences, by
Benjamin M. Linzmeier, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

 Attitudes Toward and Possible Explanations for the Near-Death Experience

A 55-year-old married White truck driver was admitted to the hospital with irregular heartbeat, and during diagnostic angiography suffered a coronary occlusion. He then underwent emergency quadruple bypass surgery, following which he reported having had a clear sensation of leaving his body and observing the operating room from above. He reported accurately certain idiosyncratic behaviors of the cardiovascular surgeon, pinpointing when they had occurred during the operation. He also described being distracted from the operating room scene by a brilliant light and following it through a tunnel to a region of warmth, love, and peace, where he experienced an apparent encounter with his deceased mother and brother in law, who communicated to him, without speaking, that he should return to his body. He awoke with an intense passion for helping others and a desire to talk about his experience, much to the dismay of his embarrassed wife. (Greyson, 2000, p. 315)

        Cases of people having come close to death and reporting unusual experiences during this time have been with us throughout history. However, these near-death experiences (NDEs) did not receive a great deal of attention from the popular culture or the scientific community until Raymond Moody’s (1975) Life After Life came onto the scene. Life After Life features case studies of people who have had what Moody termed near-death experiences. Soon after the publication of Moody’s book, several other researchers undertook studies to see if they could verify his findings.

            From 1980-1982 two such researchers, Kenneth Ring, a psychologist, and Michael Sabom, a cardiologist published detailed studies about NDEs with a statistical orientation that Life After Life had lacked. To their surprise, the results of their studies largely replicated Moody’s findings. Ring (1980) identified five stages of what he referred to as the “core experience”. These stages included a feeling of peace, separation from the body, entering the tunnel, seeing the light and entering the light. Although not all stages are always present, Ring found a pattern. He found feelings of peace to be the most common, occurring in 60 percent of his sample, following, in order, body separation, entering the tunnel, seeing the light, and entering the light, which occurred in 10 percent of his sample. Other phenomena associated with the NDE include being greeted by friendly voices, people or beings, seeing a panoramic review of the life just lived, a different sense of time and space, a reluctance to return to the earth plane and disappointment at being revived (Atwater, 1994), and ineffability when trying to describe it (Sabom, 1982).

            NDEs have been present in other time periods and exist across cultures (Zaleski, 1987). The incidence of the NDE does not seem to fluctuate much among various demographic categories such as gender, socioeconomic status or race. However, there are individual differences as well as cultural differences. Although people who undergo a life review do not usually feel judged as they view their life, at least one person has. (Serdahely, 1995). NDEs almost invariably temporarily free the experiencer from any pain. Yet, a return from this experience usually means a return in physical pain, but this pain did not return in at least one case (Serdahely, 1995).

            It is also important to mention that not all NDEs are pleasant. While frightening NDEs in general are significantly less common than pleasant NDEs, it is important to be aware that they may be greatly underrepresented due to the stigmatism that would be associated in volunteering or agreeing to relate such an experience. P. M. H. Atwater (1994), a near-death researcher and NDEer herself, listed some aspects of hellish NDEs including encountering lifeless or threatening apparitions, barren or ugly expanses, threats, screams or silence and feelings of danger and the possibility of violence and/or torture.

            Not surprisingly, there is a good deal of skepticism toward near-death experiences. This skepticism has much to do with the culture we live in today. A short glance at the transformation that has occurred in thought and science will help illuminate how we have arrived at a mindset that tends to be in opposition with phenomena such as the NDE.

            In the past few centuries there have been vast changes in the way we view nature and reality. The focus has been on using the scientific method and studying only that which is measurable. These general methods have stressed empirical analysis in which we have experienced exponential advances in our understanding of nature. This has extended from discoveries of the very small such as the atom and its constituents, the electron, neutron and proton to the very large such as galaxies, clusters and super clusters.

            We have made great strides in our understanding of the various forces in which matter appears to operate. First, Isaac Newton explained the activity of everything from the apple to the planets through his description of gravity. Later, Albert Einstein furthered this principle through his special and general theories of relativity. The special theory stresses an equality of all reference points while the general theory extends this principle to include accelerating motion and the interaction of speed, mass and time. Einstein’s work has helped to give us everything from the television to the atomic bomb.

            The scientific revolution has had practical benefits that have improved the quality of life for many people as well. During the Middle Ages in Europe, disease was rampant. This was most apparent during the time of the Black Plague. Living conditions in Europe preceding and during the time of the Black Plague were very poor. Most villagers lived in wooden huts. Even villagers who lived in stone houses with no windows. It was common for farm animals to spend the nights in the houses of their owners. Conditions for the nobility were almost as poor. Stables were located in the same place in which bread was baked. In the kitchen, flies were free to come and go as they pleased. The noble family spent most of their time in a hall, which they used for eating, sleeping, banquets and even relieving themselves (Marks, 1971).

            From the above description, it is no wonder that fleas and other vermin were able to carry diseases so easily. The devastation of the plague, which wiped out 250,000,000 people of one-fourth the population of Europe from 137-1351 (Marks, 1971), was only compounded by the people’s ignorance of the principles involved with spreading the disease. Would this tragedy have been as great if vaccines and other medical technology advances and better hygienic practices that followed the scientific revolution already been in place? One can only speculate.

            Such advances and have given us confidence that we can manipulate and improve our world by understanding physical nature and processes. Emerging from the “Dark Ages” has given us a sense of freedom from relying on a higher power to control our destiny. We have become very good at studying the physical world.  So when we are encountered with a phenomenon of a non-physical nature, many become skeptical. How can NDEs be measured when they are merely subjective events? There are no testable, measurable facets within NDEs, are there?

            These questions have plagued the field of near-death studies from being considered legitimate in the eyes of many. However, a vast body of evidence has lent support to the existence of NDEs. Some of this evidence comes from apparent vision in the blind, corroboration from others and facts that the NDEer couldn’t have known if unconscious.

NDEs appear to be a relatively common phenomenon. As indicated in the beginning of this paper, they have been present throughout history. NDEs occur in about 5 percent of the population. A Gallup and Proctor (1982) poll arrived at this estimate in a survey of 1500 American adults. This is consistent with an examination of an elderly population (Olson and Dulaney, 1993). This is also fairly consistent with an unpublished study I have completed recently (Linzmeier, 2001). I arrived at an overall incidence rate of 7.5 percent with incidence being higher in those 55 or older (17.4 percent) than those younger than 55 (4.7 percent). It is worth noting that I had far more non-elderly participants (84) than elderly participants (23). One reason for a higher percentage in elderly people is that they have been around longer and have had more chances to have an NDE. The literature definitely indicates that NDEs do exist, although their interpretation is greatly debated.

            Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper (1997) conducted a study of 31 blind people, many of who reported vision during their NDEs. 21 of these people had had an NDE while the remaining 10 had had an out-of-body experience (OBE), but no NDE. It was found that in the NDE sample, about half had been blind from birth. In all, 15 of the 21 NDEers and 9 of the 10 OBEers could see during their experience while the remaining participants either claimed that they did not see or were not sure whether or not they had seen. Almost all of the non-seeing or unsure blind people had been blind from birth. The blind people who apparently did see reported NDEs that included similar aspects to the traditional NDE such as watching doctors operate on them and otherworldly perceptions such as radiant light, angels or religious figures, deceased relatives, etc. (Ring & Cooper, 1997).

            Yet skeptics would argue that reported vision in the blind as well as NDEs in general are meaningless without evidence to back up their claims. In fact, some tentative evidence toward the validity of these claims exists in corroborative evidence.

            Ring and Cooper (1997) present one such case of corroboration. A woman who became blind following a botched surgical procedure was being rushed through a corridor on a gurney. One of the attendants accidentally slammed her into a closed elevator. At this point, she had an OBE in which she was able to see her own body from above as well as the father of her son and her current lover, both of whom were down the hall.

            Later, the former lover, who had not had contact with the woman for seven years prior to being interviewed, provided a similar description of what had happened that day including standing next to the father of the woman’s child and the disturbance at the elevator (Ring & Cooper, 1997).

            Though documented accounts of corroboration are less common than anecdotal accounts of corroboration and are deemed more important, the anecdotal accounts can be illuminating in describing the nature of such incidents. 

When I woke up after the accident, my father was there, and I didn’t even want to know what sort of shape I was in, or how I was or how the doctors thought I would be. All I wanted to talk about was the experience I had been through. I told my father who had dragged my body out of the building, and even what color clothes the person had on, and how they got me out, and even about all the conversation that had been going on in the area. And my father said, “Well, yes, these things were true.” Yet my body was physically out this whole time, and there was no way I could have seen or heard these things without being outside of my body.  (Moody, 1975, p. 122-123) 

            There have been more direct attempts at trying to prove the existence of NDEs. Greyson (2000) notes that some studies have been undertaken in which “targets” are placed near the ceiling in emergency rooms. In one study, colored pieces of cardboard were randomly selected and placed in various corners of the room. In another, a light emitting diode display projected a different nonsense phrase each day. The studies were conducted for one year and six months, respectively. However, neither study encountered any NDEers. 

     It is apparent that researchers in the field of near-death studies and the research they conduct will be highly scrutinized and in some cases dismissed by skeptics and other researchers. This is to be expected. Yet, what about the NDEers themselves?  What responses do they receive to their incredible stories?

            Unfortunately, NDEers have frequently received criticism or dismissal when recounting their stories. This can be especially devastating to people when loved ones or people they are very close to treat them in this fashion. Very often, the first person the NDEer speaks to following their NDE is a nurse of doctor or some sort of medic. These people can have a great effect on the NDEer as well, however as is evidenced in this passage. 

[Did you try to communicate to anyone anything of the experience?] Yeah, I told the nurse the next morning that I left the bed, that I came out into the hall and she told me that it’s impossible, that I was hallucinating and just dropped the subject. And had no time for silly things like that. [Did you try to tell anybody else?] Yeah, I tried to tell my internist. When nobody would listen to me about all this, I asked my internist if I could see a psychiatrist and he told me, no, that I was doing just fine. They just kept telling me that I was doing just fine…. They were just passing over the experience. I was the only one that wasn’t just passing over it. I wanted to see a psychiatrist very badly. [For what reason?] Because things were happening that I just couldn’t understand and I thought that maybe the psychiatrist could help me to understand…. I really thought the psychiatrist at that point would be the answer to all of my confusion and nobody understood, nobody wanted me. [How did that make you feel?] I just kept withdrawing more and more into my own world. I really didn’t have much desire to go on living. I really wanted to go back to the tunnel…. I really wanted to die….(Ring, 1984, pg. 93)           

This passage illustrates how important some degree of understanding and empathy is to the NDEer. It must be realized that for the NDEer, their experience is not merely a hallucination as some people frequently claim. In fact, NDEers who have also experienced hallucinations consider their NDE to be “more real” than ordinary reality which, in turn is “more real” than hallucinations they have experienced (Greyson, 2000). Fortunately, the recent popularity of the NDE in the media has helped to create greater awareness among professionals and lay people alike than there was two decades ago. 

Ketzenberger and Keim (2001) noted that, despite the numerous studies that have been done regarding NDEers and their beliefs and values, little research has been conducted on the same topic in non-NDE populations. There appears to be a correlation between knowledge of NDEs and attitudes toward them. People who have a greater knowledge of NDEs tend to have more positive attitudes (Ketzenberger & Keim, 2001).

There seem to be great cultural differences in beliefs about NDEs. In an Australian study, 58 percent of participants interpreted an NDE vignette as possible evidence of life after death and 15 percent thought they were dreams or hallucinations. (Kellehear & Heaven, 1989). This is in stark contrast to a Chinese study in which 58 percent believed they were dreams or hallucinations and 9 percent believed they were evidence of life after death (Kellehear, Heaven, & Gao, 1990).

In my study I looked at familiarity of NDE and explanation for them in a non-NDE population. In the non-NDE population who were very familiar with NDEs, 64 percent believed that they were transcendent in nature.  Of those who were somewhat familiar with them, 66 percent believed they were transcendent in nature. Of those who were not familiar with them, 44 percent believed they were transcendent in nature. Although these statistics are not overwhelming, they do seem to indicate that if there is some knowledge of NDEs there is a greater likelihood that they will be viewed as transcendent in nature. Other explanations that were available included a psychological explanation and a physiological explanation which were selected with similar, although lesser frequency (Linzmeier, 2001).

            Must we be solely focused on absolutely proving the existence of NDEs within the construct of current Western science? Bohm and Peat (2000) talk of a “creative play” which can be utilized in order to promote original thought and new connections among existing ideas. Unfortunately, they note, creative play is greatly underutilized in the scientific establishment today.

            The lack of creative play and the adherence to established paradigms grows until the scientist is unaware of his or her limited position (Bohm & Peat, 2000). The current infrastructure of scientific thought relies on specialization often at the expense of creativity and novel thought. True, specialists gain greater knowledge of their respective fields, but at what cost? Might these people be unaware of the greater picture as they delve deeper and deeper into their own fields?

            Creative play would allow for those in the field of near-death studies to examine features of the experience, even those of a transcendent nature without proving absolutely the existence of NDEs. Perhaps by doing so, a method for proving or disproving their existence might even arise.

            It is apparent that NDEs do occur, although their interpretations and explanations vary. The NDE is very real to the NDEer and the reactions that they encounter from friends, family and medics have a great effect on how they cope with their new outlook on life. Although NDEers have traditionally been treated with either malice or indifference upon telling their stories, an increasing popularity with NDEs in the media as well as in academia has helped to create greater understanding. For instance, in my study only 25 percent of participants were not familiar with the NDE (Linzmeier, 2001).

            Although research in near-death studies relies largely on validation of their actual existence, a deeper analysis into their nature is still warranted. Regardless of whether NDEs are of a transcendent nature or if they can be explained as a psychological or physiological phenomenon, they are still of great importance. The idea of creative play mentioned by Bohm and Peat (2000) should be utilized in order to further our knowledge of NDEs. Near-death studies may also inform or be informed by other disciplines such as physics, neurology and psychology so that we gain a better understanding of the nature of science and reality.


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Linzmeier, B. M. (2001). Incidence and causes of the near-death experience and life review among the elderly and non-elderly. Unpublished senior research paper, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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