Comparing NDEs and Dreams
Comparing NDEs and Dreams
Jody A. Long and Dr. Jeff
Although there is no researcher consensus as to the definition of near death experience (NDE), a recent Dutch study by Dr. van Lommel, discussed in the last issue of Vital Signs, defines NDE as the 'the reported memory of all impressions during a special state of consciousness, including specific elements such as out-of-body experience, pleasant feelings, and seeing a tunnel, a light, deceased relatives, or a life review.'1 Critical to this modern concept of NDE is the awareness that the experience involves 'a special state of consciousness.' The most common altered state of consciousness, experienced by both near death experiencers (NDErs) and non-NDErs, is dreams. Some NDErs questioning the reality of their experience may wonder if their experience was a dream. Other NDErs who share their experience with others often encounter those who dismiss the NDE as 'just a dream.' To study any possible relationships between any elements of NDEs and dreams, we reviewed the responses of NDErs to several relevant questions from the web questionnaire form on the Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF) website (www.nderf.org).
To understand how dreaming and NDE might be similar or different, it is helpful
to review several concepts regarding dreams. Dreams can be defined as, 'a
series of images, ideas, etc., occurring in certain stages of sleep.'2
The common understanding is that dreams are the workings of the subconscious
brain in processing our waking reality. A more formal definition is a
non-conscious electrophysiologic state while the body is alive.3
Carl Jung describes dreams as part of the collective unconscious.4
The NDERF web site has always contained a detailed questionnaire web form for NDErs to share their experiences since August 1998. Informed consent is given by web form respondents, as the web form introduction and instructions disclose the purpose of the survey, use of the material submitted, assurance of confidentiality to the extent requested by the contributors, and lack of compensation for participation in the survey. This web form contains a section for NDErs to share a narrative of their experience and asks over 50 questions regarding demographics, experience elements, and aftereffects. A total of 224 NDEs received from August 1998 through mid-May 2002 are analyzed in this study.
Narrative responses to the two most relevant questions on the survey 'Was the experience dream like in any way?' and 'Following the experience, have you had any other events in your life, medications or substances which reproduced any part of the experience?' were analyzed in depth. An affirmative response to both questions and a narrative response to the latter question indicating some aspect of dream(s) reproduced any part of the NDE was considered necessary to accept that some elements of the NDE were similar to some elements of dreams.
Of 224 NDEs submitted, 217 (96.9%) responded to the web form question 'Was the experience dream like in any way?' This question allowed a response in a narrative text box. While it is recognized that the question may have a bias in favor of an affirmative answer, the intent was to encourage NDErs to share any similarity between their NDE and dreams to the greatest extent possible. An affirmative answer would be appropriate if any portion of the experience was dreamlike, even if nearly all the experience was not dreamlike. No accounts submitted to the web survey were classified as non-NDEs solely based on their response to the question 'Was the experience dream like in any way?' Narrative responses from the 217 NDErs responding to this question were analyzed in depth. These narrative responses were categorized as indicating a 'yes,' 'no,' 'unsure,' or 'mixed' response to the question. The categories of 'yes' and 'no' are self-explanatory. Those answers placed in the 'unsure' category partially answered or did not specifically address the question, while the 'mixed' category consisted of those indicating 'yes' to some NDE elements and 'no' to other elements. Of the 217 narrative responses to this question, 164 (75.6%) were classified as 'no,' 38 (17.5%) as 'yes,' 12 (5.5%) as 'mixed,' and 3 (1.4%) as 'Unsure'.
The narrative responses suggested NDErs have various ideas of what 'dreamlike' means. The 'yes' and 'mixed' categories contained the greatest variety of interpretations of the concept of 'dreamlike.' It is interesting to note that the comments from those who did not think the experience was dreamlike in any way, were more definitive in their responses than those in the other categories.
From the 'no' category, most defined 'dreamlike' by contrasting it with reality. Several went so far as to contrast earth as the dream and the other side as reality. Typical of these types of comments, one experiencer stated 'The experience seemed more realistic than reality itself for several weeks and years after.' Many would distinguish the NDE from a dream by comparing clarity of events, ease of exact recall, and intense amazement that the event was happening. For example, Nate summarized his experience as, 'very vivid, stereophonic, techno-color, [and] cinerama-like.' Likewise, intensified emotions were similarly described.
The 'yes,' 'mixed,' and 'unsure' responses were less emphatic in their responses than the 'no' answers. Respondents in these categories seemed to focus more on the out of body component of the experience, and drew similarities to dreams in the experience components of a floating sensation, or of moving without effort. Typical analogies to a dream were, 'only when I was floating I felt I lost control of myself,' or 'in a sense, it was a dreamy feeling, in general, somewhat surreal,' or 'it all seemed very odd and strange.' Of the 38 with responses classified as 'yes,' 13 (5.5% of the total group) distinguished exactly what parts of the NDE were dreamlike, suggesting the possibility that portions of the NDE may not have been dreamlike.
Many 'mixed' category responses would distinguish that after the out of body component of the NDE, the rest of the experience was not dreamlike. Answers indicating part of the NDE was dreamlike might be expressed somewhat vaguely such as, 'at times,' or 'Sorta, but no,' or more definitively such as, 'only in the unusualness of the events . . . otherwise it seemed more real than day or night dreams.'
There were only four responses classified as 'unsure.' Of these four responses, two (0.9% of the total group) specifically stated that parts of the NDE were more real than a dream.
Further analysis was conducted to determine if there were any differences among the demographics, experience elements, or aftereffects of NDEs between the two groups with responses categorized as 'yes' and 'no' to the question 'Was the experience dream like in any way?' To accomplish this, a chi-square analysis (a statistical test) was performed. Details of the questions asked are on the www.nderf.org web site5. A total of 58 chi-square analyses were performed. There was no statistical difference, or even a trend toward statistical significance, between the groups with responses classified as 'yes' and 'no', and any of the demographic, experience elements or aftereffects asked on the NDERF web survey.
Of all 224 NDEs submitted, 212 (94.6%) responded to the web survey question, 'Following the experience, have you had any other events in your life, medications or substances which reproduced any part of the experience?' This question allowed a response in a narrative text box, and also a check box response of 'yes,' 'no,' 'uncertain,' and a default response of 'no response.' Of the narrative responses reviewed, only four people (1.9%) indicated dream(s) reproduced any element of their NDE. Three of these four respondents answered 'no' to the question, 'Was the experience dream like in any way?' Only one person, answered affirmatively to both questions. This person, Tina, stated that, 'meditation, dreams in sleep and momentary flashbacks of a sort' reproduced elements of the NDE. She answered that the NDE was dreamlike, 'in some ways.'
The findings of this study suggest that virtually all NDEs contain at least some elements that are not dreamlike. Only four NDErs responded to the question 'Following the experience, have you had any other events in your life, medications or substances which reproduced any part of the experience?' with an indication dreams reproduce any part of the NDE. This study required an affirmative response to this question, an indication in the narrative response to this question indicating some aspect of dream(s) reproduced any part of the NDE, as well as an affirmative response to the question 'Was the experience dream like in any way?' to accept that some elements of the NDE were similar to some elements of dreams. Only one NDEr out of 217 met these requirements, suggesting virtually all NDEs contain elements that are not dreamlike. These study findings suggest NDEs and dreams are generally different states of consciousness.
The results of our comparison of NDErs with responses categorized as 'yes' and 'no' to the question 'Was the experience dream like in any way?' further suggests NDEs are not significantly dreamlike. There was no statistical difference between these two groups, or even a trend toward a statistical significance, in any of the demographic, experience elements or aftereffects questions asked on the NDERF web survey. A response categorized as 'yes' to the question 'Was the experience dream like in any way?' did not predict for any significant difference in the NDE in any way from the majority of NDErs with responses categorized as 'no,' who indicated their NDE was not dreamlike in any way.
NDEr responses to the question 'Was the experience dream like in any way?' classified as 'no' may describe the NDE highly lucid, clearly remembered and recalled years later, such as is typical in one NDEr's comment, 'Not a chance! It is as vivid today as it was forty two years ago.' There also appears to be a heightened awareness of the physical senses and emotions, much more so than dreaming. This can be seen in comments like, 'I've never recalled a dream with such clarity before,' or 'No, very real, I will never forget!,' or 'it was very real to me, the power and energy was nothing like a dream.' In fact, this heightened awareness and clarity of events seems to play a key role in NDErs occasionally concluding that life on earth is not as 'real' as life on the other side. These descriptions are very different than those of ordinary dreams.
NDEr responses to the question 'Was the experience dream like in any way?' classified as 'yes' and 'mixed' may express doubts regarding the reality of the experience and conclude it was dreamlike. One NDEr called the NDE a dream to avoid ridicule from his wife and friends. Interestingly, there were accounts from two children who grew up calling their experience a dream because they did not have the framework to call it anything else. In their adulthood, and after discovering NDEs, they now define their experience as not dreamlike. This suggests the importance of reassuring NDErs that what they experienced was not a dream.
An important observation about NDEs is that unlike dreams, the logical flow of events is generally not interrupted, especially in longer and more detailed NDEs. In contrast, the flow of dreams may be illogical, and the dream may be interrupted (such as when the alarm clock goes off) prior to a logical conclusion of the sequence of dream events. For example, Tsalagi commented that the experience was 'not floaty and didn't jump between topics as in dreams.'
During a cardio-pulmonary arrest, the EEG (a measure of brain electrical activity) generally becomes flat, indicating no measurable brain electrical activity within about 10 seconds. Any conscious experience during this time, especially the special consciousness NDErs describe, is not medically explicable. Further research will be important to understand this special state of consciousness during NDE.
authors express our heartfelt thanks to those who shared their experiences with
us, and whose willingness to share made this study possible. Those having
experienced NDEs and related experiences are encouraged to share their
experience. Web form questionnaires are available at www.iands.org and
1 Near Death Experience In Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: A Prospective Study in the Netherlands, Pim van Lommel, et al, THE LANCET ' Vol 358 ' December 15, 2001, p. 2040.
2 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Davies, Peter Ed., Dell Publishing, New York, (1978) p.217.
3 Definitions of Dream: A Paradigm for Comparing Field Descriptive Specific Studies of Dream J. F. Pagel, M. Blagrove, R. Levin, B. States, B. Stickgold, and S. White.
4 Jung, Parapsychology, and the Near Death Experience, Toward a Transpersonal Paradigm, by Micheal Grosso. Published in, 'The Near-Death Experience, Problems, Prospects, Perspectives, Eds Greyson, Bruce M.D., Flynn, Charles, Ph.D., Charles C Thomas Springfield, Ill (1984) p195.
5 Long, J.P., and Long, J.A. (2002). Near Death Experience Research Foundation (www.nderf.org).