Ask the Experts: What Is a Near-Death Experience?

PHOTO: Dr. Andrew Long

It's hard to imagine anything more mysterious and subjective than a near-death experience, commonly referred to as a NDE. So it may be surprising to learn that they are the subject of many serious studies.

So what does a NDE look and feel like? There are thousands upon thousands of descriptions, all of which show striking similarities between different people's experiences -- the white light, a tunnel, a life review and sense of peace -- so there does seem to exist a unifying thread throughout. We asked experts to weigh in on some of the most common themes of the near-death experience.

What is a NDE?

"Well, of course there are two basic explanations," said Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. "One is the religious or spiritual one, that the person's soul or spirit has actually gone on to some other world, and we have to at least admit that as a possibility." The other explanation is that it "might be a loss of the sense of self, an out-of-body experience, a seeing of a light or a tunnel, and there may be specific areas of the brain that contribute to a person having" this experience.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Dr. Andrew Newberg

Caroline Myss, a best-selling author and a speaker on spirituality and health, focuses on the first explanation. "A near-death experience is a phenomenon in which a person's physical body ceases to have any signs of life, and the soul detaches from the body and begins what could be called the journey into the afterlife. ... A long tunnel of light begins to appear. ... What's so phenomenal is that the descriptions [people] give, no matter what culture, no matter what background, match the ancient descriptions ... from various cultures. So if these experiences were in fact made up or hallucinatory, somebody did a very good job of getting that information out to multiple cultures at the same time."

Caroline Myss
Caroline Myss

Dr. Jeffrey Long runs the Near Death Experience Research Foundation. He defines the physical conditions of someone having a NDE as "unconscious ... or actually clinically dead, with absent heartbeat and no spontaneous respiration. ... And yet when they shouldn't have any conscious remembering at this time, they do. ... While no two NDEs are the same, if you study large numbers of NDEs you see that very consistent pattern of elements."

Dr. Jeffrey Long
Dr. Jeffrey Long

Common Elements: The Light at the End of the Tunnel

NEWBERG: "There is sometimes the movement ... through a tunnel. ... And ultimately ... a person enters into what they refer to as a realm of light."

MYSS: "The white light is obviously associated with what we think of as divine. ... the indication that the force of heaven is in fact coming towards you."

LONG: "Very often as they're moving through the tunnel, there's a very bright mystical light ... not like a light we're used to in our earthly lives. People call this mystical light, brilliant like a million times a million suns..."

Peace and Love

NEWBERG: "When the brain is dying, or when the brain is getting rebooted back into life, we do have this incredible feeling of calmness ... and I think it speaks to the fact that there's a certain universal quality in all of us that enables all of us to have these kinds of experiences."

MYSS: "The NDE fills a person with peace, with tranquility, with a sense of love. ... You have a sense that nobody has that kind of power over your life. All of a sudden those fears are over with ... and there's a sense of safety that simply doesn't exist in this world. That's where the peace comes from."

LONG: "It is very common among ND Experiencers that ... they feel such intense peace, connection, love ... that they don't want to return. In fact if they're asked to return to their earthly bodies by other beings who are with them there will often be some arguments."

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