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

Experts discuss what near-death experiences look, feel like.

Aug. 3, 2011— -- 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.

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."

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."

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."

'Other Beings': Seeing the Dead

MYSS: "They experience encounters with relatives that have gone on ahead of them. Angels."

LONG: "Very often they see people they knew ... that had died prior to the experience, most commonly these are relatives. These are not frightening or ghostly experiences at all; these are described as joyous unions. ... There's a great deal of sharing. ... It's often one of the more dramatic parts of a NDE that people [report]."

Religious Experience or Brain Function?

MYSS: "I think that our backgrounds -- if we come from the Hindu faith, if we come from the Islamic faith, if we come from Buddhism, or Christianity, or Judaism, these traditions influence what we experience in a NDE. ... They seem to serve as an immediate filter that we go through."

NEWBERG: "When you're dreaming ... a lot of the areas of the brain are actually almost just as active, if not more active, than in our everyday life. ... What we think is happening [in NDEs], and where there may be a relationship, is that these areas get very active, and we start to visualize and see people, things, places and so forth. ... It's very interesting how the brain may actually help to envision those ideas, or perhaps even create those ideas..."

'I Saw My Life Flash Before My Eyes': Life Review

MYSS: "A life review is frequently but not always the case. In cases where the life review is not present, I think someone's NDE wasn't as deep or intense or they were resuscitated very fast. In a life review ... [people] go through all the choices they've made in their lifetime and the consequences of their choices ... and they're also shown what other choices they could have made had they had a more generous or loving heart."

Out of Body/Clairvoyance

NEWBERG: "People have suggested that in the near-death state, where there is a significant change going on in the brain, that maybe this area of the brain that helps us to perceive our body is somehow kind of flipped outward, and we have this very unusual kind of looking down on our body. ... [ND Experiencers] also can see the entire room ... the operating room, or the emergency room, and they can see the doctors who are attending to them."

LONG: "About 45 percent of ND Experiencers have ... what we call an out-of-body experience where they're typically above the body ... often they'll be at ceiling level or in a corner of a room ... they're able to see and typically hear what's going on around them with their body down and away from them. These [people] have recorded very accurate observations of ongoing earthly activities, even if that point of consciousness is far from the geographic location of the body. For example we've had people that have 'coded' ... their hearts have stopped in emergency rooms, and yet they can accurately describe conversations that they see and hear people going up and down hallways outside of the ER, even in distant areas of the hospital.

"These types of things that we're seeing with the consciousness apart from the body and the overwhelming accurate observations that they make, is absolutely medically inexplicable. ... [It] defies anything we know about consciousness and how the brain works. When these people are unconscious they may be clinically dead, at that point in time the accuracy they have is over 90 percent in several different studies, of being completely accurate in everything they're seeing and hearing, even if what they're seeing and hearing is far outside of their physical body and far from possible physical awareness."