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Research estimates indicate 5 % of US population have had near-death experiences

The French philosopher, psychologist and epistemologist (cognitive theorist) Victor Egger (1848-1909) is said to be the first to use the expression “experience de mort imminent” (near-death experience), in the article “Le moi des mourants” (Revue Philosophique 1896: XLI: 26-38).

Albert Heim. Public domain image. Cropped

In 1895, the Paris newspaper Le Temps (1861-1942) had written about a lecture the Swiss geologist and researcher Albert Heim (1849-1937) had given in Zurich about mountain climbers who had had close contact with death during falling accidents. Heim himself had experienced such an accident and described how one sees one’s whole life passing by, gets a sense of peace and thinks incredibly clearly.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004), Swiss-American psychiatrist, author and pioneer in the study of near-death experiences, published in 1969 her ground-breaking book “On Death and Dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy, and their own families.”)

In 1975, the American psychiatrist Dr. Raymond Moody, regarded as founder of near-death studies, used the term “near-death experience” in his international bestseller Life After Life.

About near-death experiences

Moody was influenced by an experience that Dr. George Ritchie (1923-2007) had had when, as a 20-year-old soldier, he was declared dead twice by a doctor in a field hospital, but woke up to life again nine minutes later. Ritchie later wrote a book about what he had experienced while he was “dead”. The book is called Return from Tomorrow and was published in 1978.

Raymond Moody on near-death experiences
Raymond Moody 5th Feb 2017. License: CC ASA 4.0 Int

While studying psychiatry at the University of Virginia in 1965, Moody spoke to Ritchie, who told him about the amazing near-death experience during World War II. It made Moody really interested in the phenomenon and prompted him to investigate 150 cases of near-death experiences. In his groundbreaking study, the persons he interviewed, told in their own words what they had experienced while “clinically dead”, before they were revived. There were many similarities in their stories, such as a feeling of going through a tunnel before meeting dead relatives and a bright light at the end of the tunnel. Those experiences were accompanied by a sensation of being out of one’s physical body.

Moody on near-death experiencesBased on those interviews, he wrote the book Life after Life. Later, he authored several other books on the subject, among them Reflections on Life after Life (1977) and The Light Beyond (1988), co-written with Paul Perry. Perry has himself authored or co-authored 15 books about near-death experiences; five of them became New York Times bestsellers.

Bruce Greyson in 2018. Screenshot from YouTube video.

The person who has contributed the most to scientific research into near-death experiences (NDEs) is Dr. Bruce Greyson. He has also been called the “father” of such research. Greyson began his research on near-death experiences at the University of Virginia in the mid-1970s. Together with, among others, Dr. Kenneth Ring (professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut) and Dr. Michael Sabom (physician and cardiologist from Atlanta, Georgia), he built on the research of Dr. Raymond Moody, Dr. Russell Noyes Jr. (psychiatrist from Iowa, USA) and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

Greyson collected data from over 1,000 cases of near-death experiences. Bruce Greyson is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia. He is co-author of the book Irreducible Mind and co-editor of The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences. Greyson has written many articles in scientific journals and has often been interviewed by the media about near-death experiences (NDEs).

Also Sam Parnia, associate professor of medicine, has contributed a lot to near-death studies. He studied consciousness during cardiac arrest and emphasizes that “the human mind, consciousness, or psyche (self) may continue to function when brain function has ceased during the early period after death”. This indicates that consciousness is not generated solely by the brain. His books include What Happens When We Die (2007), and Erasing Death: The Science That is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death (2013). Parnia is founder and director of the Human Consciousness Project at the University of Southampton, England.

Pim van Lommel
Pim van Lommel in 2012. License: CC ASA 3.0 Unp

Another scientist famous for his research on near-death experiences is Pim van Lommel, Dutch cardiologist and author. In 2001 the findings of his study, which included 344 cardiac arrest patients at 10 Dutch hospitals, were published in The Lancet medical journal. His book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience (2007 in Dutch, 2010 in English) became a bestseller.

In an interview on Thanatos TV 30th May 2019, he said “All these patients with this enhanced consciousness, with this near-death experience, with cognition, with emotions, with clear thoughts, with memories, happens during the period of a non-functioning brain. […]. And my opinion now is that consciousness is not localized in the brain and the brain has a facilitating function and not a producing function to experience consciousness.”

Another NDE author, Eben Alexander, an American neurosurgeon, is famous for his own experience in 2008, when he suddenly became ill with a rare form of bacterial meningitis that has a 90 % mortality rate. He was in coma seven days, during which he had a profound near-death experience. When he awoke and gradually fully recovered, he started to write down what he had experienced while in coma. His notes became his international bestseller Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (2012).

He also authored The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife (2014) and Living in a Mindful Universe: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Heart of Consciousness (2017, co-authored with Karen Newell)

Alexander writes, “First and foremost, near-death experiences, and related mystical states of awareness, reveal crucial truths about the nature of existence. […] NDEs such as mine then represent the tip of the spear in a rapidly progressing enlightenment of the scientific community around the mind-brain relationship, and our understanding of the very nature of reality. The world will never be the same.” (My Experience in Coma, an article by Dr. Eben Alexander on his website.)

Dr. Jeffrey Long, a practicing radiation oncologist in Houma, Louisiana, USA and founder of the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation, is another scientist who have produced a bestseller on NDEs – Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences (2010), co-authored with the above-mentioned Paul Perry.

In another book – God and the Afterlife (2016, also co-written with Perry) – we learn that among the many similar features of the thousands of NDE accounts described, there is a strikingly similar depiction of God as a “Supreme Being who radiated love and grace”. The NDE research foundation Long runs with his wife Jody, is a forum where persons who have had NDEs, may share their stories. Long has collected more than 4,000 such experiences from around the world.

Another American who has published several books on NDEs is P.M.H. Atwater (Phyllis Marie Huffman Atwater) from Idaho, among them The Big Book of Near-Death Experiences: the ultimate guide to what happens when we die (2007). And We Live Forever – The Real Truth About Death (2004)

And many more have written about the NDE phenomenon – John Burke, Betty Eadie, Anita Moorjani, Mary C. Neal, Michael Newton, Lynn Vincent, to name a few.

Text: Knut Holdhus

See also Spirit – consciousness and memory

See also Spiritual Reality