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Near-death experiences have long been a fascinating phenomenon, prompting more questions than answers. “Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences,” by Dr. Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry, shares firsthand accounts of people who had a close brush with death and lived to tell about it. Here is an excerpt.
Chapter one: Journey toward understanding
Build it and they will come. —W. P. Kinsella, “Field of Dreams”
The year was 1998, and I was now in Las Vegas practicing the medical specialty of radiation oncology. The nineties was the decade in which the Internet exploded. Everyone was rapidly becoming smitten with this big brain in the sky, and I was no different.
Despite the steep learning curve of building websites with primitive software and slow connections, I had decided in 1997 to build the Radiation Oncology Online Journal (ROOJ.com) as a way of sharing credible information about this medical specialty with the world. It took a tremendous amount of time and effort outside of my clinical practice to assemble this nonprofit website, which I maintain as a way of providing solid information to the public about cancer treatment.
By the time I completed the ROOJ site I was an expert in website computer code. Then the idea hit me: build a website that will collect near-death experience case studies. By doing this I could amass a large number of NDE stories from around the world. Working with a large number of NDEs is important because medical studies involving a large study group produce more reliable results than do those studying a small group of people.
I built on the curiosity and work of those who had gone before me. Over the ten years since I heard Sheila recount her personal story, I had stayed in close contact with research in the field of near-death studies. Hundreds of scholarly articles had been written on near-death experience, including publications in many of the world’s most prestigious medical and scientific journals. I read the works of many major NDE researchers, including those of Dr. Moody; Melvin Morse, MD; Bruce Greyson, MD; Michael Sabom, MD; and Ken Ring, PhD. I also found myself fascinated with some of the individual stories, like that of Betty Eadie (Embraced by the Light). All of these books relied heavily on case studies. These stories of individual NDErs fed the sense of mystery I associated with this subject.
Now I was even more interested in searching for the truth than I had been ten years earlier. The implications of these experiences were so profound that I wanted to research the subject to determine if they were truly real.
The Internet was an ideal way to carry out this research. Through a website, I could reach people around the world who were willing to share their near-death experience with others. They weren’t being paid to write about their experience and had no intention of appearing on television. They would simply tell their stories directly in their own words. I would offer a series of questions aimed at helping NDErs fully express and deeply explore their incredible experience. There would be no interviewer present to possibly guide the answers or encourage embellishment, and no time constraints. Reading their shared stories would be like reading the most intimate of diary pages. By collecting NDEs via the Internet, I could examine the content of a large number of experiences, reliably determining similarities and differences, and find out once and for all if NDEs are real or imagined.
In the past a considerable amount of research had been accomplished but often with only a few NDEs. This wasn’t the fault of the researchers. Case studies of NDEs are not easy to find. Although some research indicates that as much as 5 percent of the U.S. population has had a near-death experience, many people keep them secret or find no reason to entrust their most intimate spiritual experience with their doctor or researchers.
An unfortunate reason NDErs might not share their stories is the attitude of many in medicine toward these experiences. I have heard many heartbreaking stories from NDErs who shared highly accurate observations of their own resuscitations, only to have physicians dismiss their experiences as insignificant. Even though there is no reason NDErs should have any conscious awareness of their resuscitation, their accounts were given short shrift by physicians who should have marveled at their patients’ experiences rather than ridiculed them.
I spent many years serving on the board of directors of the International Association for Near-Death Studies. During our meetings I heard far too many stories of the problems NDErs encountered when they tried to tell their near-death experiences to the medical staff. One of the classic stories was a patient who told his doctor about his NDE in front of several nurses. When the patient finished telling his story, the doctor looked up from his clipboard and said, “Don’t think too much about it. It was just fantasy.”
When the doctor left the room, the nurses closed in around the crushed patient and said, “It’s not fantasy. We hear about these events all the time from patients. Doctors like him live in fantasy. They never hear these because they don’t listen to their patients.”
This was one way in which taking case studies over the Internet was superior to interviewing people directly. People who have these intimate experiences are sometimes reluctant to be interviewed in person and in a formal way about their NDE. They may feel that the interviewer isn’t sincerely interested in their experience, or they may feel awkward about sharing such an unworldly experience with others.
Responding to an Internet survey, by contrast, offers the NDEr a chance to share these remarkable events as if they are talking to themselves. Rather than being forced to overcome any discomfort they might have with an interviewer, they are comfortably recounting their own story privately, by themselves. They also can take as much time as they want. Many NDErs shared their appreciation with me after they took the survey. They found the survey helped them to accurately and comprehensively convey their experience.
This is why I felt (and still do) that an Internet survey is more effective in many ways than a face-to-face interview.
Of course, I had concerns as I put together the NDE website survey. For example, how could I tell for certain if the stories being told were valid? I pondered this question a lot and decided to rely on the tried-and-true scientific method of redundancy. Redundancy in interviewing means asking the same question (or questions that revolve around the same concept) several times in slightly different ways. For instance, in the demographic portion of the questionnaire, there is a box to check if the person had an out-of-body experience. One would expect that if this box was checked, then the answer to the question “Did you experience a separation of your consciousness from your body?” should be “Yes.” If we find inconsistencies in a person’s answers, we can check the narrative to see what the NDEr really experienced. Later, after large numbers of NDEs were shared, I was impressed at how consistent the responses were to the redundant questions.
The NDERF Internet survey reaches NDErs who have never shared their near-death experience with another person and would be unlikely to be reached by any other methodology used to study NDEs. The NDERF survey asks, “Have you shared this experience with others?” To this question, 8.5 percent of NDErs answered “No.”
Importantly, many studies have directly compared the reliability of Internet surveys with the more traditional pencil-and-paper surveys by studying groups of people who took surveys with both methods. The consensus of these studies is that an Internet survey is as reliable as the pencil-and-paper survey method. This further validates the reliability of the NDERF survey.
I already knew I needed to listen carefully to the near-death experiencers, so it made sense to ask the NDErs themselves how accurate they thought the NDERF survey was. Near the end of the current website survey, I ask an important question: “Did the questions asked and information you provided so far accurately and comprehensively describe your experience?” Of 613 NDErs responding, the answers were 84.5 percent “Yes,” 8.8 percent “Uncertain,” and only 6.7 percent “No.” This is some of the strongest possible validation of the reliability of the NDERF Internet survey, from the NDErs themselves.
Finally, my background as a physician helps me determine if a life-threatening event actually happened. I use the Karnofsky scale, which is a medical scale widely used to measure closeness to death. Karnofsky scores range from 100 (no physical compromise) to 10 (moribund) to 0 (clinically dead). I can also determine if the medical events described in the NDEs are medically plausible.
In the early days of the website, I was concerned there might be frauds or pranksters claiming to have had a near-death experience. I am glad to say this is very rare. For one thing, there is no incentive — financial or otherwise — to spend a substantial amount of time filling out the lengthy and complex survey form in order to claim a false NDE. Eventually, those trying to submit a falsified NDE discover how difficult it is to respond to a detailed survey if they have never had such an experience. In over ten years, we have uncovered fewer than ten clearly fraudulent accounts submitted on the NDERF survey form and have removed them promptly from the website and database.
I was also concerned that there might be copycat accounts, in which all or part of an NDE would be copied or plagiarized from another source. This has happened, but again very rarely. When it does, readers of the website report the copycat account, and we remove it from the site. The enormous number of visitors to the NDERF website helps assure that none of the posted NDEs are plagiarized.
I had other concerns too. Near-death experiences are complex and might be difficult for some to express in words. This is why many researchers in the past have considered them to be “ineffable,” or incapable of being expressed in words. It is not uncommon to hear an NDEr describe their experience as being, well, indescribable. I was concerned that many people might find it impossible to express what happened.
Are NDEs generally ineffable? I asked myself as I assembled the questionnaire for the NDERF site.
Given all these concerns, was I wasting my time?
The website for the Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF, www.nderf.org) was launched on the World Wide Web on August 30, 1998. I had many questions about whether the NDERF site would be successful. Was the questionnaire too long? Did NDErs really want to share their experience with the world? Would people trust a site like this?
I had not spent money on publicity for the site. Several months later, by monitoring the Web traffic, I could tell that the site had been visited by relatively few. Our search engine ranking was a pitiful 64.
Had I wasted hundreds of hours to accomplish nothing? Would enough experiences ever be shared with NDERF to answer my questions about the reality of NDEs?
Humbled, I continued to work diligently on the site. By now I had told several friends about the site and shared my concerns that few people were actually visiting it, let alone filling out the questionnaire. When I said this, some of my friends would simply smile and utter one of the most popular movie lines in history: “If you build it, they will come.” This is the classic line from the film “Field of Dreams,” in which an Iowa farmer builds a baseball field on his farm in hopes that several long-dead baseball players will come there to play.
As you can imagine, “build it and they will come” is not the creed of evidence-based medicine. We like to start with a little more science than that. As a result, I still cringe a little whenever I hear this Hollywood aphorism. However, I continued to build the site in hopes that, yes, they would come.
And finally, come they did. By December 1998 I downloaded the first twenty-two case studies from the website with great anticipation. I was jubilant. With all the effort I had put into the site, I was now going to have information about NDEs from the source — people who had the experiences! As a scientist and a “prove it to me” kind of man, I personally needed precisely this kind of information to begin to scientifically study NDEs.
Those first twenty-two case studies didn’t disappoint. As I read them it started to become obvious to me that the NDEs were real. I could see the same pattern of elements that Dr. Moody and other researchers had outlined in their work, including such elements as consciousness occurring apart from the body at the time of a life-threatening event.
Reading these early case studies was exciting beyond my wildest dreams. It became clear to me that by studying a large number of these NDEs in words that came directly from those who had experienced them, I could hope to eventually provide some answers to humankind’s most perplexing question: What happens when we die?
Below are paraphrases of two of the first twenty-two NDE case studies I was honored to receive on the NDERF website:
Experience #16: “I Felt Like a Fly on the Wall”In 1963 this young man lost control of his car and collided with a brick wall. His injuries were severe enough to fracture his face and sinus cavities and to break his jaw. Badly hurt, he sat on wet grass near the destroyed vehicle and then drifted into unconsciousness. As you read this, note the calmness with which he describes his experience as well as the presence of a very powerful out-of-body experience that seemed to indicate to him that all would be well in his life despite this near-fatal accident. Here’s his story:
I was in a severe automobile accident several years ago. The steering wheel smashed my face. The accident happened in a rainstorm, and I ran off the road and hit a tree.
For a while after the crash I felt nothing, and then the pain started to burn in my face. I got out of the car and lay down, hoping it would make me feel better, but it didn’t. Finally I just blacked out. When I awoke, I couldn’t see anything because my face was covered, but I could tell I was in a hospital from the sounds and the fact that I was on some kind of bed.
I don’t know how long it was, but I had the distinct sensation that I was floating out of my body. I saw my parents, who were there at the bedside, and could feel their emotional pain. It was strange. I should have been in pain but wasn’t. Instead I was standing next to my parents trying to console them as they looked at their darling son, whom they had just been told was going to die. It was horrific, but there was nothing I could do about it. I stood next to my mother and tried to get her attention, but I couldn’t because she didn’t know I was there. I looked at my own body but wasn’t interested in what I was seeing. I actually felt like a fly on the wall.
Something in my mind finally clicked as I realized that they would eventually discover that I was not in pain, whether it was here on earth or not. At that point my empathetic pain went away and I focused on my experience. I remember thinking, “So this is what death is about,” as I rose further out of my body.
A light came into view and became larger and brighter as I drew closer. I knew this was it, the end of my life, and I wasn’t afraid. But as I drew near, a voice shouted at me to stop. And I mean shouted. “No, not yet!” the voice said.
When that happened I felt myself return very hard into my body. I gasped very loudly, but I knew I was going to survive after that. When they say it’s not your time, it’s not your time.
When I first read this man’s account of his near-fatal automobile accident, I was taken by the calmness with which he described the sense of peace and painlessness that came over him in the hospital. I was also intrigued by his description of the light that formed the boundary between life and death, as well as the strong voice that stopped him from crossing into the light.
This man came back from his experience with the ability to “intuit people’s feelings” (his words) as well as understand their emotional logic. Intuiting people’s feelings may be one type of psychic experience. I would encounter many more NDEs describing psychic experiences in the future.
Experience #21: “Wake Up, Diane”
Diane had an unusual problem. When she sat on the couch in the afternoon to watch her favorite soap opera, the young woman found herself falling asleep and having great difficulty waking up. The problem disturbed her so much that she mentioned it to her husband, who could offer no solution. Finally she decided to sit up on the sofa and watch the program rather than lie down. As it turned out, sitting up made the problem worse. Behind her, about five feet from the couch, was a leaking gas pipe that emitted enough natural gas into the room to nearly kill her. Ironically, she would have died had it not been for a visitation by her deceased grandmother during her NDE that brought her back. Here is a paraphrase of her story:
I sat myself down on the couch and started watching my favorite soap opera, and next thing I knew someone was yelling at me to wake up. I kept hearing this voice telling me to “wake up, Diane, you have to wake up.”
When Diane opened her eyes, she was looking at her grandmother who had died when she was only three years old. The grandmother smiled and told Diane to get up and follow her to safety. When she got up to follow, Diane realized she had left her body, which was now below her on the sofa. She felt no fear as she looked down at her body. She also felt no fear at the realization that there were two spirits elevated with her, one on either side of her spiritual body.
While out of her body she felt a sense of enormous peace and love. One of the spirits told her she could either stay in her spiritual body or return to the physical body below. It was a tough decision for Diane, but one that led to her choosing the physical body because she still had things left to do on earth. With the making of that choice, Diane took a deep and painful breath, and then another, until she awoke and realized that she had nearly been asphyxiated by the gas leak.
Needless to say, the gas leak was fixed soon after Diane’s NDE. The experience, however, had a lasting effect on her life. Here is a paraphrase of what Diane wrote:
The experience taught me that everything is known. At the time, I did not feel it was important to ask anything. God has made it so we will know everything when we die.
Evidence of the afterlife
1. It is medically inexplicable to have a highly organized and lucid experience while unconscious or clinically dead. In our NDERF research, near death is defined as an individual who is physically compromised to the extent that death would be expected unless their physical condition improves. Those who are near death are generally unconscious and may be clinically dead with loss of breathing and heartbeat.
To understand how remarkable it is to have a conscious experience at a time of clinical death, it is helpful to understand that when the heart stops beating, blood immediately stops flowing to the brain. Approximately ten to twenty seconds after blood stops flowing to the brain, brain activity necessary for consciousness stops. Brain activity can be measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures brain electrical activity. When brain activity stops, the EEG readings go flat, indicating no measurable brain electrical activity.
Medically, I can’t conceive of any meaningful experience that could occur near death. Aren’t people near death generally unconscious? Doesn’t the very term unconscious mean that there is no possibility of an organized conscious experience? Yet despite what should be a blank slate for NDErs, they describe highly lucid, organized, and real experiences. In fact, NDErs say they are usually experiencing a more heightened state of awareness than in everyday earthly life. This is medically inexplicable given that NDEs generally occur during unconsciousness.
2. NDErs may see and hear in the out-of-body (OBE) state, and what they perceive is nearly always real. An out-of-body experience (OBE) is the first element of the experience for many NDErs. During the OBE, many NDErs describe events that they shouldn’t be able to see, mainly because they are unconscious or because the events are taking place somewhere else, far away from their body. Events often include seeing their own unconscious body as well as frantic resuscitation efforts to revive them. These observations have been verified as realistic in hundreds of reports.
3. NDEs occur during general anesthesia when no form of consciousness should be taking place. While under general anesthesia, it should be impossible to have a lucid experience, let alone one of greater consciousness than everyday life. The NDERF survey has yielded dozens of NDEs that took place under general anesthesia. Here is one such incident that happened to Debora. At the age of thirteen she went into the hospital for minor surgery, and the anesthetic caused her heart to stop. As her doctor struggled to keep her alive, Debora suddenly found herself out of her body:
My heart stopped from anesthesia during surgery ... I floated up to the ceiling and could see my body lying on the table. The doctors were alarmed and saying that they were losing me. I was not scared; I was with a couple of very kind people that I believed at the time were angels. They told me not to worry; they would take care of me. I heard a whooshing sound and was being propelled up through a dark tunnel toward a light ... A woman held out her hand to me; she was lovely, and I felt that she loved me and knew who I was. I felt safe in her company. I didn’t know who she was ... One day a few years after the surgery my mother showed me a picture of my paternal grandmother, who had died giving birth to my father. It was the lovely woman who held my hand at the other side of the tunnel. I had never seen a picture of her before.
4. NDEs take place among those who are blind, and these NDEs often include visual experiences. Individuals totally blind from birth are completely unable to perceive the visual world that the rest of us do in everyday life. To those born blind, the ability to see is an abstract concept. They understand the world only from their senses of hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Their dreams do not include vision, although they may include other senses such as sound and touch. Vision cannot be adequately explained to a person blind from birth by drawing analogies to the four remaining senses they possess. Yet when a blind person has an NDE, the experience usually includes vision.
5. A life review during the NDE accurately reflects real events in the NDEr’s life, even if those events have been forgotten. A life review involves a review of prior events in the NDEr’s life. Fragments of the person’s earthly life may be seen, or the review may be fully panoramic with a comprehensive review of most of the prior life. Here is one such example, from a young woman from India who nearly died from a complication of anesthesia:
My entire consciousness seemed to be in my head. Then I started seeing pictures. I think they were in color. It was as if someone had started a movie of myself and of my entire life, but going backwards from the present moment. The pictures were about my family, my mother, other members, others, and it seemed that the most meaningful, loving, caring relationships were being focused upon. I could sense the real meaning of these relationships. I had a sense of love and gratitude towards the persons appearing in my flashback. This panoramic review of my life was very distinct; every little detail of the incidents, relationships, was there — the relationships in some sort of distilled essence of meaning. The review was measured in the beginning, but then the pictures came in faster and faster, and [it] seemed like the movie reel was running out ... It went faster and faster, and then I heard myself, along with the entire universe in my head, screaming in a crescendo, “Allah ho akbar!” (God is great).
6. Virtually all beings encountered during NDEs are deceased at the time of the NDE, and most are deceased relatives. When NDErs encounter people that they knew from their earthly life, those people are almost always deceased at the time of the NDE. By contrast, in dreams or hallucinations the beings encountered are much more likely to be living. This is another distinguishing feature between NDEs and dreams or hallucinations, further suggesting the reality of NDEs.
Many times the NDErs encounter a being that seems familiar, but his or her identity is unknown. The NDEr may later discover the identity of this familiar but unknown being, for instance by looking at old family photographs.
7. The striking similarity of content in NDEs among very young children and that of adults strongly suggests that the content of NDEs is not due to preexisting beliefs. Children — even those under the age of six — have virtually the same elements in their near-death experiences as adults do. This is strong evidence in itself that near-death experiences are real, not dreams or fabrications. Why? Because very young children almost certainly have never heard of near-death experiences, as adults often have. They probably don’t know anything about life reviews, tunnel experiences, out-of-body experiences, or any of the other elements of the NDE. They become aware of such things, usually for the first time, when the experience actually happens.
The fact that children have virtually the same elements of near-death experiences that adults do makes this one of the most convincing lines of evidence that NDEs are real events and not due to preexisting beliefs, cultural influences, or prior life experiences.
8. The remarkable consistency of NDEs around the world is evidence that NDEs are real events. There is a simple analogy I like to use that illustrates this point: If families from the United States, Spain, and Mexico all go to Paris, do they see the same Eiffel Tower? The answer, of course, is yes. The only difference might be in the way the different cultures describe this landmark. The same is true of people from different cultures who have near-death experiences. Our collection of NDEs from cultures worldwide shows striking similarity in content among all of them.
9. NDErs are transformed in many ways by their experience, often for life. The NDERF study found consistent and long-lasting changes following NDEs. Near-death experiencers have a decreased fear of death, which seems to go hand in hand with an increased belief in the afterlife. In addition, NDErs become more loving and compassionate in their interaction with other people. Our study found that near-death experiencers may seek out helping or healing professions after their brush with death. Also, many NDErs in the study had been changed so much by their experience that they were no longer the same; they had become nicer!
The NDERF study also found that 45.0 percent of those surveyed said they had “psychic, paranormal, or other special gifts” that they did not have prior to the experience. They went on to provide many such experiences in the narrative portion of their survey. One such story of supernatural gifts came from Thomas, who nearly died from a heart rhythm irregularity. What he had to say about his extraordinary gifts was short and to the point:
I felt a need to meditate. Upon doing so I was able to hear voices and see things. (Some might call [them] spirits or unearthly beings.) I have the ability to see auras; I sense other people’s pain and am able to heal with touch. For a while I had brief spurts of telekinesis.
One of the most intriguing — to me — transformations were the unexpected healings that some reported. We have encountered many such cases in the NDERF study, including ones in which people with very serious illnesses, both physical and mental, believe they were healed around the time of their NDEs.
The transformational qualities of the NDE give me reason to believe that whatever a person experiences on the other side, a little bit of it may come back, bringing change here as well.
Strong and bold proof
Any one of these lines of evidence on its own strongly suggests an afterlife. However, I consider the combination of these nine lines of evidence to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the existence of an afterlife. That is certainly a bold statement but one I am compelled to make after years of painstaking research.
An important NDERF survey question asks 613 NDErs what they think of the reality of their experience — how they viewed the reality of their experience shortly after its occurrence and also at the time they completed the survey. In response, 95.8 percent believed at the time of completing the survey that their NDE was definitely real. Not one NDEr said that the experience they had was “definitely not real.”
And then there is the spiritual content of NDEs, namely answers to such age-old questions as: Why are we here on earth? What is important about our earthly existence? Is there an afterlife? Now that I have reviewed thousands of NDE case studies, I can say that the content of NDEs has substantial consistency in these answers. I would emphasize that this consistency tells us that something real is taking place in these NDEs. This remarkable consistency of spiritual messages suggests something extremely important, not only for the person near death, but for all of us.
The true strength of the NDERF study has been the sheer number of case studies we have examined and the consistency of results. From this volume and the consistency of their content and message, I believe we have some answers to humankind’s most perplexing question: What happens when we die?
But that is my belief. The results of our groundbreaking research are presented in the following chapters. You be the judge.
Excerpted with permission from “Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences” by Dr. Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry (HarperOne, 2010).