Not many return from the dead. However, sometimes people are fully submerged in temporary moments of death, before returning back to the living. Researchers call this phenomenon the Near Death Experience.
NDEs occur in life-threatening body conditions, even where the brain and heart is effectively dead but the human consciousness remains. Although there are many theories, such as undetected brain activity or cognitive compensation, the cause of NDEs are largely a mystery to the neurology and psychology community. When a dead patient’s vitals return, they remember vivid, intense experiences during their clinical death. While some describe an acute awareness of their death, others see a light at the end of the tunnel. Some even re-live a collection of their memories and see their lives flash by.
Most of the NDEs are seen as spiritual and positive, but 1-15% of documented NDEs are deeply distressing. These low numbers are not only indicative of how rare these occurrences are, but also how few people want to talk about them.
NDEs aren’t for everyone, and there are three major types of NDEs that are more than unpleasant. One category is defined retaining trauma of people’s fear and powerlessness in their last moments. Afterall, the flood of emotions and awareness of your own mortality from an NDE can be overwhelming. The second common report is a void-like feeling of darkness and total disconnection, also known as “existential hell”. Some people’s worst fear is the nothingness that comes after death, and this NDE clearly reflects it. The third type of distressing NDEs is a more clear-cut version of hell. Some have claimed to see demon like figures and descriptions befitting the fires of an inferno. While it might be easy to assume that, according to religion and our sense of justice, those who receive these more nightmare-like NDEs are unsavory people who deserve what they are seeing, Dr. Marilyn A. Mendoza’s work with inmates of the Angola State Prison show that jailmates are seen the same NDEs as non-incarcerated people.
Distressing NDEs can happen to anyone, and they can have drastic effects. The University of Virginia, the Department of Psychiatric Medicine, has recently published a paper regarding the connection of posttraumatic stress and NDEs. Researchers sampled 194 people from 18 to 65 who have nearly died about whether or not they experienced NDE, and how that has impacted their lives onwards. In their studies, more participants who have experienced NDE expressed that they still have intrusive thoughts and denial about their trauma than those without NDE. Although for most participants it had been more than 15 years since their NDE, the lingering effects of NDE changed how often and intensely they think about their near death. While staring death in the face can be a source of trauma, the participants of this experiment did not match enough symptoms to be diagnosed with PTSD.
From seeing the light at the end of the tunnel to the empty embrace of the void, NDEs are lucid reminders of human morality and how our mind transcend it. Although there is not enough knowledge and research on NDEs, the immense power these moments have on people is largely observed and understood. While some have found spirituality, others revisit the clawing of death constantly.
Greyson, B. (2001). Posttraumatic stress symptoms following near-death experiences. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 368-373. Retrieved from http://web.b.ebscohost.com.proxy.library.stonybrook.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=ce3ec1e1-dc2b-4bf8-96ec-95080d5bd0c7%40pdc-v-sessmgr06&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=2001-01985-010&db=pdh
Mendoza, M. A. (n.d.). What We Know About Near Death Experiences. Retrieved from Psychology Today website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-grief/201902/what-we-know-about-near-death-experiences
Mendoza, M. A. (2017, February 3). Prisoners working with the dying. Retrieved from Psychology Today website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-grief/201702/prisoners-working-the-dying
Taylor, S. (n.d.). Near-death experiences and DMT. Retrieved from Psychology Today website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/out-the-darkness/201810/near-death-experiences-and-dmt