Intriguingly, near-death reports from different cultures around the world are generally consistent and in many instances are identical to the features of the post-mortem state that is described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. There is also a marked similarity between NDEs and reports of the inner journeys of shamanism, astral travel and out-of- body experiences.
The term ‘near-death experience’ was coined by American doctor Raymond Moody in the 1970s to describe the phenomenon outlined above. Prior to publication of Moody’s book, Life After Life in 1975, NDEs were not openly talked about; once the book came out, more and more people began to talk about them. By 1982 a Gallup poll suggested that as many as eight million Americans had had some kind of NDE. Moody and a number of other NDE researchers, such as Kenneth Ring, a psychologist and founding member of the International Association of Near Death Studies at the University of Connecticut, were able to identify a number of traits common to all NDEs, even though the experience was always unique to each individual. They concluded that in a NDE, people typically experience one or more of the following phenomena in this sequence: a sense of leaving the material world behind or an out-of-body experience in which they feel they are floating above their bodies looking down; cessation of pain, a feeling of great calm and peace; traveling down a dark tunnel towards a light at its end; meeting spirit beings, many of whom are dead friends and relatives; meeting a spirit guide who takes them through their life story and puts their life into perspective without any negative judgment; and, finally, an abrupt and sometimes reluctant return to life.
The great majority of NDEs are described as being positive and uplifting; around three per cent are described as negative or frightening. Almost anyone can have the experience and it is not limited to those who have religious beliefs, although many people who have experienced a NDE do become more religious or develop a spiritual belief system afterwards. Almost all say they lose their fear of death, this being replaced by a strong belief in an afterlife. Many discover a meaning and purpose to their lives that they may have previously lacked. In some cases, the NDE leaves a person with heightened intuitive or psychic powers.
Even though millions of people claim to have had an NDE, it is impossible for researchers to prove scientifically that the experience is genuine. Evidence is therefore based entirely on anecdotal reports.
According to skeptics, the NDE is a dream or hallucination caused by, amongst other things, a lack of oxygen, the release of the body’s natural pain killers called endorphins and increased levels of carbon dioxide as the brain dies. NDEs were reportedly reproduced by Ronald Siegel, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, when LSD and other drugs were administered. NDE supporters stress, however, that drug-induced hallucinations and NDEs are totally different things. Such explanations also do not take into account the fact that many people brought back to life can give accurate accounts of their resuscitations, of medical procedures carried out on them or report conversations they overheard at the time they were allegedly dead. This suggests that some part of consciousness can separate from the body at death. There is no doubt that the near-death experiences are supported by impressive documentation and, for believers in them, these reports constitute a very powerful argument for the existence of an afterlife.