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Recent and Historical Reports of Near Death Experience Cases

Near Death Experiences Series, Article 3 (Reviewed by the Editorial Board)
Are NDE experiences a recent phenomenon or have they been observed throughout history?
In another article1 we looked at the overall features of a Near Death Experience and presented an 'ideal' or 'complete' NDE, based upon all the common NDE features that are generally observed, and that had been described in Raymond Moody’s famous book “Life after life”. In this article we will look at specific experiences given by many people from throughout history. 
Does an NDE provide a glimpse of the afterlife, or is it the result of hallucinations and possibly even fabrications? As already mentioned in a previous article1, it wasn’t really until as late as the mid-1970s, after the publication of Raymond Moody’s book, that the study the NDE phenomenon began to enter the realms of science. Before then it had been considered a matter for religion and philosophy only.

The years that followed saw a rise both in the debates about the NDE phenomenon as well as in the number of out of body and NDE reports. Some claimed that this was due to the recent publicity and that some of the accounts had been fabricated by attention-seekers. When researchers began to study these accounts in more detail, however, they found very little evidence to support this view, as many of the accounts predated the 1970s. In fact some of the cases went back decades, even centuries. Also, in the vast majority of cases the people involved consistently declined any publicity and were only prepared to share their experiences with researchers. Often they had not even mentioned them to their close family and friends.
Interestingly, in the 1980s reports had also started coming in of people who had experienced a negative NDE. These people often described frightful vacuums, demons, zombie-like creatures, tortures and other unpleasant experiences. It wasn’t at all clear, though, whether these had really taken place when the people had been close to death or whether they had simply been due to the symptoms of a severe illness, such as excess carbon dioxide in the blood, which is known to sometimes give rise to such negative experiences. However, these do called negative experiences have not been reported in any prospective study of NDE during cardiac arrest and it is not clear whether they really are NDE or some other subjective experience.
Historical reports of NDE cases
Looking back in the literature, the NDE phenomenon has been the subject of many historical accounts in different cultures and throughout historical time. For example:
An NDE is described in Plato's Republic. Here, an ordinary soldier, Er, suffers a near fatal injury on the battlefield, is revived on the funeral parlor and describes a journey from darkness to light accompanied by guides, a moment of judgment, feelings of peace and joy, and visions of extraordinary beauty and happiness.
Hieronymus Bosch the Dutch painter who died in 1516 depicted a passage down a tunnel towards a bright light in a painting entitled "ascent to empyrean".
Another case is that of Admiral Beaufort, an admiral with the Royal Navy who had narrowly escaped drowning in Portsmouth harbor in 1795. He had gone on to describe his experience: ‘Though the senses were … deadened, not so the mind; its activity seemed to be invigorated in a ratio which defies all description, for thought rose above thought in rapid succession. The event just occurred … the awkwardness producing it … the bustle it must have occasioned ... the effect on my most affectionate father … the moment in which it would be disclosed to the family, and a thousand other circumstances minutely associated with home were the first reflections. Then they took a wider range, our last cruise … a former voyage and shipwreck, my school and boyish pursuits and adventures. Thus travelling backwards, every past incident of my life seemed to glance across my recollection in retrograde succession; not however in mere outline, as here stated, but the picture filled up with every minute and collateral feature. In short, the whole period of my existence seemed to be placed before me in a kind of panoramic review, and each part of it seemed to be accompanied by a consciousness of right or wrong, or by some reflection on its cause or consequences; indeed many trifling events which had been forgotten then crowded into my imagination, and with the character of recent familiarity.’
The first systemic series of accounts from people who had experienced a close encounter with death were reported by a 19th century Swiss geologist and mountaineer, Albert Heim. Heim had survived a near-fatal mountaineering accident himself and then went on to collect 30 first-hand accounts from other survivors of near-fatal mountaineering accidents, and found that they had similar experiences. His work was published in 1892. His own experience is typical of those recalled by other people in his series: 
'no grief was felt nor was there any paralyzing fright. There was no anxiety, no trace of despair or pain, but rather calm seriousness, profound acceptance and a dominant mental quickness. The relationship of events and their probable outcomes were viewed with objective clarity, no confusion entered at all. Time became greatly expanded.' 

He found that in many cases there then followed a sudden review of the individual's entire past, and finally the person falling often heard 'beautiful music' and fell in what they visualized as 'a superbly blue heaven containing roseate cloudlets'. It was reported that consciousness was painlessly extinguished, usually at the moment of impact, which was at the most heard but never painfully felt.
It would appear that irrespective of the reason for their causation, the NDE phenomena are unlikely to be the result of fabrications but rather experiences that are universal and have existed throughout and in different cultures. It thus appears that for the majority of humans there is a universal experience at the end of their lives. Of interest, these claims have been supported by a number of recent scientific studies carried out by independent researchers2 demonstrating that 10-20% of people who go through cardiac arrest and clinical death report similar lucid, well structured thought processes, reasoning, memories, and sometimes detailed recall of events during their encounter with death.
Concerning the role of socio-cultural factors and their potential influence on the mental processes reported during cardiac arrest (when an NDE occurs), in other words the fact that a person may interpret cognitive experiences during cardiac arrest differently depending on his religious background, education, upbringing3  etc…  it is important to stress that they are of great scientific interest because if all the experiences reflect people’s preconceived ideas, this would entail that an NDE is based upon an individual’s own backgrounds rather than a universal phenomenon that transcends cultural and religious views.
Because of their importance, sociocultural factors are being investigated in the AWARE study4 currently underway. In the next article we will thus be looking at socio-cultural factors and at evidence gathered so far on their potential relation to cognitive5 and mental processes occurring during cardiac arrest (clinical death).
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(2) Parnia S. et al., Resuscitation Feb 2001 48, 149-156; Van Lommel P. et al., The Lancet 2001 Dec 15, 358 (9298) 2039-45; Greyson B. et al., 2003 Jul-Aug, 25(4):269-76 ; Schwaninger et al., 20 (2002), pp. 215–232


(3) Do Religion and Culture Affect an NDE ?


(4) See "The Aware Study


(5) Cognitive processes: refer to processes dealing with cognition, in other words to the mental process of knowing, formulating judgments, reasoning, perceiving and being aware.

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