Near Death Experiences
Religion, Culture and Near Death Experiences
Near Death Experiences Series, Article 7 (Reviewed by the Editorial Board)
Are the thoughts, memories, perceptions one has during a NDE
significantly influenced by one’s social and cultural background?
Studying socio-cultural factors and their potential influence on the mental processes reported during cardiac arrest (when near experiences may occur), in other words the fact that a person may interpret cognitive (1) experiences during cardiac arrest differently depending on his religious background, education, upbringing… is very important (2). This is because if all the experiences only reflected people’s preconceived ideas then it would support the notion that an NDE is simply based upon an individual’s own background rather than being a universal phenomenon that transcends cultural and religious views, and it would have little scientific interest.
Now, the central features of an NDE have been recorded throughout history (3), (4) and across numerous cultures and religious groups. Reports of an NDE have also been described by atheists as well as those with a particular faith, whether it be as practicing members or non practicing members of a particular religion.
Some studies have been carried out with the aim of studying near
death experiences in non-Western cultures.
Historically, events closely resembling a near death experience have been described by Bolivian, Argentinean and North American Indians and also in Buddhist texts, Islamic texts and accounts from China, Siberia and Finland. The most common features are:
a) Having an out of body experience;
b) A reunion with ancestors and departed friends;
c) An experience of light accompanied by joy and peace;
d) A border or dividing line between the living and the dead.
In more modern times, near death experiences have been described in many areas of the world, including India (5), China (6), South America and the Middle East. Interestingly, in these countries relatively little if any publicity has been given to the phenomenon.
Studies on the influence of socio-cultural factors on near death experiences and death bed visions
In one study carried out in 1985, the experiences of 16 Asian Indians had been compared with those of Americans and it had been found that the Indians had often encountered Yamraj, the Hindu king of the dead, while the Americans had not.
The largest cross-cultural study had been carried out in 1977 by Osis and Haraldsson and had focused more on deathbed visions. These are the experiences that people have before death, usually in the 24 hours prior to death, and they are different from the classic NDE phenomenon. Deathbed visions are usually reported by carers who have looked after a person during the dying process. In this study the researchers had examined the visions of approximately 440 terminally ill American and Indian patients as described to their doctors and nurses. The most common feature, which occurred in 91 per cent of cases, was seeing deceased relatives. In 140 cases there were reports of seeing religious figures, usually described as an angel or God. Where these were specifically identified, they were always described according to the person’s religious beliefs: no Hindu reported seeing Jesus, and no Christian a Hindu deity.
In a more recent study (7), since socio-cultural differences are thought to potentially account for variations observed in the near death experience phenomena, the authors analyzed whether societal beliefs influenced NDEs. Since the prevailing Western model of an NDE was defined by Moody's description of the phenomenon in 1975, in order to explore the influence of this cultural model, the authors compared 24 near death experience phenomena accounts collected before 1975 and 24 after 1975. The only difference observed was the increased frequency of the tunnel phenomena, which other research has suggested may not be integral to the experience, and not in any of the remaining 14 features defined by Moody as characteristic of near-death experience phenomena. These data challenges the hypothesis that NDE accounts are substantially influenced by prevailing cultural models.
Also the fact that children's NDE(s) are similar to adult's NDE(s) suggests that these are not significantly influenced by pre-existing beliefs, cultural factors or previous experiences in the present life.
Another study (8), taking a cross-cultural perspective on the near death experience phenomena, indicates that although there are common themes, there are also reported differences. According to this study the variability across cultures is most likely to be due to people’s interpretation and verbalizing of such events through the filters of language, cultural experiences, religion, education and their influence on their belief systems.
Considering the studies we have just described, although it does seem that the central features of near death experiences have been recorded throughout history and across numerous cultures, the actual interpretation of what people claim to have observed, of the experience they claim to have lived through, may reflect personal religious or cultural views. In other words, during a close encounter with death, people from different parts of the world may feel peaceful, see a tunnel, a bright light and a being of light, and have a sensation of detaching from their bodies, but they may identify the being of light according to their own cultural and religious backgrounds. Furthermore the overall interpretation of someone’s experience, as with any experience, depends on their own background. For example, an atheist with a NDE may simply believe they had experienced a hallucination, while someone who believes in Jesus may believe they had met Christ.
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(1) Cognitive processes: refer to processes dealing with cognition, in other words to the mental process of knowing, formulating judgments, reasoning, perceiving and being aware.
(2) Because of their importance, sociocultural factors are being investigated in the Aware study currently underway.
(5) Athappilly GK et al., J Nerv Ment Dis. 2006 Mar;194(3):218-22.
(6) Pascricha, S. 1986 Stevenson I near death experiences in India. J. Nerv. Mental Dis. 55:542-549.
(7) Feng, Z. 1992 [A research on near death experiences of survivors in big earthquake of Tangshan, 1976] in Chinese Zhonghua Shen Jing Jing Shen Ke Za Zhi 25: 222-226, 253-254.
(8) Belanti J, et al., Transcult Psychiatry. 2008 Mar;45(1):121-33.