Near Death Experiences
Raymond Moody and Near Death Experiences
Near Death Experiences Series, Article 2 (Reviewed by the Editorial Board)
The opening of Clint Eastwood’s Movie “Hereafter” shows a gripping scene of a woman dying during a Tsunami that hits a coastal town in Thailand. Although shocking to watch at first, as the woman is carried away by the gigantic wave and drowns despite fighting for her last breath, the movie also shows the woman having visions of people swirling in a comforting light, indicating a positive transformative experience as she actually dies. As the Tsunami subsides and her body is pulled from the water and debris, sometime later the woman begins breathing and comes back to life. The positive nature of the experience is reaffirmed throughout the movie by showing how her life is enhanced and positively transformed by it.
The fact of attempting to describe what happens when and after we die in a major studio movie just shows how these experiences have become part of mainstream culture and thought. But has this always been the case? Have people always been aware of these experiences?
The advent of resuscitation science
The increase in awareness occurring near death or during the first stages of death, can be traced back to the 1960s and the advent of resuscitation science. Following the acceptance and implementation of resuscitation techniques in clinical practice, there have obviously been more and more people brought back from death. But it wasn't really until the 1970s that interest by the scientific community and the general population in these experiences peaked, with the publication, by Raymond Moody, an American psychiatrist with a background in philosophy, of the best-selling book "Life after life". This was the first comprehensive study of the human experience during the dying process.
Raymond Moody collected the accounts given by 150 survivors of near death encounters, both before and during medical school. He met these people in different ways. The first two were obtained by coincidence, but then as his interest grew and as he made himself better known for his research by presenting in medical societies and giving other public talks, doctors referred to him patients they had resuscitated and who reported these unusual experiences. Also, he found that after every talk someone would come up and tell him of an experience of his own. Still others wrote to him after newspaper articles about his study appeared.
Near death experiences ( NDEs ) : a vague term
This term was coined for the first time and entered the realm of science for all the experiences were usually described from a time when the individual had been unconscious. Though Moody used this term to refer to a clinical situation that would have normally led to the death of the individual without medical intervention, from the perspective of critical care medicine being “near death” remains an imprecise and vague definition since:
- there is no physiological definition of being near death. Death by cardiorespiratory criteria instead (for example) is quite clearly diagnosed by the cessation of heartbeat, respiration and brain stem function. These would be clear physiological parameters.
- the use of the term near death is unrelated to physiological parameters relating to the severity of the illness, such as severity of the hemodynamic compromise (1) and shock
Description of the main features of an NDE
Albeit patients’ recounts differed, Raymond Moody remarkably found that survivors all described similar unusual experiences with recurring features. These included:
i) feeling peace;
ii) having a life review where they experienced what they had done or said;
iii) seeing a tunnel;
iv) seeing a bright light;
v) seeing deceased relatives;
vi) having a perception of separation from the body (out of body experience)
vii) entering a heavenly domain
Many also talked about a point which they could not cross or else they could not return back to life. Oftentimes, they said they had been reluctant to return to life because what they had experienced was incredibly beautiful and no words could convey it.
Another important feature of these experiences was the deep positive and lasting impact they had in people, rendering them more altruistic, less afraid of death. People’s beliefs, values and attitudes were positively transformed and they felt a new sense of purpose and appreciation for life.
Current understanding of NDEs
Many of Raymond Moody’s findings in his initial study have been confirmed over the following decades and, now days, NDEs are understood as often profoundly transforming experiences, who are also vivid and realistic, occurring to people who have been close to death or who have suffered from a cardiac arrest and have thus gone beyond the threshold of death.
If you want to know more, visit the near death experiences section of our web site (2) and also read our other article on Dr. Moody’s work (3)
(1) The term hemodynamics relates to or functioning in the mechanics of blood circulation; when this movement is compromised, for example due to hemorrhage, plaque atherosclerosis, one gets hemodynamic instability. If left untreated, it will cause multi-organ failure and death.