In the mid-1970s, the work of such noted researchers as Drs. Raymond Moody, Melvin Morse, Kenneth Ring, and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1926– ) brought the subject of the near-death experience (NDE) to the attention of the general public. As accounts of men and women who had been brought back to life and told of having witnessed scenes from the other side received wide circulation, more near-death experiencers felt confident in sharing their own stories of having come back from other-dimensional journeys outside of their bodies. As medical science became increasingly sophisticated and successful in terms of its ability to resuscitate those individuals who might otherwise have died from heart attacks, automobile accidents, and other physical traumas, the more men and women came forward to tell of having perceived the spirits of deceased friends and relatives, guardian angels, and beings of light that met them in a heavenly kind of place and communicated with them before returning them to their bodies.
In 1983, an extensive survey conducted by George Gallup, Jr., found that eight million Americans—5 percent of the adult population—said that they had undergone a near-death experience. A survey conducted in 1991 by Dr. Colin Ross, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, suggests that as many as one in three people have left their bodies and returned— most often during times of crisis, extreme pain, and near-death. In 1992, a new Gallup Poll survey revealed that around 13 million Americans claimed to have undergone at least one NDE. While such statistics and inspirational stories were new to many men and women, accounts of people who came back to life after clinical death and who told of experiencing proof of life after death had been recorded by researchers for hundreds of years.
In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, psychoanalyst Dr. Carl G. Jung (1875–1961) describes a near-death experience he underwent after he had broken a foot and suffered a heart attack. "It seemed to me that I was high up in space," he wrote. "Far below I saw the globe of Earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light.… Below my feet lay Ceylon, and in the distance ahead… the subcontinent of India. My field of vision did not include the whole Earth, but its global shape was plainly distinguishable."
The psychoanalyst described the reddish-yellow desert of Arabia, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean. "The sight of the Earth from this height was the most glorious thing I had ever seen," Jung said, estimating that his consciousness would have had to have been at least a thousand miles up to have perceived such a panoramic view of the planet. He was most emphatic in stressing his belief that the experiences he had during his heart attack were not the products of imagination or a fevered brain. "The visions and experiences were utterly real," he wrote. "There was nothing subjective about them; they all had a quality of absolute objectivity."
Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), the American author of such works as The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea, wrote of his near-death experience while serving in the trenches near Fossalta, Italy. It was about midnight on July 8, 1918, when a mortar shell exploded near the 19-year-old Hemingway, badly wounding him in the legs. Later, he said that he experienced death at that moment. He had felt his soul coming out of his body "like you'd pull a silk handkerchief out a pocket by one corner. It flew around and then came back and went in again and I wasn't dead any more."
Hemingway used his own near-death experience in A Farewell to Arms when he has his fictional hero, Frederick Henry, undergo a similar experience. The novel's protagonist is also positioned in the Italian trenches when "…a blast-furnace door is swung open and a roar that started white and went red…in a rushing wind." Henry feels his spirit rush out of himself and soar with the wind. He believes himself to be dead and realizes that there is an existence beyond physical death. Then "…instead of going on, I felt myself slide back. I breathed and I was back."
Dr. Robert Crookall, a British biologist and botanist, was one of the great pioneers in the clinical study of near-death experiences. Crookall theorized that what metaphysicians had labeled the astral or the etheric body— the soul—is normally "enmeshed in" the physical body so that most people are never aware of its existence. During out-of-body or near-death experiences, however, the Soul Body separates or projects from the physical body and is used temporarily as an instrument of consciousness. According to Crookall, this Soul Body consists of matter "…but it is extremely subtle and may be described as 'superphysical.'"
Crookall perceived the physical body as animated by a semiphysical "vehicle of vitality," which serves as a bridge between the physical body and the Soul Body. This, he believed, was the "breath of life" mentioned in Genesis. In some people, he speculated "…especially (though not necessarily) saintly people," the Soul Body may be less confined to the physical flesh than it is in persons of a more physical or material nature, thus making it easier for the aesthetic to achieve out-of-body experiences.
Among the hundreds of cases of near-death and out-of-body experiences that Crookall collected, he found numerous references to a kind of psychic "umbilical cord" that appears to connect the nonphysical Soul Body to the physical body. Citing such cases from his research, Crookall wrote:
With regard to form, several [experiencers] have described seeing merely a "cord" and said that it was about half an inch wide. T. D. compared his to a "thread." H. considered, "I am sure that, had a feeble thread between soul and body been severed, I would have remained intact" (i.e., the soul would have survived the death of the body). The Tibetans also observed that "a strand" subsisted between the [Soul Body] and the [physical] body. Like H., Miss K. realized that once [the cord] was "loosed" the reentry…into the body would have been impossible. She said, "This is what death means."
Those men and women of a Judeo-Christian belief construct who have undergone the near-death experience (NDE) sometimes quote Ecclesiastes 12:5–7 as scriptural testimony to the reality of the spiritual body and its ability to separate itself from the flesh: "Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel be broken at the cistern: Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return to God who gave it."
One frequently observed quality of the silver cord which appears to connect the Soul Body to the physical body is its elasticity. Numerous persons who have undergone near-death experiences have remarked upon this quality in their descriptions of the experience. Crookall wrote of a man named Edwards who stated that from the pull of his silver cord he would characterize it as being made of some kind of substance similar to "stout elastic." Another of his subjects, a Mrs. Leonard, noted that as her Soul Body neared her physical body, the cord not only became shorter and thicker, as would be expected, but also less elastic, agreeing with the often reported statements that when the Soul Body approaches very near the physical body, it tends to reenter it—in fact it is often "sucked" back.
In the late 1970s, the popular acceptance of the work of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross brought sharp scientific focus to bear on the question of what happens to humans after the experience of physical death. In her book Death, the Final Stages of Growth Kubler-Ross declares that "beyond a shadow of a doubt, there is life after death."
Far from an evangelical tract, Kubler-Ross's publication is actually a textbook that is based on more than a thousand interviews with terminally ill persons, many of whom had recovered from near-death experiences. They describe such sensations as floating above their own physical bodies and being able to transcend the normally accepted limitations of time and space. Nearly all of the near-death survivors told of a sense of euphoria and peace, and many had been confronted by angels and spirit beings who told them that it was not yet time for them to make the final transition to the other side. When the dying do accomplish that ultimate change of dimensions, according to Kubler-Ross's observations, they are "…at peace; they are fully awake; when they float out of their bodies they are without fear, pain, or anxiety; and they have a sense of wholeness."
Dr. Raymond Moody, who is both a medical doctor and the holder of a doctorate in philosophy, discovered an enormous number of similar reports when he became curious about what happened to his patients in the period of time in which they "died" before being revived and returned to life through medical treatment. After interviewing many men and women who had survived near-death experiences, for his book Life after Life, Dr. Moody discovered what Dr. Kubler-Ross and numerous other researchers had found: The near-death experiencers had the sensation of moving rapidly through a long, dark tunnel before "popping" outside of their physical bodies. If they were in hospital rooms or other enclosures, they often floated near the ceiling and watched medical teams attempting to revive their physical bodies. Many reported their life literally "flashing" before their eyes, and others said that they were welcomed to the other world by previously deceased relatives or friends. Whether or not they were of a religious background, they often reported an encounter with a brilliant, intense white light that assumed the form of an angel, a guide, a teacher, Father Abraham, or a Christ-figure.
In 1977, Dr. Kenneth Ring, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, began a scientific investigation of 102 men and women who had undergone the near-death experience. In his Life at Death, published in 1980, Ring released the results of the data that he had compiled. According to his assessment of his subjects' experiences, Ring tabulated that 60 percent of them found that the near-death experience had brought them a sense of peace and well-being; 37 percent reported a separation of consciousness from the physical body; 23 percent mentioned the process of entering a dark tunnel; 16 percent said that they had seen a bright light; and 10 percent claimed that they had entered the light.
Ring concludes his book by dropping his scientific demeanor and admitting that he, personally, believes that humankind has a "conscious existence after our physical death and that the core experience does represent its beginning, a glimpse of things to come." Ring further states that he considers the near-death experience to be a teaching, revelatory experience. In his observation, both those who undergo a near-death experience and those who hear about them from others receive "an intuitive sense of the transcendent aspect of creation." To Ring, the near-death experience clearly implies that "there is something more, something beyond the physical world of the senses, which, in the light of these experiences, now appears to be only the mundane segment of a great spectrum of reality."
Ring has also given some thought to the question of why the study of death became so prominent in the late 1970s and early 80s: "One reason…is to help us to become globally sensitized to the experience of death on a planetary scale which now hangs like the sword of Damocles over our heads. Could this be the universe's way of 'innoculating' us against the fear of death?"
A consensus among those who investigate the near-death experience yields a number of features commonly described by those who have undergone NDE:
Dr. Antonio Aldo Soldaro, chief surgeon at Rome's main public hospital and a professor of surgery at Rome University, has observed that all NDE subjects "improve their spiritual and social lives. They become more generous, optimistic, and positive."
Dr. Melvin Morse, clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, is another NDE researcher who has found that certain survivors of the near-death experience return with enhanced abilities. Morse, author of such books as Transformed by the Light, noted that some of the people he interviewed came back to life with "an increase in the amount of electrical energy their bodies emit," an acceleration of intellect and/or psychic abilities, and even the power to heal themselves.
In one of his investigations, Morse spoke to a 45-year-old woman named Kathy who said that she had been afflicted with incurable thyroid cancer and had been given six months to live. It was at that awful moment that she also developed pneumonia. After she was rushed to a hospital, her heart stopped; and as doctors worked desperately to revive her, Kathy stated that the real her was "high on top of a beautiful ridge overlooking a beautiful valley. The colors were extremely vivid, and I was filled with joy." A being of light touched her spirit body, and her entire essence was "filled with light."
Later, when she was revived, Kathy's pneumonia had disappeared. A few weeks later, her cancer, too, had inexplicably left her. Morse theorized that Kathy's NDE had a direct influence on healing the cancer. He also stated that he had studied instances in which near-death survivors had returned to life more intelligent than they had been before the experience.
Dr. P. M. H. Atwater, of Charlottesville, Virginia, nearly died after hemorrhaging in 1977. After her own dramatic experience, she began to investigate other cases of NDE in which ordinary men and women had survived near-death. By 1988, she had interviewed more than 200 NDE survivors and found that their experiences had triggered something in them that had enhanced certain abilities. She has written a number of books on the subject, such as Beyond the Light (1997). In one of her case studies, she tells of a truck driver who had survived a near-fatal crash and who subsequently began to display advanced mathematical abilities. Literally overnight he demonstrated a gift for higher mathematics. He was able to write down complicated mathematical equations about which he had no prior knowledge. Gradually, the man began to understand his new abilities and was eventually able to use them in practical applications.
In those cases in which near-death survivors claim to have been left with after effects, Atwater states that her research indicates that 80 to 90 percent exhibit physiological changes as well as psychological alterations. Among the most frequent after effects reported to Atwater are the following: The near-death experiencer looks and acts more playful. His or her skin brightens, and eyes sparkle. There is an increased sensitivity to any form of light, especially sunlight, and to any form of sound and to noise levels. Boredom levels decrease or increase. He or she has substantially more or less energy. He or she can handle stress easier and heal quicker from hurts and wounds. His or her brain begins to function differently.
If it is true that near-death survivors are physically as well as psychologically changed by their experiences, what does this say about the real power of the experience? Atwater suggests ever larger questions: "Since the part of us that has this experience 'separates' from the body to the extent that it does, is that an indication that not only do we have a soul, we are a soul-resident in a lifeform? If that is true, what else is true about life, about death, about purpose and mission and Source and Creation?"
While skeptics ridicule the "will to believe" in an afterlife as religious wishful thinking, it might be suggested that many of them embrace a "will to disbelieve" with what also amounts to a kind of religious fervor. For many scientists, there can be no consciousness after the physical body dies. The universe is comprised exclusively of material realities, and without the physical organism there can be no mind, no consciousness—and certainly no life after death. Many believe near-death experiences are but hallucinations caused by reasons that may be psychological, pharmacological, or neurological. According to the material scientists, those men and women who claim to be survivors of a near-death experience and who report that their soul left their body and began a journey into an afterlife before being revived are suffering from delusions. Science has proved that there is no aspect of personality within a human being that could travel anywhere without a physical body to propel it.
Dr. Susan Blackmore of Bristol University in England has spent many years investigating the near-death experience and is convinced that all the phenomena associated with an NDE are manifestations of the "winding down" of brain functions as a person nears death. Blackmore explains the oft-mentioned "tunnel of light" seen by near-death experiencers as a result of the turmoil occurring in the section of the brain that controls vision. As the brain continues to shut down and is increasingly deprived of sensory input, it begins to draw upon memory to answer such questions as "who am I?" and "where am I?" and information stored in the memory supplies images based upon the individual's perception of self and expectations of an afterlife.
In October 2000, the results of a year-long research project that was described as the "first scientific study of near-death experiences" were released by Dr. Peter Fenwick, a consultant and neurophysicist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, and Dr. Sam Parnia, a clinical research fellow and registrar at Southampton Hospital. Although the doctors were initially skeptical of reports in which people close to death had encounters with bright lights and heavenly beings, their new study concludes that a "number of people have almost certainly had these experiences after they were pronounced clinically dead." By carefully examining medical records, the researchers ruled out the collapse of brain functions caused by low levels of oxygen or that drugs might be responsible for the experiences.
"These people were having these experiences when we wouldn't expect them to happen, when the brain should be able to sustain lucid processes or allow them to form memories that would last," Parnia said. "So [the study] might hold an answer to the question of whether mind or consciousness is actually produced by the brain or whether the brain is a kind of intermediary for the mind, which exists independently."
Fenwick commented, "If the mind and brain can be independent, then that raises questions about the continuation of consciousness after death. It also raises the question about a spiritual component to humans and about a meaningful universe with a purpose rather than a random universe."