Unforgettable conscious experiences in critical conditions
Critical conditions with risk of death
Among non-ordinary states of consciousness, NDEs deserve special attention. Typical NDEs consist of tales or testimonies of events that have been consciously experienced (and well-memorized) by people who have been, for a more or less long time, in a critical state in which there is normally no form of conscious experience that can be recorded in the memory. In some cases we may speak of a state of potential clinical death, with respect to which the subjects involved were then reanimated. Hence the reference to a near death condition. It should be pointed out that NDEs do not concern the totality of people who, for one reason or another, are in a critical condition with risk of death, but only a percentage estimated at around 15-20%. So NDEs re-open the same issue that characterizes other non-ordinary states of consciousness, such as lucid dreams or OBEs, which are only accessible to a minority of humans.
Research on NDEs
Starting in the 1950s, several researchers have deepened their knowledge of NDEs: among them, physicians such as Raymond Moody, Michael Sabom, Melvin Morse, and psychiatrists and psychologists such as Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, Kenneth Ring, Peter Fenwick, Phyllis Atwater and others. A Gallup survey of 1982 found that in the United States about 8 million adult people had had an NDE. Some subsequent surveys brought this number to almost 12 million. From a study published in 2001 by the Dutch cardioligist van Lommel, it turned out that out of 344 patients reanimated in Dutch hospitals after a heart attack, about 18% had experienced an NDE (see the Medical Evidence page).
Strong impact of NDEs on the vision of life
The most interesting aspect of NDEs is that almost always they have a deep and lasting impact on those who have experienced them. Many, in fact, return to ordinary life and consciousness with a heritage of experience and inner convictions on various aspects concerning the otherwordly existence and the meaning of human life, and start to live with a vision of the world and commitment to life that in some cases is completely different from what they had before entering the critical state that led to the NDE. Many of these testimonies are pervaded by a numinous aura for the presence of an energy whose origin is perceived as divine, an energy that manifests itself in the form of light and absolute, unconditional love. The effects of an NDE can include: removing the fear of death, understanding the meaning of love, increasing the ability to love other people without conditions, the feeling that all living things are a single entity and that life has a profound meaning and purpose, the acceptance and compassion for mankind, and the growth of interest in the spirit and its evolution. Those who have gone through such experiences tend to to be more inclined to universal spirituality than to assume a religious attitude in the conventional and traditional sense, and some come back convinced of being spirits temporarily connected to a physical body.
NDEs are not a recent phenomenon
That experiences which can be classified as NDEs have also occurred in antiquity is highlighted by various testimonies. Beyond some classic cases, such as that reported by Plato in Republic (in which Era, a Greek soldier believed dead in battle and laid with other corpses on the funeral pyre, came back to life and described his journey into the otherworld), it is worth to be quoted an episode narrated by the Italian historian Ludvico Antonio Muratori in chapter IX of his interesting lesser work titled On the Force of Human Fantasy, published in 1745: «...a noble girl for a fierce fever came to a furious delirium: when it ceased, she was lying unconscious and motionless, so it was believed that she was dead, and nobody thought of anything else than preparing her funeral. But after a while she throw a sigh, so that the bystanders rushed with liquors, and by warming her body they did so, that she returned to herself. However she did not thank them for this benefit, on the contrary she bursted into wails because they had diverted her soul, arrived in a sphere of ineffable tranquility and happiness, to which no one could come on the earth, and that no joy and pleasure of this life could be compared to what she had experienced. She added to have heard with her ears the groans of her parents, and the reasoning about her funeral; but that this in no way had interrupted her tranquility; and that her soul had been so deeply immersed in those delights, that no longer she could think of the things of the world, or even to save her body».
However, not all NDEs are characterized by positive features. The IANDS (International Association for Near Death Studies, www.iands.org) defines «distressing» those NDEs where unpleasant, grievous or painful feelings and emotions prevail. It may be a feeling of emptiness and eternal solitude, perceived as disturbing and alienating, or, in extreme cases, visions of an infernal environment with the presence of more or less demonic beings that induce terror. Cases of distressing NDEs are a large minority compared to positive and rewarding NDEs, and range from 2% to 15% of the total experiences, depending on the reference surveys. Only recently more in-depth and documented studies have been published on negative NDE cases (see the page dedicated to distressing NDEs). It is also possible that, because of their disturbing and frightening features, they tend to be removed from the memory of those who have experienced them, and it is understandable how these people may be more reluctant to talk about it. Moreover, up to a few decades ago, even those who talked about their positive NDEs met feelings of disbelief or hasty reductionism, as if they were simply dreams or hallucinations.
Regarding the cases studied, we can notice that there is no relation between a person's ethical or religious attitude, his/her lifestyle, sex or age, and the possibility of experiencing a positive or distressing NDE. Although some potential suicides report having had distressing NDEs, with disturbing feelings of guilt, a much larger number reported positive NDEs. Besides, in some NDEs there are both negative and distressing elements as well as positive and comforting visions, and in a few rare cases of which we know, it happened that one person experienced in two different occasions both a positive and a distressing NDE. It is therefore possible that the quality of NDEs depends on factors related to the functioning of the nervous system and the brain at the time of the experience.
Experiences similar to NDEs unrelated to the death crisis
On the other hand, several people reported that they had experiences similar to NDEs (NDE-like) in non-critical conditions: in this case, we are in the context of mental tunings that determine non-ordinary states of consciousness, such as OBEs or lucid dreams, without the possibility of establishing a correlation between the conscious experience and the supposed inactivity of brain functions. Precisely the hypothesis of the absence of brain activity has for some time been the main factor in the interest of NDEs, although some researchers believe that these experiences are nevertheless determined by some form of brain activity that would occur mainly near death.
Correlation between brain activity and consciousness
In some cases, the suspension of brain functions was determined by strictly controlled surgical technique requirements (for example, long periods of flat encephalogram). The testimonies of their experiences by people whose vital functions were in this state led some researchers to assume that the equivalence consciousness = mental activity = cerebral activity may in some circumstances fail. For istance, Dr. Peter Fenwick, an English neuropsychiatrist engaged in NDE research, so described the possible state of the brain during an NDE: «The brain is not working, it's not there, it's out of the game, it can also be hurt... Yet these very clear experiences occur... When the brain stops working, you normally have a state of unconsciousness. For example, if you have a faint, you fall to the ground without knowing what is happening, as the brain does not work. Memory systems are particularly sensitive to unconsciousness, so you cannot remember anything. Yet after one of these NDE memories are clear and lucid... This is a real rebus for science. I have not yet found a single scientific explanation that can account for these facts». (See also Dr. van Lommel's Medical Report).
On the other hand, those who support the thesis that in any case NDEs must be related to brain activity, belong to two categories: either claim that, without exception, any form of awareness and any information received from humans must be precessed through brain activity (denying the possibility of other alternatives), or try to prove that NDEs do not occur in flat EEG conditions (although it may seem like this) but before or after these states, and that brain activity, even in low-efficiency conditions, can allow all NDEs and their memory retention. The former argue (logically, on the basis of their assumptions) that the burden of demonstrating the independence of NDEs from brain activity is entirely up to those who support this last thesis, while the latter assume that they have proved that NDEs are determined by particular forms of functioning of the brain.
In my opinion, the current scientific knowledge of how brain activity determines conscious experiences like those present in various NDEs is still insufficient to deal with the topic with adequate certainty, despite the advances in neuroscience. I also think that even if NDEs were in any case a product of brain activity, this kind of swan song of the brain would be an experience of the utmost importance, as it would determine phenomena (also significant in relation to a possible state of transition of consciousness), such as the exit from time and space as we know them, the reception of comforting and fulfilling information on the meaning of life, the emotionally intense and ecstatic involvement in an infinite and all-encompassing wave of love.
A look at another dimension
Thus, leaving unsolved the question of whether the NDEs can prove the existence of a conscious life after death, these experiences send us a message, a set of information about a condition that in many respects is different, almost antithetical, from that of the human life. The presence, in many of these experiences, of a luminous being that radiates an unconditional love with an intensity that goes beyond any human experience, a love that infuses security, immense joy and sense of belonging, and which makes us finally feel at home, is a particularly significant element among the psychic experiences. Another aspect that occurs quite often is the revision of one's life in the company of this being of light: there is no feeling of being judged, and, less than ever, condemned. Instead, it prevails a sense of understanding and solace, not separated in some cases by a benevolent humor. If anything, it is the experimenter himself who – in perceiving how discordant has been his/her life, with special regard to the sufferings caused to others by his/her acts – regrets the inadequacy of his ability to control in a positive way such a complex psychic condition as is the human.
In the light of the importance of psychic tunings that go beyond the ordinary states of consciousness, it can be said that through NDEs we get a set of information not to be underestimated. The question whether these experiences are in any case determined by brain activity, as many researchers claim, or they sometimes occur in the absence of brain activity, as some believe, although being very relevant for the knowledge of the phenomenon, does not exhaust its meaning and importance.
This section contains some NDE testimonies, selected among the many that can be found on the web in specialized sites. These are almost exclusively positive experiences, pervaded by otherwordly atmospheres, which are not lived as fantasies or dream adventures, but have the thickness and impact of real experiences, sometimes perceived as superior to that of our normal waking state. The recording in memory of such events is also profound and lasting, at least equal, if not superior, to that of the episodes of our lives that have determined an extremely intense emotional and meaningful involvement.