While psychology has long employed the scientific method to help determine cause-and-effect relationships, the experience of near death may not be so easily studied. For many, the chief question of near death experiences is whether there is part of us that is distinct from the body. Questions about the spiritual world, life after-death, and the existence of a “soul” become a proved reality in the minds of some near death survivors. Yet, some scholars continue to wonder, question, and explore whether the near death survivor’s experience is valid or simply the result of sedation or expectation. Those who favor verifiable proof might use the scientific method by forming a hypothesis and then using one or more techniques to test the hypothesis: 1) naturalistic observation, 2) systematic assessment, and 3) experimentation.1
Clearly, the use of naturalistic observation cannot be used in the study of Near Death Experiences (NDEs). For obvious reasons, there is no means by which an experimenter can simply observe what occurs inside the head of one undergoing a NDE. However, it might be feasible for one to watch what is occurring in the body of the one experiencing a near death. Even if data about the body is obtained, it is unlikely that a researcher would be called to the scene when a NDE is expected. This is due to many factors, not the least of which is the fact that it may be impossible to predict who will experience near death.
Information about NDEs has been gathered through a form of systematic assessment called case histories. Case histories, also known as case studies, are collections of detailed information about an individual’s past and present life. From gathering stories about NDEs, four core elements have been identified as being characteristics of NDEs: 1) the person hears the news of his or her death, 2) he or she departs from the body, 3) he or she encounters significant others, and 4) an ultimate return to the body.2 Russell Noyes and Roy Kletti have distinguished three stages in the typical near-death experience: 1) resistance or struggling against the impending danger 2) life review characterized by remembering past events and 3) transcendence, a calming of the mind with detachment from one’s individual existence.3 The usefulness of these case histories lies in determining similar patterns and experiences so that understanding of the topic is increased. While case histories tell us what the person believed occurred to them, this information cannot provide proof that such spiritual, or “out of body” experiences actually happened. Those who insist upon hard numbers and tangible proof may find case histories lacking the kind of concrete evidence that either proves or disproves the validity of claims of those who say they have seen the “otherside.”
Certainly, information about the near death experience can be gathered through surveys, another form of systematic assessment. Through such surveys, a researcher can measure people’s attitudes and activities by asking near death survivors about their experiences. However, the questions used in such surveys must be carefully crafted in order to control bias. For example, the question, “What did you experience during the time in which doctors thought you were dead?” would be a biased question because it contains assumption. (“What did you experience?” implies that the person must have seen or heard something.) If administered properly, a survey on NDEs will be a collection of responses from a representative sample of individuals; one would therefore expect a wide variety of answers. For example, while some might assume that all NDEs would be pleasant (i.e. a warm bright light and seeing loved ones), NDE research has discovered that some NDEs are frightening and have been termed “hellish” or “incomplete” near death experiences.4
Standardized tests, another form of systematic assessment, might be used to gauge the mental and emotional well-being of near death experience survivors; this information might be useful in determining whose experience can be most trusted. For example, if 100 people responded that they saw a bright light and heard the voice of God, and all 100 people were known to suffer from psychosis, we might hesitate to accept their experiences as fact. Projective tests, like the Rorschach test or Thematic Apperception Test can help researchers understand near death survivor’s personalities. This could assist them in interpreting the data collected from near death experiences.
A third approach to testing hypotheses is experimentation. Unfortunately, this option essentially off limits for near death experience researchers. It would certainly be unethical to nearly kill someone simply to study what happens. One might imagine a sci-fi depiction of administering a potentially lethal injection of a drug while the subject’s brain is hooked up to medical devices to determine brain activity. Even if such experiments could provide a TV screen picture of what the subject was viewing in his or her brain, questions of validity would persist. Evidence that another world exists would still be lacking scientific grounding for we would continue to be limited to the report (even if we could see what the near death survivor saw in his or her head). For ethical and practical reasons, this approach cannot be used. In determining the meaning of NDEs, some point to the need for study to go beyond the lines of the normal scientific method. For reasons already discussed, NDEs cannot be studied in the same straight forward manner in which one measures the thickness of a blade of grass.
When it comes to explaining why some near death see a bright light, embrace dead loved ones, or watch their bodies while floating above them, there is plenty of room for disagreement. Some attribute the phenomena to the reality of the after-life while others chalk it up to mind-altering drugs that may have been given (for medical purposes) before the near death experience occurred. Still others insist that those who believe in an after-life experience another world because that is what they expected to see. However, Karlis Osis and Erleundur Haraldsson report that, “‘neither medical, nor psychological, nor cultural conditioning can explain away deathbed visions.'”5 They make this conclusion based on their observation that some deathbed visions do not match what the experiencer believed to be true about the after-life. For example, some children have reported feeling surprised that the angels they saw did not have wings. According to Osis and Haraldsson, the evidence points to the existence of an after-life.
As a Christian, I believed (and still do) in the existence of an after-life. When I “coded” in 1999, I was without the influence of any medication or drugs. Being that I so believed in Heaven, I was surprised that I did not “see the light” or anything unusual. For me, my spirit did not hover above my body; instead, I felt like 1000 hands were holding my spirit into my body. As the nurses yelled, “No pulse!”, I struggled, at first, to tell them I was alright. However, it wasn’t long until I realized that I could not speak, open my eyes, or move. I was frightened at first, but not for long. Soon I realized that I was dying. I began to think about my husband and the child that would soon die in my body as the result of my death. (I was pregnant). I thought, “So this is what death is like,” as peaceful Christian music played through my head like a radio. When I woke up on life support, I was surprised by my recovery.
Unlike the above experience, I did have a “bright light” episode while in my teens. I had just had my wisdom teeth surgically removed while in the hospital. I was on plenty of medication when I decided to get of bed and go to the bathroom. My mother found me passed out on the floor and woke me from what seemed like a near death experience. Although I have no reason to believe that I was near death, I did see a bright light while I was unconscious. It was warm and not frightening. I was, however, under the influence of medication.
Being a Christian, I would like to report that my true near death experience provided evidence or clues about the after-life. However, I simply lack such a story. Yet, I do not doubt that others have seen more than I did. In my mind, all experiences should be valued-even if they are imagined, for we lack the ability to prove that there is no after-life.
Failing to see “the light” or hear God’s voice during my NDE has not in anyway detracted or lessened my faith in God. In fact, what I did walk away “knowing that I know that I know” is that there is a part of me that is not physical. When all else shut down, I was still there. It seems irrational to me that we are only flesh and blood, and if there is “more than meets the eye” in terms of our composition, then it makes sense that when our bodies give out, there is a place for what remains to abide.
However, no matter what evidence might be turned up regarding NDEs, it will always be a matter of faith-faith to believe that what one reports is true or faith to explain away the multitudes who report knowing, firsthand, that there is an after-life.
1 Richardson, Deborah South. “Psychology.” World Book Online Reference Center.2007. [Place of access.] Nov. 2007 [http://www.worldbookonline.com/wb/Article?id=ar449660].
2 DeSpelder and Strickland, “The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying.” (2005, Seventh Edition.) Boston, Mc Graw Hill. Pg. 517.
3DeSpelder and Strickland, “The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying.” (2005, Seventh Edition.) Boston, Mc Graw Hill. Pg. 521.
4 DeSpelder and Strickland, “The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying.” (2005, Seventh Edition.) Boston, Mc Graw Hill. Pg. 519.
5DeSpelder and Strickland, “The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying.” (2005, Seventh Edition.) Boston, Mc Graw Hill. Pg. 521.
Source by Jennifer Brost