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Near-Death Experiences Have a Freakish Amount in Common

But there are still some key differences, as a new study shows.

by Daniel Oberhaus
Jul 27 2017, 9:22pm

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I hate to break it to you, but one day you're going to die. That sucks, but for some, people dying isn't a once-in-a-lifetime experience. These people have been subjected to a near-death experience (NDE), a widely reported yet poorly understood phenomenon triggered by an individual's proximity to death.

Past research published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies (yes, this is a real thing) has found that between 4 and 8 percent of the population has had an NDE and says that these experiences tend to be remarkably similar to one another. But according to a new study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, despite the similar elements of NDEs, the way an NDE unfolds over time varies drastically from person to person.

The events that trigger a near-death experience can vary widely (although they seem to be particularly prevalent in cardiac arrest survivors), but the reported psychological impressions of the phenomenon are remarkably similar. In the ground-breaking 1975 book on near-death experiences, Life After Life, the psychiatrist Raymond Moody identified 15 elements common to most NDEs, including an overwhelming sense of peace and wellbeing, the sense of being in a tunnel, seeing a bright light, and, in some occasions, even visiting other worlds and interacting with beings made of light.


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In the new study coming out of Belgium, the researchers analyzed 154 freely written testimonies from people who've had a near-death experience. The goal of the researchers was to discover whether or not people experienced the various aspects of an NDE in the same sequence.

According to the research, 80 percent of the respondents experienced a feeling of peacefulness during their NDE, 69 percent reported seeing a bright light, and 64 percent reported interacting with spirits or people. As the researchers found, however, the sequence in which the respondents had these experiences wasn't so regular.

For example, a little over a third of the respondents reported that an out-of-body experience was the first aspect of the near-death experience and a return to the body as the final part of their NDE. According to the researchers, the most commonly shared sequence of an NDE involved an out-of-body experience, then experiencing a tunnel, then seeing a bright light, and finally a feeling of peace.

Yet despite being the most common order of events in a near-death experience, it's worth noting that this particular sequence was only reported by six of the 154 respondents. In other words, the research suggests that there is nothing close to a universal order of events during an NDE.

"Our findings suggest that near-death-experiences may not feature all elements, and elements do not seem to appear in a fixed order," says Charlotte Martial, a neuropsychologist at the University Hospital Center of Liége. "While near-death-experiences may have a universal character so that they may exhibit enough common features to belong to the same phenomenon, we nevertheless observed a temporal variability within the distribution of reported features. This raises significant questions about what specific aspects of near-death-experiences could be considered as universal—and what not."

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