What is a Near Death Experience? Researchers Uncover the Most Frequent Elements of NDEs, and the Order They Occur

Near Death Experience

We all know what a near-death experience (NDE) is, right? Someone near death suddenly finds themselves 'out' of their body (and 'out-of-body experience'); they find themselves traveling down a 'tunnel'; they see a bright light; they meet with dead friends and family in another realm; they are turned back, and return to life, no longer fearing death.

We all know this because it has been laid out many times, perhaps most influentially by Raymond Moody in his 1975 classic Life After Life:

A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment, and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval.

After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notes that he still has a “body”, but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before – a being of light – appears before him. This being asks him a question, nonverbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events in his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet he finds that he must go back to the earth, that the time of his death has not yet come. At this point he resists,for by now he is taken up with his experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return. He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives.

Later, he tries to tell others, but he has trouble doing so. In the first place, he can find no human words adequate to describe these unearthly episodes. He also finds that others scoff, so he stops telling other people. Still, the experience affects his life profoundly, especially his views about death and its relationship to life.

Five years later, researcher Kenneth Ring made the first documented attempt to establish a chronological order of NDE features. Using a sample of 102 NDErs he constructed the 'Weighted Core Experience Index' (WCEI), and proposed a 5-stage temporality sequence of NDEs: (1) “An experience of peace, well-being, and an absence of pain,” (2) “a sense of detachment from the physical body, progressing to an OBE,” (3) “entering darkness, a tunnel experience with panoramic memory, and a predominantly positive effect,” (4) “an experience of light that is bright, warm, and attractive,” and (5) “entering the light; meeting persons or figures.”

However, apart from Ring's effort there has been very little scientific research done on the 'temporal structure' (ie., the sequence) of NDE elements. So a new paper, "Temporality of Features in Near-Death Experience Narratives", is a welcome addition to the NDE research corpus. As the paper's authors note, "investigating the temporality of NDE features may permit to highlight relationships and connections among them and, more generally, address the challenging question as to whether the patterns of NDEs are regular."

The research is based on 154 French written narratives of NDEs from participants recruited via the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS France) and the Coma Science Group (GIGA-Consciousness, University of Liège and University Hospital of Liège, Belgium). Two researchers (one expert and one novice unfamiliar with the NDE phenomenon) then did textual analysis of the narratives separate to each other, picking out the various elements and their place in the temporal sequence of the reported NDE.

The analysis found that the mean number of NDE isolated features reported per narrative was 4 (± 2), out of a full range of 9 reported features.The most frequently encountered NDE features were: (1) Feeling of peacefulness (80%); (2) Seeing a bright light (69%); and (3) Encounters with spirits/people (64%). The two least frequently reported NDE features were Speeded thoughts (5%) and Precognitive visions (4%).

Our findings replicate previous research that has observed the feeling of peacefulness as the most frequently encountered feature during NDEs and precognitive visions as the less frequently encountered. Our results diverge, however, on the second most reported feature, which is 'Seeing a bright light' in the present study. OBE is here recorded in 53% of the testimonies (i.e., the fourth more frequent feature) while it is usually reported in the literature as the second most commonly encountered feature in NDEs (i.e., about 80%).

Overall, the researchers observe, NDE narratives "vary in 'richness' of encountered features", and while various significant features were identified (i.e., occurring > 50%) - such as 'Feeling of peace', 'Seeing a bright light', 'Encountering with spirits/people', and 'out-of-body experience' - it is worth noting that, strangely, "no NDE feature is universal in its occurrence."

As for their position in the narratives:

At time 1 (i.e., the first NDE feature appearing in narrative texts –whatever the total number of features encountered during the NDE), the most frequently reported feature was OBE (35%). At time 2 (i.e., the second NDE feature appearing in narrative texts –whatever the total number of features encountered during the NDE), Feeling of peacefulness (31%) was the most often encountered feature. At time 3 and 4, the most frequently reported features were, respectively, Seeing a bright light (25%) and Encountering with spirits/people (24%). At time 5 and 6, the most frequently observed feature was Coming to a border/point of no return (respectively, 22 and 31%). At time 7, Returning into the body (56%) was the most often reported feature. At time 8, the two most frequently reported features were Coming to a border/point of no return and Returning into the body (both 37%). Finally, results demonstrated that only three narratives contain a ninth feature and all three were Returning into the body (100%).

The researchers also analysed how often features occurred consecutively, with results showing that the most frequently reported sequence was 'Feeling of peace' and 'Encountering with spirits/people'. "Interestingly," they note, "it also appears that 'Seeing a bright light', 'OBE' and 'Feeling of peace' are all the more regularly followed by 'Encountering with spirits/people in narratives'... we further observe that NDErs experience more often an OBE before experiencing a Feeling of peace than the opposite pattern."

Overall, the most frequently encountered "temporality core features sequence reported by NDErs" in their narratives was 'OBE', followed by 'Experiencing a tunnel', followed by 'Seeing a bright light', finally followed by 'Feeling of peace'. However, the researchers note, this sequence - while the most common - was still only found "in a relatively small number of accounts". Instead, NDE accounts varied wildly in both the reported elements, and in their order:

Actually, no invariable temporal sequence of features (i.e., observed in all or at least most narratives) could be established in our sample of narratives, suggesting that every NDEr might report a unique pattern of experience. We then could consider NDEs narratives as a changeable collection of possible elements differing according to NDErs – and not as a regular pattern. Indeed, our findings suggest that NDEs may not feature all elements and elements do not seem to appear in a fixed order. This raises significant questions about what specific aspects of NDEs could be considered as universal –and what not.

So it appears that, while we think we know what a near-death experience is, in reality it is somewhat of a slippery concept. At its very loosest, we might say that it is when someone near death - sometimes physically, but also sometimes when they are simply under the impression they are about to die - experiences at least one of a number of identified 'NDE' elements. However, where do we draw the line on which are the important elements, and how many of them are really needed to make it a genuine NDE? For example, are feelings of peace near death enough to call it an NDE? It's an interesting question, though I'm not sure if it's one that has an easy answer.