The Seven Types Of Near-Death Experiences

City pedestrian tunnel
“There is no confessor like unto Death! / Thou canst not see him, but he is near: / Thou needest not whisper above thy breath, / And he will hear; / He will answer the questions, / The vague surmises and suggestions, / That fill thy soul with doubt and fear.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Christus, The Golden Legend”

In A Nutshell

A bright white light at the end of a tunnel. A feeling of utter peace. Encountering a dead relative. Most of us assume we know what a near-death experience (NDE) would be like. But for a group of researchers in England, assuming wasn’t enough. They decided to delve into the science of NDEs and came back with some surprising conclusions. Instead of a single “one-size-fits-all” experience, they say there are at least seven distinct ways you can enter the afterlife.

The Whole Bushel

It’s a story you’ve probably heard many times before. Someone goes in for an operation, suffers a cardiac arrest and suddenly feels like they’re floating near the ceiling, watching the doctors work on their unresponsive body. It’s a classic NDE, almost up there with a tunnel that ends in a bright light. If you’ve ever thought about it, you’ve probably assumed these experiences are random, dictated by dying neurons randomly firing as the brain shuts down. But recent research shows NDEs may fall within seven distinct categories.

The most common of these are “seeing a bright light” and “recalling events post-cardiac arrest.” The first is pretty self-explanatory, while the second is the sort of scenario described above: watching doctors work on your lifeless body. But significant numbers of people have reported something different. In a study of 101 cardiac arrest victims who could remember their NDEs, nearly a quarter (22 percent) reported strong, pleasant sensations.

Broadly, these could be divided into two new categories, the first of which was “seeing family.” This usually referred to dead relatives with whom the victim was reunited. The second category was stranger. Designated as “seeing animals and plants,” those who experienced it frequently found themselves surrounded by a never-ending panorama of nature; including some who saw nothing but repeated images of lions and tigers.

Far scarier were the two darker categories: “fear” and “violence and persecution.” The people who reported experiencing one of these categories had been deeply traumatized. One recalled being dragged underwater by a malevolent force, while another patient saw a hideous ceremony in which men were buried upright in coffins and he was burned by fire. Yet others were told they were going to die.

The final category was largely neutral. “Deja vu” was experienced by a small but significant number of the patients, while a very large number reported a feeling of time being distorted.

Interestingly, the study leader, Dr. Sam Parnia, thinks many if not most of us have these experiences when we die; although the effects of hospital drugs and the swelling in our brains brought on by cardiac arrest means only a small percentage of us remember them (in this study, only 101 out of 2,000). Yet our forgotten NDEs may continue to shape our waking lives. Many patients see big changes after cardiac arrest, with some becoming more altruistic and less self-centered, and some suffering from PTSD. Dr. Parnia has hypothesized that this might be down to whether they had a good, neutral, or terrifying experience.

Show Me The Proof

BBC Future: The seven ways to have a near-death experience
The Telegraph: First hint of ‘life after death’ in biggest ever scientific study

  • OldBoris

    It’s a rather fascinating field of study, but one that the medical community does not want to investigate. Individual researchers prefer to go with the obvious “it’s because of the drugs or the physical trauma, or the lack or abundance of oxygen in your brain that you have these hallucinations”. Nobody wants to be called Spooky Mulder by their colleagues, I guess. I think there’s a bit more to it than that, because I have heard things. A friend of mine, who is so honest that it can be annoying, says that for a brief while, he noticed spirits who talked to him.

    In many folk religions (some ancient, some still existing today), the spirits of our ancestors are said to watch over us and to be able to have a slight influence on our lives. Maybe they were there to welcome the dead to the spirit realm, the or afterlife. As for the bad experiences, maybe the people with the near death experiences did something to really piss them off in life.

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  • oouchan

    Interesting concepts. I guess it can be used to help those suffering or in doubt. Also, if they were a jerk beforehand and it helped them be a better person, go for it.
    However, in all likelyness, I’m going to be skeptic of it all. Would say much of this is hocus pocus with a bunch of tall tales thrown in.