What Happens When You (Almost) Die?

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Wanda Colie vividly remembers what she saw in 1984 when, at age 28, a condition that produced blood in her lungs nearly killed her. The pain vanished and a crowd of familiar faces came to welcome her in a light-drenched valley.

For more than two decades, Colie kept her experience secret. But she’s recently joined hundreds of others who’ve started going public with their near-death experiences, or NDEs.

“For a long time, I couldn’t talk about this stuff because it was just stuff you didn’t talk about,” said Colie, a housecleaner who lives in Rougemont, N.C. “I had to deal with it myself, (and now) I can’t explain the relief to know that I’m OK. I’m not going crazy or anything.”

Once dismissed as mere hallucinations, NDEs are being taken more seriously than in the past. Studies published in The Lancet, a respected British medical journal, and the Journal of the American Medical Association have reframed NDEs as phenomena worthy of scientific research.

Last year, three medical doctors published books on new NDE research, including what it suggests about consciousness beyond the brain and even the possibility of afterlife.

Several mainstream films, including Clint Eastwood’s recent “Hereafter,” toyed with the possibility of an afterlife, and as NDEs garner increased attention, more people with NDEs are opening up and shedding light what happens as earthly life slips away.

The Louisiana-based Near Death Experience Research Foundation, whose database of more than 1,600 NDEs is the world’s largest, added a record 280 new accounts last year — up 35 percent from 2009. The North Carolina-based International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS) has amassed more than 900 accounts at its website and now tracks 46 support groups for people who’ve had NDEs.

More NDE accounts means more data to examine and more reliable inferences, according to researchers such as Dr. Jeffrey Long, a Louisiana oncologist whose study of 613 NDEs forms the basis of his 2010 book, “Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death

“That large number (of survey participants) helps us to be more confident in the findings than we ever could be previously when we studied much smaller numbers of near-death experiences,” Long said.

As more accounts come to light, researchers are identifying patterns that transcend differences based on age, culture and religious (or nonreligious) backgrounds.

Frequently noted experiences include moving through a tunnel, looking down at one’s own body, reuniting with predeceased loved ones, and being overwhelmed with a sense of love and beauty.

Some doctors who study NDEs say these perceptions and others can be traced to a brain in a distressed condition. Dr. Kevin Nelson, a University of Kentucky neurologist, argues that the brain can remain alive for several minutes after a disturbance in heart rhythm. The brain is not conscious after a cardiac arrest, he said, but an “in between” state of partial consciousness can ensue with the ebb and flow of blood in the brain for a few minutes.

If a patient remembers anything from the experience, Nelson says, it’s a function of blood flow, oxygen levels and other activity inside a living brain.

“People have been led astray in the general literature, and I was concerned about that,” said Nelson, who explains his theory in his new book, “The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience.”

“People who have been speaking about what the brain is doing in these events are not brain scientists. They’re not neuroscientists. They’ve had an amateur’s grasp of how the brain works.”

Other medical researchers, however, say NDEs happen when the brain is neither conscious nor alive. Dr. Pim van Lommel, a Dutch cardiologist who interviewed 344 cardiac arrest patients for the Lancet study, said patients repeatedly report keen awareness from moments in time when their brains were clinically dead.

The explanation, van Lommel said, is that consciousness exists apart from the body, and humans encounter this greater consciousness more fully when earthly life ends.

“People who have had near-death experiences say death is just the end of our physical aspects, but it’s not the end of who we are,” said van Lommel, author of “Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of Near-Death Experience.” “That is what has been told … in religious traditions. They all have the same message: the essence of who we are is

Long’s research echoes van Lommel’s. He notes how patients, some of whom were clinically dead for a time, later recall things that were said around the operating table or at a bedside during these moments. Their observations are corroborated by witnesses, which makes him “absolutely convinced there is a life after death — a wonderful life after death.”

While some on both sides of the debate accuse their critics of practicing flawed science, the prospect of empirical support for an afterlife is nonetheless shaping how people approach death and dying.

For patients with terminal illnesses, fear of death is often an obstacle to overcome. A 2009 study at Dana Farber Cancer Institute found that patients with a religious faith were more likely than nonbelievers to ask for aggressive life-saving techniques in their final days. But those who trust in the reality of an afterlife need not be afraid of what comes next, according to Diane Corcoran, a nurse and president of IANDS.

“I treat people who are dying very differently than I did 20 years ago,” said Corcoran, who says she believes in afterlife because she’s heard hundreds of similar accounts of what happens there.

“I try to teach people that (death) doesn’t have to be an awful thing; it could be a loving thing. You could certainly treat it differently and not hold on to people that are struggling or suffering. Maybe there’s a better place for them to be.”

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18 Responses to What Happens When You (Almost) Die?

  1. Why is it that we only read nde accounts like these? Death for a sinful person should be feared !
    I met a man once who was a very high ranking law enforcement officer. He was in a body brace and looked a bit beaten. When I asked what happened he said I won’t beleave him. As it turned out he had been struck by a large crashing wave. This wave slammed his body against the ocean In only a couple feet of water. The impact caused parallasis to occur . He laid face down fully conscious as he watched helplessly as he drowned. He remembered being able to hear and see but unable to motion for help. He drowned ! Next he remembered hovering over the beach as he watched others franticly try to revive his lifeless body. So you didn’t see the white light or enter a long tunnel I asked. No you won’t believe what happened to me he replied . So this very respectful gentleman proceeded to go into graphic detail of just what he went through. He said he was being forcefully dragged away by very ugly people. He called them the agents of Lucifer . They were unsuccessful in their attempts to take him as he was revived by the ems attendants on the scene . He remained in a coma for days and all during that period he was being poked and proded as these ugly fellows harassed him. Finally he regained consciousness and these people went away. He told me his life has now changed. He said I always thought I was a good person . A law abiding citizen but after this experience I realized that had I died I was going to Hell !
    I gave him a Bhagavada-Gita As It Is and said if he sincerely tried to understand this great book he would truly know the real meaning of life. I hope he read it but after an experience like that somehow I think he has.

    • It`s true that most stories say about love, peace and so on. This is what is easily sold. But I guess there are many stories that we hear from our relatives and friends that don`t seem to be so nice and I have heard such stories myself.

      But in any case I wonder to what extend the experience is coloured by person`s cultural and religious background.

    • Actually that would be a great idea to put out a book on NDE’s that would only have those bad experiences! I bet the New Age crowd wouldn’t be ready for that.

      This is a good example of how publishing goes according to what people want to hear. (I guess that’s why the BHagavatam is not found in Barnes & Nobles.)

      • I don’t buy that argument. Horror and gore sell just fine these days. Perhaps there is another reason (or reasons) such horrible stories are rare. Maybe people are less willing to share them, but most of the published research in that field is apparently quite honest.
        Published descriptions of horror trips on psychodelic media such as ‘magic’ mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca, etc. are quite common. Thus the argument of ‘only pleasant stuff sells’ is not convincing for me.

        And besides, the argument that people must be scared into acting properly is exceedingly shallow and primitive. I find that such good life after death stories compell people into real spirituality much better than any story about hell and damnation. Maybe that is another reason we hear mostly just the nice stories.

        • Maybe you’re right Kula-pavana.

          I think there’s some room for scaring people too. Why not? Whatever makes us practice more, as long as it’s not over-the-top dysfunctional.

      • The Bible and the Quran are found in Barnes and Noble as is the Gita. All of them have some description of hell if that pleases you :). If NDE experiences included evil with people seeing yamaduttas dressed in dhotis in India and angels/demons dressed in pants and shirts in Christian tradition etc,with Islamic attire in Muslim countries, the case for cultural expression of these entities can be made. That will make it hard to insist on ontological reality of NDE experiences, unless u insist only yamaduttas dressed in dhotis and exactly as described in bhagavatam should appear in all bad experience NDEs. And they should be the most common in kali yuga with everyone eating meat and drinking liquor (they need to go to drink molten iron etc), according to most devotees.

        I agree with you on the point that this study will have its critics because it is not complete. Otherwise I don’t understand your point of Bhagavata not being in Barnes and Noble. You specifically want the fifth canto of the bhagavatam there? Books like Dance of Divine Love and Aesthetic Vedanta can make it to Barnes and Noble.

        • Sorry, I was a little unclear in my output about the Bhagavatam not being found in B&N. It was supposed to support my point that the stuff that people want to hear gets published and widely distributed and since the Bhagavatam is teaching how to become a slave and completely destroy any prospect for independent enjoyment or self-centered liberation, only a very few are ready to hear it. That example had nothing to do with scaring people to practice religion etc.

  2. In my own case, after a severe motor vehicle crash in 2008, I was hospitalized, had a major operation, and was given morphine for pain. I went sleepless for 72 hours, then began having visions of two different types of hellish situations. Once I realized that I was trapped, Krishna saved me. It is all in my book if anyone ever cares to read it.

    • Dhanistha Devi Dasi

      Harebol. I would very much like to read your book. How do I get hold of it? I had a NDE myself after an emergency operation.

      • Danistha, if you click Ananda-maya’s name above his comment it will take you to his website. I am not sure if he will get your message here, so I would recommend contacting him there. 🙂

  3. I don’t buy that argument. Most average non-drug using people expect that many of those who take psychedlic drugs will have ‘bad trips’. On the other hand, most people who believe in an afterlife expect it to be quite pleasant and belief in hell and damnation is actually quite rare in the non Christian and even to a large extent in the Christian public. Stories about how filled with love and light the ‘after life’ is from those who have NDE’s would serve more to subvert any progress most readers might otherwise make because these stories lead one to believe that the after life is the same for everyone regardless of actions and thoughts in this life. So, one theory would be that these stories lend themselves to the sort of new age status quo that people want so desperately to believe in.

    Personally – I tend to take these experiences by people on face value – I don’t really think anyone is making things up and I seriously doubt that those with bad experiences would hold back from telling their stories. Connection to the physical is incredibly strong since almost all people live their lives fully identified with the body as themselves. I would suggest that the experiences of most people are functions of their brains under extreme stress. It doesn’t appear, at least from what I’ve read, that there is a cultural bias to most NDE experiences reported.

  4. “I would suggest that the experiences of most people are functions of their brains under extreme stress.”

    You may be right Audarya. And then to use NDE as evidence for afterlife or for proving that mind is different from the brain will not really work out. In fact, it will prove to be detrimental because perhaps some research will indeed show that NDEs are functions of the brain under extreme duress.


    This website has lot of interviews on this matter with leading experts.

    • I don`t buy reducing everything to brain functions. Brain reacts to stress, no doubt about it. Someone may have hallucinations or memory loss and so on. But people relating nde are often able to describe details that they would not be able to percieve without coming out of physical body. And there is no way to explain this as a brain function.

      But suppose that someone does it. Provokes nde by touching some place in the brain. So what? Brain is just a tool, a personal computer we use. If something is damaged in our computer we may not be able to open our files. Or they may show mistakes. And there are many programmes that we don`t even know about that are necessary for our computer to work. One of our programmes may be: “coming out of the body”. You just run it by mistake, at a wrong time. But this does not dismiss the purpose it was written for.

      • What you are saying is true according to Eastern tradition, but I don’t know whether using NDE to prove that mind is not reducible to mind will work very well because you and GN who agree with the premise don’t agree with this research, what to speak of atheists. If this research was very convincing then at least theists like you and Gurunistha to object to the research. That is the point I wanted to make.

  5. Dhanistha dd,
    Hari Bol. My book is still available, if you are interested, at http://www.journeytoecstasy.com.
    I feel that this may be an appropriate time to attempt to discern the link of mind to brain. Personally, I consider the brain to be merely the seat of the mind, its interface while we are here inhabiting a physical body. Of course, this is just my opinion, as I am neither a scientist nor a realized bhakta. Mind, of course, is the subtle element, per Gita, whereas brain is the gross interface.
    Pranams, Anandamaya das

  6. I should perhaps add that although things generally proceed from subtle to gross, that is, from mental conception to being worked out within the material cosmos, apparently things can also proceed from gross to subtle, which is what happened to me under the influence of morphine. What began as illusory visual perceptions (hallucinations) that I in fact perceived as illusory, quickly became much more urgent and terrifying as I perceived that I had arrived in some hellish plane, although I felt that it was my personal hell. But once Krishna entered the scene, everything intensified to an infinite degree and became wholly blissful, and I felt that I had fully transcended any material misconceptions and arrived in the plane of spirit.
    Anandamaya das

  7. Regardless whether one has this type of experience or not, a Vaishnava is still duty-bound to follow and serve guru & Krishna and to serve the devotees.

  8. There are many web resources on Negative OBE’s and NDE’s

    My Grandmother died on the operating table, and told me of an experience of being sucked into a valley of trees, that entangled her and tried to drag her down.

    I beleive, that we all experience what our soul is expecting to experience before arriving at whatever destination our GOD has ready for us. Therefore, don’t fear, just expect what is next, as we can’t change it. Let it remain a mystery and live the way GOD made for you.

    peace out


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