18 Jun 2009

Are NDEs signs of imminent death or not?

"Features of "near-death experience" in relation to whether or not patients were near death" by J. E. Owens, E. W. Cook and I. Stevenson, The Lancet, vol 336.

This paper was written in 1990, so is not particularly new, however, as it seems widely available on the internet it is worth a summary of its findings. The increase in documented reports of near-death experiences has prompted an increase in scientific research. However, the obvious religious consequences of such glimpses into death means that it is often difficult to rely entirely on personal reports and it would be useful to have physiological and neurological data to gain insights into what is really going on.

For the moment, we are stuck with three competing views of the near-death experience: what the authors have called the transcendental, the physiological and the psychological. The distinction between the latter two seems to be a matter of which specialist is conducting the research, but for the purposes of this study they are important in that they distinguish between those people who were clinically close to death from those who merely thought they were dead or dying but who, from a medical standpoint, were actually not in any such danger.

Although this paper does not look at out of body experiences, there are many similarities between OBEs and NDEs and it is therefore important to find out if they are indeed the same phenomenon that manifests under different conditions.

From the medical data the 58 subjects were divided into two groups, with 30 patients deemed to have not been near death and the remaining 28 being in danger of dying. The research then looked at a number of experiences that characterise reports of NDEs. The most significant difference between the 'near-death' group and the other group was in the reports of lights and of enhanced cognitive functions, such as mental clarity, memory, speed of thought. The seemingly archetypal 'tunnel' experience was not significantly different between the two groups but was significantly skewed towards those who had also experienced a strong light.

Other experiences, such as that of being outside one's body (an OBE), memory flash-backs, a belief that one is dead or dying and the range of emotional responses were not significantly different between the two groups. Thus, the perception of one's own imminent death may be enough to trigger a NDE, even if the physiological data makes this unlikely. However, the depth of the NDE in terms of bright lights, enhanced mental functions, a tunnel and the overall positive experience did discriminate between those who were really close to death from those who were not.

In light of this the authors admit that on its own this study could not come out in favour of any of the three major interpretations of near-death experiences. Indeed, they seemed most puzzled by the enhanced cognitive abilities of those who should most probably have been experiencing some impairment in brain functioning.

Features of "near-death experience" in relation to whether or not patients were near death

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