What is it Like to Die?
The man who told me the following story was Peter Thompson, who’d been a patient of mine for many years:
I think the guy doing the operation still had his L-plates on. At any rate, he wasn’t being supervised properly - the consultant was out of the room. I remember holding out my arm for the local anaesthetic so that they could cut my skin for the cardiac catheter to be inserted. God knows why he didn’t put in any local anaesthetic, but there was the most searing pain in my arm and I looked at the doctor and I could see his brow was covered in sweat. Then I was aware I was losing consciousness and of people rushing around me, knocking things over in their efforts to get emergency equipment set up. Then there was nothing - no pain at all. And I was up there on a level with the ceiling - I say ‘I was there’, because that’s how it was. It wasn’t a dream, it wasn’t imagination. It was as real as me sitting here talking to you. I could actually see myself; me, my body, down there on the bed. Doctors scurrying round it, a general air of panic, but it didn’t worry me at all. I suppose it should have done - I knew it was me down there but it didn’t seem to be me if that makes any sense. The me that was really me was up there, out of it all.
Then I was floating in what seemed to be a tunnel; dark, but not frightening at all. I could see a light at the end and I felt as though I was being pulled towards it. I had to go - there was no alternative. But still I wasn’t frightened.
Rather the reverse - I had the most wonderful feeling of peace, more than I’ve ever felt before, at any time in my life, as though everything that was happening was right. And you know me - this isn’t anything like my usual self.
The light at the end got brighter and brighter, but it didn’t hurt my eyes. Although it was brilliant, it wasn’t dazzling. I felt I was being drawn into it and the feeling was well, the only way I can describe it is pure bliss and love.
He looked slightly embarrassed and dropped his eyes as if to apologise for saying such a silly thing, then he went on.
There was someone there in the light, waiting for me. And then suddenly I was pulled back, away from it, back, slammed into my body again, back with the pain, and I didn’t want to go. I just wanted that peace.
The next day the surgeon came round and said, just as if nothing had happened - he didn’t even apologise – ‘Well, we didn’t have much luck yesterday, did we? We’re going to have another go this afternoon.’ I just couldn’t believe it. He had sent me up to the ceiling and now he didn’t even ask how I was. All the other doctors with him were looking at each other and not wanting to catch my eye. I became very angry at their lack of care and started breaking out into a cold sweat, I was really frightened of going through all that pain again. So I discharged myself on the spot. I just felt I couldn’t trust them. I’ve been terrified of falling into the hands of doctors ever since. But death? This is the strange thing, I’ve got no fears about that at all. If that’s dying, it’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s wonderful.
Peter Thompson was a man I liked and respected, and there was no doubt in my mind that he was telling the truth. Since that episode he had developed an anxiety neurosis and sweated whenever he came into hospital, but the experience of love had changed him; he felt he knew what happened after death.
He couldn’t explain what had happened to him. Neither could I. But I didn’t doubt for one moment that he had experienced it, whatever it was, whatever it meant.
I had already come across descriptions of similar experiences collected by Raymond Moody, an American doctor. Dr Moody was a philosophy student when he first met someone who had ‘died’ and gave a fascinating account of what had happened to him while he was ‘dead’. Later, when Moody was teaching in a university in North Carolina, a student told him about an amazing experience his grandmother had had when she ‘died’ during an operation.
These two accounts were so similar that Dr Moody started actively to search for others. The result was his book Life after Life, published in 1973, the first book to describe in detail the tales told by people who had survived a brush with death.
The response to the book in the States was fantastic. To begin with, although Dr Moody himself never claimed that anything he had found was proof of a life after death, he was often misinterpreted. Many of the accounts he recorded were from people who had been resuscitated after a cardiac arrest; some had even been said to have been ‘clinically dead’ for a short while. Medically speaking, these people had not died - by definition they could not have died because they were now alive. But the notion that these were experiences described by people who had actually died and then come back from the dead became widespread. For many these experiences were read as a literal description, not just of what it was like to die, but of what happened after death.
I had been fascinated by these accounts, but as a scientist, I was sceptical. I suspected (as European scientists tend to do) that the ‘Californian factor’ might be operating: some experiments and some experiences just do not seem to cross the Atlantic. My initial feeling was that near-death experiences might be only another one of these. Now here was someone who’d had just such an experience sitting on the other side of my desk. ‘Flaky’ was about the last adjective I would have chosen to describe Peter; I had to take what he said seriously, and that meant I might have to revise my views about near-death experiences in general.
In fact, there is nothing particularly new about the notion that people can ‘die’ and live to tell the tale. There are written descriptions of similar experiences in myths and legends going back well over 2,000 years. It is likely that for as long as man has been aware of the certainty of death he has contemplated the possibility of survival and wondered, what happens next? The most ancient burial sites contain artefacts which suggest belief in the survival of some aspect of the human being after bodily death. Plato (427-347) at the end of The Republic tells the story of a soldier, Er, who was thought to have died on the battlefield. He revived on his funeral pyre and described a journey out of his body to a place of judgement, where souls were sent on to Heaven or to a place of punishment, according to the life they had lived on Earth. Before reincarnation they were sent across a river, where their experience of Heaven was wiped from their memory. But Er himself was sent back to tell others what he had seen.
Moody’s first contemporary reports of near-death experiences raised all sorts of interesting questions. Does everybody who comes near death have one, and if not, why not? Do you have to come near death to have such an experience? Are the experiences described specific to a near-death situation or do they occur in other circumstances? Could they be dreams or hallucinations, and if so, why should so many people dream more or less the same dream, or have more or less the same hallucination? If they are true glimpses of an afterlife, then why are there any differences in the accounts - why doesn’t everybody glimpse the same afterlife? Is there any relationship between the kind of experience you have and the closeness of the encounter with death - that is, do you experience more the nearer you actually come to dying? Kenneth Ring, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, was one of the first people to make a scientific study of these experiences and to try to answer some of these questions. He interviewed 102 people who had come close to death, and what he found confirmed many of Moody’s observations.
Some people, though by no means all, had had similar experiences to the ones Moody had reported, and these experiences did seem to follow a consistent pattern. In 1980, Ring listed the five features which appeared most commonly in their reports, and which he found usually occurred in the same order. He found that at the beginning of the experience, when the person might be frightened or in intense pain, he or she would be suffused with feelings of peace. This happened in 60 per cent of the people he studied. Then they would suddenly find themselves leaving their bodies - 37 per cent reported this out-of-body experience (OBE). Next, 23 per cent reported that they entered darkness, saw light (16 per cent), and entered the light (10 per cent). Ring called this consistent pattern of events in the near-death experience the ‘core experience’.
Many people’s experiences were even more complex than this so Ring went on to develop a more detailed scale which included many other components of the experience: some people saw dead relatives, others saw beautiful colours or heard music, some encountered a ‘being’ or presence, and some underwent a ‘review’ of their life. He gave different weights to these features, so that an NDE could be scored - the higher the score, the ‘deeper’ the experience, according to Ring.
The first people to attempt any kind of statistical analysis of near-death experiences were two American physicists, Russell Noyes and Donald Slymen. They asked 186 people who had survived serious illnesses or accidents about their feelings during their experiences. What they found was much the same as Ring had discovered, but they categorised the experiences reported slightly differently, and found three general underlying factors.
The most common was a ‘hyperalertness’ factor - thoughts were speeded up and became sharper and more vivid, vision and hearing seemed to be more acute. The second factor was one of depersonalisation, a feeling that the ‘self was apart or detached from the body and felt strange or unreal; that objects seemed small or far away. There is a loss of emotion and an altered sense of the passage of time. In about a quarter of subjects they found a third, ‘mystical’ factor. Mystical feelings included feelings of great understanding, a sense of harmony and unity, feelings of joy and revelation. Memories might be evoked and sometimes there was a feeling of being controlled by some outside force.
What actually happens in a near-death experience? No two are identical and yet, as anyone who has studied them has found, there are uncanny similarities between them. Certain features crop up again and again, regardless of the person’s sex or age, or (even more intriguingly) of their religion or culture, so much so that Bruce Greyson, another American psychiatrist and NDE researcher, laid out a blueprint of a characteristic experience. The events described don’t always occur in the same order, and few people experience every event. But virtually everyone who has had a near-death experience will recognise some features in the following brief outline, and will be able to say, ‘Yes, this is what happened to me.’
Feelings of Peace
For many people overwhelming feelings of peace, joy and bliss are the first and most memorable part of the experience. Any feelings of pain that the earthly body may have been feeling drop away.
Out of the Body
Often the experience begins with the person leaving his or her body. He feels as though he is slowly rising out of it, weightless, floating, and can look down on himself from some objective vantage-point, usually near the ceiling.
Into the Tunnel
The person may enter darkness, usually a dark tunnel. They seem to pass very rapidly through this without making any physical effort. At the end of the tunnel they see a pinpoint of light which, as they approach it, grows larger and larger. For some people the whole tunnel is a tunnel of light, not darkness.
Approaching the Light
For many people, the light is one of the most significant parts of the experience. Nearly always it is described as white or golden, a very brilliant light but not dazzling, so that it doesn’t hurt your eyes. Very often the light seems to act almost as a magnet, drawing the person towards it.
The Being of Light
At this point the person may meet a ‘being’ of light. If the person is himself religious, this may be an obviously religious figure such as Jesus; sometimes it is simply a ‘presence’ which is felt to be God or God-like. This is nearly always an intensely emotional experience, so much so that often the experiencer cannot find the words to describe his feelings. But the experience is nearly always a positive one. The descriptions that are given are of a presence that is warm and welcoming and loving.
Sometimes people sense that there is some sort of barrier between them and the light, a barrier which in some way marks a point of no return. Several see this as a physical barrier - a person or a gate or fence - sometimes it is simply a feeling that they know this is a point beyond which they cannot pass.
Experiences often say that they have visited another country - usually an idyllic pastoral scene, brilliantly coloured, filled with light - or that they have glimpsed such a place beyond the barrier.
Occasionally other people are encountered too, usually dead relatives, more rarely friends who are still alive, or strangers. In some instances these figures beckon to them, in others they wave them away, signalling that they should go back.
The Life Review
At some point in the experience the person may see events from his life flash before him; a few people have felt they are being weighed up, experiencing a sort of Day of Judgement in which their past actions are reviewed. Some have a life preview - events are unfolded to them which are to take place in their future, and sometimes they are told there are tasks ahead of them which they must go back to complete.
The Point of Decision
Often people want to stay, more than anything they want to stay. But in every case they realise that this is impossible, that it is not yet their time to go. Sometimes they make the decision to go back themselves, usually because they realise that they are still needed by their families. Sometimes it’s made for them; they are sent back either by the being of light, or by the friends or relatives they have met. Often they are given a sense that they have unfinished business to complete before they are finally allowed to ‘cross the barrier’.
The return to the body is usually rapid; the person often shoots backwards down the tunnel at tremendous speed, and ‘snaps back’ into their body as if on the end of an elastic cord.
For most people the near-death experience is one of the most profound they will ever have. It is vividly remembered for years - often for a whole lifetime. And very often the person who has had it reports that he or she returned changed in some way, often, though not always, permanently. Virtually everyone reports that afterwards they have no fear of death, though they don’t particularly want to die - it’s as if they value life even more and have a renewed sense of purpose. Their attitudes change. If they already have some religious faith the experience tends to confirm it. Even if they have no particular religious faith, many, probably most, return believing that death is not the end. A small proportion believe that they have been given psychic powers, precognition or the gift of healing, following their experience.
As a neurophysiologist and neuropsychiatrist, I have always been interested in different states of consciousness. We know so little about the mind and whether or not it is entirely limited to the brain. The scientific evidence so far suggests that it is, but the question still remains open. It looked to me as though near-death experiences might be another way of looking at the relationship between brain, mind and consciousness.
Near-death experiences also seemed to have a lot in common with other kinds of mystical experiences, for example those in which the subject feels that he has seen through the very texture of the universe into its ultimate structure. Often people feel that the experience is one of universal love, that the structure of the world is love. People who have NDEs often describe similar feelings of being surrounded by universal and complete love.
These mystical experiences had always interested me because they seem to lie at the frontier of science; we can find partial scientific explanations for them, but they can’t be explained entirely by the mechanisms we already know. And yet as an area of research they are unsatisfactory because they occur at random and totally unpredictably. Of course it is interesting when people say they have felt that they are part of the universe or report that visions of the Virgin Mary regularly appear to them. But they can’t make these experiences happen to order; they just occur.
This makes it impossible to set up a situation in which you can actually monitor what is happening to someone’s brain during a mystical experience and correlate this with what they are feeling, their subjective experience. If you could do this then you would be able to set up a prospective study, that is a study in which you can watch things as they happen and so know what has actually occurred. If you cannot do this then you have to rely on the person’s memory of what he thinks was happening to him at the time he had his experience. Such retrospective studies are inevitably distorted by memory, and this makes them much less reliable, and, scientifically, of much less value.
Yet it looked as though in the near-death experience one might have a mystical experience which not only seemed to conform to a consistent pattern but occurred only in special circumstances, and as these circumstances were known there was real chance of predicting it and therefore of setting up a prospective study.
Who has near-death experiences and how common are they? In 1982 the Gallup organisation published a national survey, ‘Adventures in Immortality’, which set out to examine what adult Americans believe about life after death. One of the questions asked was, ‘Have you yourself ever been on the verge of death or had a “close call” which involved any unusual experience at that time?’ An astonishing 15 per cent of the respondents said that they had.
Almost certainly this overestimates the true number of near-death experiences. The type of experience isn’t specified, and a close call with death can mean different things to different people. It is very likely that a good proportion of the people who answered yes were, clinically speaking, not near death at all.
Even so, near-death experiences are by no means rare. When researchers questioned only people known to have come near death (for example, because they have had a cardiac arrest), they found that although not everyone near to death had the experience, somewhere between a tenth and a third did. This was cheering news for science - if it occurs that often then a prospective study was certainly feasible.
There remained the major difficulty that until I had talked to Peter Thompson all the experiences, and indeed all the research, seemed to lie on the other side of the Atlantic. I knew of no evidence to indicate that NDEs occurred on anything like the same scale in Britain. It was about this time that I first met Margot Grey, a psychologist who had herself had a near-death experience, which had had a profound effect upon her. She had interviewed many other English people who had had similar experiences in a hospital in England, and in 1985 published Return From Death, the first piece of English research on NDEs.
After the book was published she was contacted by so many other people to whom the same thing had happened that she decided to form an association which would act both as a way of putting these people (many of whom had never talked about their experiences to anyone else) in touch with each other, and possibly also as a vehicle for collecting accounts of the experiences so that they could be studied systematically. She invited me, together with several other people whom she knew were interested, to help her set up the association, the UK branch of the International Association of Near Death Studies.
Margot’s book sparked off even wider interest in NDEs, and in 1987, shortly after it was published, I was approached by Tony Edwards, a gifted BBC television producer, who wanted to make a QED popular documentary film about the subject. The film was eventually shown at prime viewing time, but even so we didn’t expect the enormous response we got from people who wrote in to tell us about their own experiences. Nearly always their first and overwhelming emotion on seeing the programme was one of relief that they were not alone; they were not Moony’ - other people had had these experiences too.
‘You can imagine my delight when I saw your programme and realised that I was not the only person who was out of step with what is termed normal.’ ‘I was delighted to hear other people have had the same experience. I was not a “nut” or a liar even to myself.’ ‘How thankful I am that I am not on my own with this experience.’ Secondly there was a feeling of relief that they felt they could now ‘come out’ and at last talk about what had happened to them. Letter after letter expressed these feelings.
‘It’s something I haven’t wanted to discuss with anyone other than a few that I am very close to, but it’s something I desperately want to clarify.’
‘Ten years ago 1 could not tell anybody about my experience, even my husband, because I thought people would think I was crazy.
‘It comes as some relief to me to be able to actually share my experience after all these years.
‘At the time [1947-8] I did not mention it to anyone. In those days they would have thought the worst had happened’.
‘I guess we all think others are inclined to laugh, so we keep silent.’ The third reaction, and the one which made these experiences so compelling, and so moving, was that although they may have been in themselves extraordinary, they had happened to people who were ordinary human beings. If something like this could happen to them, you felt on reading their letters, then it could happen just as easily to you or me.
‘I am a quite normal, level-headed human being in my forties.’ ‘I am quite a normal person and yet this certainly happened to me.’
‘Before I tell you what happened I must tell you that my husband was a tool and die maker and tool designer. He was a man not given to fantasy, very down to earth, very honest and straightforward, an extremely hard worker, and well read and intelligent.
‘My friends are mostly shipyard workers or local miners, so you will understand why I have not attempted to tell anyone of my experiences; one does not discuss the idea of afterlife and reincarnation with coalminers and shipyard workers, not if one wants to keep one’s friends and sanity. Football, women, and greyhounds maybe, but not the afterlife.’ The special value of these accounts is that, by and large, they came from people who were recalling something that happened to them years ago - twenty, thirty, sometimes as long as fifty years ago, long before anyone had heard of NDEs, and certainly long before such experiences had captured the popular imagination in the way they have done today. These people had no preconceived ideas about near-death experiences: indeed, they didn’t even know about them and most had not the slightest idea what it was that had happened to them.
Contemporary accounts will always be open to the criticism that they are contaminated by preconceptions, that people see what they expect to see. If they expect to travel through a tunnel, to meet their long-lost loved ones as their journeying souls leave this world for the next, then, the critics will say, that is exactly what is likely to happen. The people who wrote to us were quite simply describing their own experiences, without embellishment.
They would have liked an explanation but usually felt quite unable to offer one. Is it surprising that these experiences were so clearly remembered so long after they happened? I don’t think so. You do not easily forget something which leaves you absolutely baffled.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published February 2012
Size: 229 x 152 mm