There may be a medical reason for near-death experiences.
Jayne died once. It was an experience she'll never forget.
Almost 50 years later, the South Carolina woman recalls the experience with vivid clarity. It happened when her heart suddenly stopped during the birth of her second child. "I felt something leave my body. I couldn't see because I was enveloped by a gray mist, but I was never unconscious," she says. "Standing in that mist, I began to realize I had died, yet I had intense feelings of joy and gratitude that I was still 'alive.'"
The mist began to dissipate and gave way to a bright light. "I became one with the light and was cradled by it. I remember such feelings of love and protection that it was ecstasy. I actually began to wonder how much more I could take before I would shatter."
In the new realm she had entered, Smith conversed with another being. The being answered questions for her, such as "What is the meaning of life?" but prevented her from carrying much of the knowledge back to earth. Painfully, she awoke to find her doctor massaging her heart.
Smith's recollections are a classic example of a "near-death experience." While these experiences differ from person to person, they tend to share many of the same traits. Common among them are the sensations of separating from one's body, seeing or feeling an intense, enveloping light, having powerful emotions, meeting with deceased relative, a supreme being, or both, and reviewing one's life.
Approximately 9% to 18% of people near death have a near-death experience, says psychiatrist Bruce Greyson, MD, who compiled this statistic from several studies. Though the majority of respondents report pleasant experiences, a few do relate frightening or unpleasant ones.
Out of Body ... or Out of Mind?
Doctors frequently dismiss near-death experiences as hallucinations brought on by medication. But medications are an unlikely trigger for such events, says Greyson, since people who are medicated, intoxicated, or who suffer from high fevers actually report fewer and less elaborate stories than those who have a sudden heart attack or accident.
Some experts theorize that oxygen deprivation during the last moments of life causes hallucinations. Others suggest these experiences are brought on as the body releases a rush of endorphins to combat the terrible fear of dying. But hallucinations caused by oxygen loss are often distorted, and simply identifying brain chemicals doesn't prove that they cause the experiences, Greyson says.
Instead, he suggests that a near-death experience may be the result of dissociation, a typical reaction to stress. Dissociation is a state in which thoughts and feelings temporarily "separate" from consciousness. Daydreaming and total absorption in a book are examples of mild dissociative experiences. Pathological dissociation includes amnesia and multiple personality disorder.
In the Feb. 5, 2000, issue of the journal The Lancet, Greyson reports on his study of 134 people who had come close to death, 96 of whom had had a near-death experience. All were given a standardized test to measure the frequency of their dissociative experiences. The researcher found a link between near-death experiences and feelings of dissociation. Greyson is quick to point out that the pattern of dissociation is consistent with a normal response to stress, not with a psychiatric disorder.
Those who have survived a near-death experience almost inevitably claim that their outlook has changed considerably. Many of those changes are what one would expect -- increased belief in an afterlife, greater concern for others, less interest in material possessions. Kenneth Ring, PhD, author of Life at Death and Heading Toward Omega, has documented that survivors feel less anxiety about death. The deeper the experience, says Ring, the greater the overall change in the person's life.
There can be a negative aftermath, too. Phyllis M.H. Atwater, author of several books on the subject, says that most people who experience a near-death experience go through a period of depression. "Either they believe they're crazy and they have no way to understand what happened to them ... or they feel somehow lost," she writes in her new book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Near Death Experiences.
Fortunately, the depression is generally short-lived. Atwater also documents physiological changes, such as lower blood pressure, increased allergies, sensitivity to light and sound, and less tolerance for pharmaceuticals and other chemicals.
Jayne says her experience has made her both more spiritual yet more distanced from her church. "My minister was visibly uncomfortable. He just didn't want to discuss it." Since then, she's found herself drawn to various organizations involved with spirituality, including spiritual healing.
"My NDE changed my whole world view, but not my daily life," Smith says. "I was a happy person before and I am now. But I carry with me a knowledge that we humans are so much more than we know."
Nina M. Riccio is the author of the Five Kids and a Monkey health books for children. She writes frequently on health and parenting issues.
Originally published May 15, 2000.
Updated April 10, 2002.