Researchers have attempted to categorize near-death experiences according to seven major themes.
Photo Credit: Gareth via flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0
At BBC Future, Rachel Nuwer describes the work of Sam Parnia, director of resuscitation research (what a title!) at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York. Parnia, along with several colleagues, has interviewed 101 heart-attack sufferers who were “brought back from the dead,” in order to better “understand...the mental and cognitive experience of death”:
[Interviewees] reported dream-like or hallucinatory scenarios that Parnia and his co-authors categorised into seven major themes. “Most of these were not consistent to what’s called ‘near-death’ experiences,” Parnia says. “It seems like the mental experience of death is much broader than what’s been assumed in the past.”
Those seven themes were:
Seeing animals or plants
Violence and persecution
Recalling events post-cardiac arrest
These mental experiences ranged from terrifying to blissful. There were those who reported feeling afraid or suffering persecution, for example. “I had to get through a ceremony … and the ceremony was to get burned,” one patient recalled. “There were four men with me, and whichever lied would die … I saw men in coffins being buried upright.” Another remembered being “dragged through deep water”, and still another was “told I was going to die and the quickest way was to say the last short word I could remember”.
Others, however, experienced the opposite sensation, with 22% reporting “a feeling of peace or pleasantness”. Some saw living things: “All plants, no flowers” or “lions and tigers”; while others basked in the glow of “a brilliant light” or were reunited with family. Some, meanwhile, reported a strong sense of deja-vu: “I felt like I knew what people were going to do before they did it”. Heightened senses, a distorted perception of the passage of time and a feeling of disconnection from the body were also common sensations that survivors reported.
You can read more on this fascinating research at BBC Future, but I also wanted to mention here that Parnia’s work bears what I think is a strong resemblance to studies conducted in the field of dream research, and nightmare research, specifically. Like Parnia, most sleep researchers have attempted to organize nightmares by theme. What’s more (and I can’t decide if this is surprising or not), a number of the motifs associated with near-death experiences have been found to turn up with some frequency in nightmares, as well.
One big difference between Parnia’s work and nightmare research is that scientists have been studying dream content for a very, very long time. The systematic investigation of near-death experiences and their themes, by comparison, is an emerging field. If they’re careful, perhaps Parnia and his colleagues can avoid some of the pitfalls that Antonio Zadra—a prominent dream researcher at the University of Montreal—claims has prevented psychologists from establishing a more comprehensive understanding of nightmares and their content.
H/t BBC Future
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