According to a Gallup Poll several years ago, 5 percent of all Americans have had a near-death experience (NDE). However, before you accept this as proof of life after death, remember these facts.
FACT 1: You aren’t dead when you’re having a near-death experience.
Ask a doctor and he or she will tell you that you aren’t dead when you stop breathing. You aren’t dead when your heart stops beating. You aren’t even dead when an EEG reveals no trace of brain activity. You are dead only when so many cells have died that there is no chance of reviving you, and this is a process that takes time.
Brain cells only begin to die, for instance, after four to six minutes without oxygen. Hearts can be resuscitated after fifteen minutes of “death.” Muscles and skin can hang on for several hours. And unusual circumstances, such as hypothermia, can prolong this process.
Medically speaking, in other words, the fact that someone can tell you about their NDE means that he or she wasn’t dead when it happened! Almost dead? Yes. Really dead? No. That’s why they call them near-death experiences, not after-death experiences.
FACT 2: You can be near death without having a near-death experience.
The same poll that said 5 percent of all adult Americans have had an NDE also said that two-thirds of those who’ve been near death have not had an NDE. Take three dying people, in other words. One will have a mystical experience and two won’t. But which one do you think will get written up in the tabloids?
Also, not all NDEs are alike. Roughly two out of three people who have had one do not “leave” their body— and roughly three out of every four report neither a tunnel nor a light at the end of a tunnel.
Approximately 1 percent of all NDEs are described as “acutely unpleasant” and even hellish.
These differences suggest that NDEs aren’t so much an objective description of death as they are a person’s subjective reaction to the dying process. The victim’s background can influence his or her NDE. Like dreams, in other words, NDEs are shaped by the people who have them.
FACT 3: You don’t need to be near death to have a near-death experience.
Everything that takes place during an NDE can happen in “real” life. Anesthesia, pituitary tumors, and too much carbon dioxide can trigger an apparent NDE. The “light at the end of a tunnel” featured in some NDEs can be duplicated by epilepsy, migraine headaches, meditation, and drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline. Even falling asleep triggers this reaction in some people!
It seems safe to say, in other words, that under certain conditions, the brain reacts in seemingly bizarre but fairly predictable ways. Frightened, in shock, poisoned by some of the by-products of dying cells—under these conditions, is it any wonder dying people see things that are out of the ordinary?
Exactly why people see what they do while dying is a mystery, but no more so than why people see what they do while they’re dreaming. The ultimate answer to both questions probably lies within our skulls, not outside of them.