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The phenomenon of near death experiences (NDEs) are as old as life itself, and to some people they are spiritual and moving tales that affirm a life after death, and interpreted as indisputable proof of the existence of god.

For any not already familiar, in the west most of the NDEs contain some basic points, where a person who dies floats out of the body, and looks back at the remains from a point above. The period of this external watching varies in time from a few seconds to more than an hour. There is a generally a feeling a weightlessness. Almost invariably the deceased succumbs to a second stage, of being drawn to a tunnel with a clear, white light at the end. Sometimes they are drawn in by a gentle, deep voice, sometimes by the beckoning of loved ones, and sometimes by an indescribable urge. Sometimes they reach the light, and sometimes they do not. There is often a period of watching the events of one’s own life as a panoramic, and some report conversations with god, usually Jesus. Then, inevitably in order to come back to life and tell the tale, the deceased must return to life. The means that turns them back is variegated, but some common examples include an angelic messenger turning them back because their time has not yet come, a previously deceased family member sending them back, or turning away from the light of their own accord for the love of those left behind.

In fact, among western cultures, stories of NDE so closely follow these lines most every time that at first examination, one might think there is outside power directing them along the same road. Studies in other parts of the world are starting to confirm that NDE in their regions also consistently follow a pattern … but that pattern varies depending on the culture involved.

A study was conducted in the 1970s in India, seeking and interviewing Hindus about NDEs. Forty-five people who had such experiences were found. Only one reported having seen his body from outside. Most insisted that they felt as though still in a physical body, and two “messengers” were escorting them along a path⁠—some accounts insist this is the mafia form of “escorting” where the thugs get them by the elbows and drag them along. One, a man named Durga Jatav, tried to make a break for it, and his escorts cut off his legs prevent his escape. The messengers hauled the deceased into a field of white light, and to a desk, lectern, or similar which is manned by Yamraj, the Hindu god of the dead. Sometimes a charter of their life works were read off, but none reported the visual reliving of life as their western counterparts, and most reported a common means of being sent back to life, namely that of Yamraj pointing out that a mistake had been made. He was expecting someone of the same name in a different caste or town, or someone of the same description with a different name. Durga Jatav was allowed to pick his legs out a pile of discarded limbs, reattach them, then he, like the others, was escorted back and forced or pushed back into the body.

NDEs among Muslims differ from both the Hindu and Christian accounts. Several tenets of the Buddhist faith seem built on the act of death, and accordingly, their reports of NDE follow the faith for the most part. No two cultures have the exact same accounting of the experiences after death⁠— though all share an allusion to a bright, clear light. Save that one common element, it would seem that the events that one encounters are more based on culture than on the machinations of an actual post-mortem process.

But this outlook fails to take into account the really weird stuff: people who report the passing of time while they were confirmed brain-dead, blind people seeing while dead and reporting back their sights in detail, and people accurately describing things that happened while they were dead, including details of the surgery to save them, and people who see others on the far side of life who have also just recently passed away. In the case of Durga Jatav, who was removed from his legs to prevent flight, soon after resuscitation he developed folds of skin and reddish marks where his spirit legs had been severed. There was no known medical cause, nor a ready explanation. Whether real or a manifestation of an suffering brain, near-death experiences seem to have a profound effect on those who have them.

So what is the mechanism that allows these NDEs to occur? According to new research, NDEs are tied to the ability to remember dreams. Specifically, those who slip into REM or hypnosis easily are far more likely to experience an NDE than those who cannot⁠—in fact 55% of people having NDE reported having dream states intrude on waking at other times in their lives. These experiences tend to belong to those for whom the world and dreams intermingle.

Historically, science has spurned the NDE; nothing useful is ever returned from a brush with the unseen world. For a long time many thought that it could never be proven or disproven that these events even occur, and now, for the first time, neuroscience is edging in on understanding the NDE. Does this prove that there is no next life that people can sometime see? Maybe near-death experiences are hallucinations brought on by asphyxiation, and maybe people only remember dreams when they are attuned to the spiritual. The study provides no solid answer, but it’s step toward understanding.

Further reading:
Study linking NDE to dreams