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​Exploring Near-Death Experiences

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near-death

Photo Credit: odina/Thinkstock

Do all people encounter the end of life in the same way? 

Near-death experiences make for pretty compelling reading. There are many stories, for example, gathered on a website by the Near Death Experience Research Foundation. “I was advancing towards a very bright white light,” writes a Virginie, of France. “My spirit asked one question after another,” offered China’s Xue-Mei. “I remember going into a wooden house,” wrote Ceire, a resident of Ireland. By analyzing such stories, researchers can learn more about human culture, as well as the neurological and physical mechanisms that occur at the end of life.

A new study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, examined whether people have a universal experience during near-death experiences. Charlotte Martial, of the University of Liege and University Hospital, collected and analyzed 154 written accounts from people who had undergone a near-death experience. They found that about four characteristics were typical, including: out-of-body sensation, feeling like one is in a tunnel, witnessing a bright light and feeling a deep sense of peace. In fact, that exact sequence of events was felt by 22 percent of the participants. But for the rest, there was no specific pattern, which suggests that each near-death experience follows its own pattern.

“Our findings suggest that near-death-experiences may not feature all elements, and elements do not seem to appear in a fixed order. While near-death-experiences may have a universal character so that they may exhibit enough common features to belong to the same phenomenon, we nevertheless observed a temporal variability within the distribution of reported features,” wrote Martial in the study. “This raises significant questions about what specific aspects of near-death-experiences could be considered as universal—and what not.”

She notes that more research may show how our culture and expectations reflect in our end of life experiences.              


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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