Near-Death Experiences and Explanatory Models


Since medicine becomes more advanced, it returns people to life from borderline states in many cases. A near-death experience (NDE) is a subjective reality in a terminal form of consciousness, which exists in conditions of gradual degradation of brain functions. It begins from the youngest (the big hemispheres) to phylogenetically more ancient formations (brain stem and cerebellum). The psyche’s deprivation and disintegration are frequently accompanied by reports about seeing a bright light: golden flashes of lightning or sunshine along with angels. This paper aims to research the available literature that discussed NDE, focusing on the topic’s scientific background, explanatory models, and spiritual considerations.

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Scientific Research

The concept of NDE was first introduced in the book by Moody titled Life after Life in 1975. Moody presented the evidence of about 50 patients who survived clinical death (qt. in Khanna and Greyson 1609). This book almost immediately became a bestseller, and three years after its first appearance, the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) was founded, which published a particular journal. Twenty years later, the Foundation for Near-Death Experiences (NDERF) emerged, with branches in many countries and sites in more than 23 languages. These are the two leading organizations that explore near-death experiences and try to explain them. Since the 1980s, brain death is considered to be the main symptom of biological death. Life can be regarded as complete when the brain, the main organ that determines human existence, irreversibly ceases to function (Lake 120). After cardiac attack and cessation of breathing, the life of the brain composes the acute symptoms of clinical death, distinguishing it from irreversible death – biological.

How long does the brain and, consequently, a person live without the oxygen required by nerve cells? On the one hand, it is possible to return a patient to live with the subsequent restoration of brain functions in the event that resuscitation measures begin no later than three to five minutes after circulatory arrest. On the other hand, the short duration of clinical death is determined not only by changes in the course of dying but also by specific post-resuscitation pathological effects. Therefore, the brain lives longer than clinical death lasts, which I soften marked by near-death feelings (Lake 118). Among their supposed causes, one can mention the lack of oxygen, poor anesthesia, and neurochemical reactions of the body to injury. The survivors argue that the medical indications for which near-death experiences occur are too varied to explain such an extensive and ambiguous phenomenon.

The representation of NDE is extensive, yet some common features should be clarified to understand this concept in detail. Many of the stories from patients narrate the sensation of flying up and looking at a place around a patient’s unconscious body. Others report about the time spent in the wonderful world, meetings with spiritual beings (angels), and the full presence of love, which some call God. Memories of one’s life, the feeling of connectedness with the whole universe and divine love, and calling back to their body are also noted. Other survivors state that their experience was not like a dream or a hallucination but was, as they often describe it, more real than real life. This experience tends to fundamentally change people, and it is usually difficult for them to fit back into their ordinary environment. Therefore, some of them radically change their careers or leave their families.

The main dilemma refers to whether NDE is associated with perception or projection of personal experience. It is the schematized statement, but the essence of the matter is not distorted. Since the reports of the near-death experience are not the so-called live broadcast but memories, they pass through a memory filter. According to Lommel, who interviewed patients within eight years, the difference from hallucinations is that NDE is vividly imprinted in memory (Palmieri et al. 2). On the contrary, hallucinations are forgotten and do not have such a transformative effect on personality, attitudes to life, self, and other people. The evidence shows that projection is in contrast to perception, and some scholars explain the universalism of near-death experience by using this concept, according to data from the psychologic research.

Projection is the transformation of figurative information within the essence of an individual. In case of clinical death, the information will accumulate in the soul, and it will be transformed into a revived physical part of a person. For example, it seems to be impossible to project the visual information seen into the auditory after the hearing has been denied for some time if one does not take into account the soul. In case one closes his or her ears, and the pianist began to play, it is clear that this person did not hear with ears but seen with the eyes. This person knows for sure that the pianist was playing something, and the sound was present. After that, he can choose something from a database of famous works (for example, a pianist’s mimicry, the pace, and tact of hand stress, the amplitude of their movements, et cetera, but if he played something unknown, then this person is almost doomed to mistake.

Perception can be understood as a set of processes of following perceived information. In fact, people give quite specific descriptions, although not found in real life (for example, paradise gardens). It does not allow to confidently separating them either by the type of perception – the inner (hallucinations) and the external or by the type of the seen real material or spiritual issues. Such vagueness appears because the information is supplied to the researcher from the experience carrier purely in the generally accepted terms adopted between people and used in communication. One cannot even describe ordinary feelings exactly as it is apparently not vital to maintaining absolute accuracy.

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Explanatory Models

There are various theories that demonstrate a considerable overlap with the near-death experience, including psychological, physiological, and pharmacological models. One of the most important models related to psychology is the depersonalization phenomenon. This theory was advanced by Noyce and Kletti, who believed that in a life-threatening situation, the psyche is unconsciously brought to the forefront of the mechanism of depersonalization (Greyson 781). The latter reveals a loss of time, accelerated thinking, a sense of destabilization of the body, a lack of a sense of reality, a sense of peace and harmony, or a panoramic view of life and a mystical transition. The protective mechanism of the “I” is activated, whose task is to protect the individual from the painful reality that seeks to destroy it. The authors believe that the person is clearly aware of the event that is dangerous for his or her life. This means that people psychologically need to be sure that their lives are in danger to experience near-death states. This belief is a factor releasing the mechanism of depersonalization.

Anoxia, oxygen starvation of the brain, is one of the most researched pharmacological explanations of NDE. In other words, it is a physiological consequence of the phenomenon of imminent death. The physiological blood circulation in the brain is impaired, and changes in mental functions occur. A complete cessation of blood circulation, which appears with cardiac deficiency, leads to a comatose state, and after five minutes – to the progressive death of brain cells. Before a coma is caused by increasing anoxia, people can survive certain phenomena that can be characterized as signs of a change in consciousness.

The transcendental theories are focused on the religious or spiritual nature of near-death experiences. It is considered that such a review helps a person to include his or her life in the universal world order and gain a meaning of existence (Bianco et al. 567). It may be difficult to separate the new, namely, religious beliefs that emerged from the hyper-religiousness as a symptom of a developing manic state. However, for a number of signs, both a specialist and patient can understand whether religious fervor or high spirits are a genuinely transcendental experience or these are the symptoms of pathology, meaning that the underlying mental illness is out of control. Consequently, in the case of post-effects of NDE, unlike mania, there is no obvious maladjustment of behavior, acceleration of speech, and thinking. When considering them in dynamics, personal growth, increased responsibility, the maturity of the personality, its tolerance and acceptance of others, and the growth of psychological well-being is obvious.

The light that is often seen by patients cannot be explained from anatomical, neurological, or biological points of view. One should turn to other explanations that will help us understand what it is. This phenomenon should not be approached with the methods of scientific logic. Leary, who did not believe in life after death, saw the light in the last days before his death, which surprised him. As Camel Grace writes, at that time, she was more and more interested in the question of the etheric himself (Khanna and Greyson 1608). Looking at the trees and the sky, Leary said that he saw a white light. He repeated this phrase all the time and once said: “When I close my eyes, I see a shining light that enables me to cast a glance at another world. Light supports and heals, relieves the fear of death; it is so powerful in its effects that even if its experience lasts only a few seconds, it remains in the memory of a person for life.

The light is seen by a person in out-of-body experience shocks and leaves a permanent impression on a person’s entire life. Khanna and Greyson argue that a dying person emits light, citing various instances when a lot of people saw the light emanating from a dying person (1613). In turn, Morse writes about one person who almost drowned in the lake: while he had a near-death experience, his body lit up everything around, and this light helped the rescuers quickly find the drowning man. Although Morse stresses that the phenomenon of white light is associated with the right temporal region, he, nevertheless, also clearly indicates that this phenomenon cannot be tied to anatomy. According to Morse, the temporal areas serve as a certain antenna that responds to energy sources outside the body. At the same time, such light can be viewed as the source of any form of energy, while others consider it the equivalent of God.

Spiritual Belief in a Future Life

In terms of spiritual understanding, specialists come to the conclusion that at the time of near-death experiences, people are in a deep coma, and their brain is completely turned off. In this case, the only way to explain what they experience and see is to recognize that their souls were detached from their bodies. After that, it is suggested that they went to another world and that the angels, God, and the afterlife are real. However, the very identity of a person is not destroyed because it is created according to the image of God. Approximately, one can characterize a person as something intimate, and “I” of a person, inaccessible to the understanding of no one but God. Personality is manifested through the soul, spirit, and body of a person. By His unlimited love to people after bodily death, God gives life to them, supporting human existence.

The supporters of the religious attitude to NDE claim that the Lord told the prophet, Moses, that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and thus the Lord says that He is the God of Life because He is Life. Since the soul was naturally situated to some partner — the body — some kind of friendship or acquaintance is kept secretly in the soul. Due to its co-dissolution with the characteristic of an individual, it forms some signs imposed by nature, which remain non-cooperative sociability distinguishing its property.

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Therefore, when the soul again entails the akin to itself and what belongs to it, then difficulties will forbid the divine power to make the connection, hurrying to its property according to some inexplicable attraction of nature. It is regarded that what remains in the soul and after the detachment from the body are some signs of the union. The Biblical and other religious considerations ate noted: a conversation in hell, from which it can be seen that, although the bodies were buried in a coffin, there was, however, some bodily sign in the souls. The person, after the death of the body, is in the pre-waiting for heaven or hell, but he or she goes to heaven or hell after the general resurrection when the Lord will resuscitate all people from the dead. In consistence with the religious explanation, only after the resurrection, every person will be fully restored, which can be anticipated during near-death experiences.


To conclude, NDE is a subjective experience of people who face a borderline state, seeing the light, angels, or acquiring additional qualities. The research demonstrates that there are various narratives that provide insights into the phenomenon of experiencing NDE, including its signs and consequences. A range of scientific findings assumes that such experience occurs due to neurological changes in the brain, while psychological experts largely refer it to the depersonalization model. In its turn, many people believe that NDE is the representation of God and heaven as well as their opportunity to be called by the Lord. In sum, there is no specific explanation for the discussed concept, and further research needs to be conducted to collect more information and enrich the available data.

Works Cited

Bianco, Simone, et al. “Meaning Making after a Near-Death Experience: The Relevance of Intrapsychic and Interpersonal Dynamics.” Death Studies, vol. 41, no. 9, 2017, pp. 562-573.

Greyson, Bruce. “Western Scientific Approaches to Near-Death Experiences.” Humanities, vol. 4, no. 4, 2015, pp. 775-796.

Khanna, Surbhi, and Bruce Greyson. “Near-Death Experiences and Spiritual Well-Being.” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 53, no. 6, 2014, pp. 1605-1615.

Lake, James. “The Near-Death Experience: A Testable Neural Model.” Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, vol. 4, no. 1, 2017, pp. 115-134.

Palmieri, Arianna, et al. “Reality” of Near-Death-Experience Memories: Evidence from a Psychodynamic and Electrophysiological Integrated Study.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 8, no. 429, 2014, pp. 1-16.

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