On some proposed psychological explanations for near-death experiences

On some proposed psychological explanations for near-death experiences July 4, 2020


I didn't realize that Brazil had such scenery
An irrelevant but beautiful photograph by Carlos Perez Couto, taken in the Serra dos Órgãos National Park, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil.   (Wikimedia Commons public domain photo)


Notes based upon Pim van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience (New York: HarperCollins, 2010) [originally published in Dutch as Eindeloos Bewustzijn], 125-127, where Dr. Van Lommel discusses possible effects of the fear of death:


It has been suggested that, in situations where their lives are threatened, human minds will fabricate an experience, either consciously or subconsciously, that permits them an escape from the fear of imminent death.  In other words, stress triggers a defense or a flight response.  Or, in a related but distinct response, stress may induce wishful thinking, based upon cultural and/or religious expectations.  And, indeed, elements of the NDE are sometimes experienced in situations where a threat of death is feared but no dying process actually ensues.  Nevertheless, Dr. Van Lommel does not regard these explanations as adequate.

  • “The fact that some NDE elements are phrased in religious or cultural terms could be seen as evidence of such expectations.  Research has shown differences in the incidence and content of some NDE elements between people in the West and the native peoples of the Americas and Australia, while in India differences have even been found between people from the north and south of the country.  But for many people the content of an NDE does not match their prior expectations of death.  Their experiences are identical, irrespective of whether they believe that death is the end of everything or whether they believe in life after death.  Children experience the same elements as adults.  Prior knowledge of NDE does not affect the incidence or content of the experience, nor has its content changed since the publication of Moody’s first book on the subject in 1975.”  (126)
  • Depersonalization refers to a phenomenon of identity loss, detachment, alienation, and “unreality.”  People in this state perceive life as unreal, dreamlike.  The condition is often unpleasant, fearful, panicked, and perceived as “empty.”  Significantly, “Out-of-body experiences are never reported in such cases” (126), which are particularly common among young adult women.  In significant contrast, NDE experiencers — men and women of all ages and in roughly equal numbers by gender — report enhanced reality, clear consciousness, lucid thought, a retention of personal identity, feelings of peace and love, and, not infrequently, out-of-body episodes.
  • Dissociation, a coping or defensive mechanism that can kick in during danger and/or during physical, sexual, or emotional abuse (notably among young children) does not seem to account for verifiable perceptions from above and outside of the body.
  • Are certain personality types more likely than others to have an NDE?  Certainly they’re not evidence of pathological personality:  “Generally speaking, NDEs occur in mentally stable people who function normally in everyday life and who, except in age, do not differ from control groups without an NDE.” (127)



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