Wellness

What 1000s of Near-Death Experiences Can Teach Us About Dying

Since 1998, Jeffrey Long, M.D., a radiation oncologist in Louisiana, has been collecting and documenting near-death experiences—across cultures, languages, and countries. To date, he has many thousands of them. While throughout his career, he’s worked with patients who are grappling with the potential of end of life, his interest in the reality of NDE’s was stoked by a study he read in a medical journal, followed by a friend’s recounting of their own experience—which seemed more real to this friend than life itself. Dr. Long launched his site, NDERF.com, with a detailed survey in order to create as much scientific structure as possible—and he employs translators across the globe to help collate the NDE’s into a cohesive understanding of what might happen after we die, and the statistical prevalence of certain features appearing (life review, encountering spiritual beings, being stopped at a boundary, etc.). He has written several books, including New York Times bestsellers—Evidence of the Afterlife is a great place to start for an overview of his findings—which establish undeniable themes that hold regardless of religious background, language, age, or cultural background. (What’s most incredible are the NDE’s of young children, who have never been exposed to the concept, as well as NDE’s of those who were born blind, yet have vision for the first time on the other side.) Below, we asked him some more questions.

A Q&A with Jeffrey Long, M.D.

Q

There are accounts of many mystical experiences and encounters “beyond the veil”—why did you decide to focus on near-death experiences? And why do you believe that only about 10 percent of people who become clinically dead experience one?

A

For decades, researchers, myself included, would scratch our heads and wonder why some people have near-death experiences and why some people don’t. And why, despite the fact that there are very strong, consistent patterns, no two experiences are alike. What’s going on with all that?

I think the Rosetta Stone of understanding came for me many years ago when someone shared a near-death experience that was an incredibly blissful and positive experience. She firmly believed that she had encountered God in an unearthly realm during her near-death experience. And for the first time out of thousands of instances that I’ve ever seen, she asked God directly: “Why me? Why was I so blessed to have this experience happen to me?” God’s response was very revealing: “Love falls on everyone equally; this is what you needed to live your life.”

I think that helps explain why some people have these experiences and some don’t. I think it’s coming from a wisdom outside of ourselves. And I think it helps explain why people have very similar experiences, yet no two are identical.

Q

You have found that near-death experiences dramatically change peoples lives—why do you think that is?

A

Oh yes, enormously. It’s interesting, we’ve asked very direct survey questions about that, so we have some quantified data. The great majority of people who experience a near-death experience change. And unlike virtually every other transformative human experience or life-changing event of earthly origin, the changes in their life actually seem to become progressive and more notable the longer they live. These changes can go on for decades and you just wouldn’t do that in response to an experience that you understood to be unreal or hallucinatory. In fact, we ask that as a very direct survey question: What do you currently believe about the reality of your experience? And of about 590 NDE responders, 95 percent say the experience was definitely real with the other options being probably real, probably not real, and definitely not real. So among those that have these experiences, virtually everybody knows that it was a real thing. It’s just much harder to believe for those of us who have never had one. Seeing is believing. If you don’t personally have a near-death experience, which is again a blessing—obviously these people nearly died—it’s hard to understand these unearthly experiences.

Q

For some people, do these have the quality of a vivid dream?

A

That’s a great question. In the very first version of the survey in 1998 when I first put the website up, I asked that question: Was your experience dream-like in any way? I deliberately worded that in a somewhat non-scientific way because it was leading them to answer yes if any part of their NDE was dreamlike. I thought, geez that’s about as aggressively as I can conceive of wording a question to bring out any dream-like aspects, at any time, in any way during the experience. Well, the responses to that question were so overwhelmingly, “NO, absolutely not, no way, are you kidding?” I felt bad I was asking them that because the responses were not only so uniformly no, but so emphatically no. I ended up taking that question out because I got a tongue thrashing up behind the ears. That was one of the very first things I learned at the dawn of my research and understanding: No, near-death experiences are not dream-like in any way.

Q

What were the other similarities in response to survey questions that reinforced your belief that these are so real?

A

In my first book I had nine lines of evidence for the reality of near-death experiences. What’s most persuasive to me as a physician-researcher is a little bit different than the lines of evidence that are most persuasive to the public. The public is very persuaded by a near-death experiencer who was totally blind from birth and yet had a highly visual NDE—it was the first time she ever saw. And they are also persuaded by out-of-body experiences. In a little over 40 percent of my surveys, NDE’rs observed things that were geographically far from their physical body, that were way outside of any possible physical central awareness. Typically, someone who has an NDE with an out-of-body experience comes back and reports what they saw and heard while floating around, it’s about 98 percent accurate in every way. For example, in one account someone who coded in the operating room had an out-of-body experience where their consciousness traveled to the hospital cafeteria where they saw and heard their family and others talking, completely unaware that they had coded. They were absolutely correct in what they saw. These types of out-of-body experiences are very persuasive to a lot of people.

“Typically, someone who has an NDE with an out-of-body experience comes back and reports what they saw and heard while floating around, it’s about 98 percent accurate in every way.”

A lot of people with a medical or scientific background, like me, are very persuaded by people who have had near-death experiences while under general anesthesia. Under adequate general anesthesia, they’re very carefully monitoring heart respiration—in fact, it’s artificially controlled in many operations because you literally shut the brain down to the point where the brain can’t simultaneously breathe. And so the person needs to be artificially ventilated. When their heart stops, i.e., when they code, and they’re under general anesthesia, it’s extremely well-documented that they have no brain activity—yet, when these people have an out-of-body experience, what they report of what goes on during codes is what really happens, and not what Hollywood shows. Its frantic, crash carts aren’t immediately available, there can be some swearing typically by the doctors. It is very difficult for everybody there. It’s not like what they show on TV—you would have to be there to accurately report on what is happening. After this out-of-body experience, when they then go on to have a typical near-death experience, it again seems doubly impossible. For one, they’re under general anesthesia and there shouldn’t be any possibility of any conscious experience; secondly, their heart has stopped, and 10-20 seconds after your heart stops, the electroencephalogram, or EEG, that measures brain critical electrical activity goes absolutely flat. So, during general anesthesia to have your heart stop and have a near-death experience absolutely, in my mind, almost single-handedly refutes the possibility of a near-death experience being the result of a physical brain function as we know it. It is not a dream state, it is not a hallucination. It is absolutely beyond any medical explanation.

Q

Do you believe that someone has to be physically dead to trigger a near-death experience?

A

My definition of near-death experience is fairly stringent among researchers. In other words, they have to be unconscious at the time of the experience or clinically dead with absent heartbeat and respiration. They have to be so physically compromised, that if they didn’t get better they would suffer permanent irreversible death. I think that’s what the public, in general, accepts near-death experience to be. In the media public vernacular, the deader the better. Now, having said all that, we have a huge number of experiences that can occur without a life-threatening event. Just an hour ago, I reviewed an experience from this week, and one of them was a dream. If you pulled out the very beginning of it and the very end of it, it would be indistinguishable in most people’s minds from a near death experience: In the dream, he felt he had died, suffered pain, the pain immediately went away, he had an out-of-body experience, he felt intensely positive feelings, he approached a light and was told it’s not your time, he felt resentment that he had to come back. All that is a classic near-death experience. And yet, this is what made me wonder: He woke up, and called it a dream, but said he had blood on his tongue and a bad taste in his mouth. I am suspicious that he had a seizure. That would explain the tongue biting, though there was no indication of any seizure disorder before or after. And he had what sounds more like sleep paralysis. So I scored that one as just being NDE-like.

There are a number of people within a number of different circumstances who have experienced non-dreams as an out-of-body experience. Prayer and meditation are the most common settings in which people have experiences that resemble near-death experiences.

Q

Based on your research, what do you think happens to consciousness after death?

A

Part of what I’ve been doing some research on lately may offer a direct answer to that important question. Certainly, you can’t ask that question of people who die irreversibly, but I now have a growing number of what I call shared near-death experiences. This is where two or more people have a simultaneous life-threatening event where they lose consciousness. And they both have a near-death experience but they’re aware of each other. One of the classic ones that I present to groups is fiancées, and it’s a tear jerker.

“The beings separate the two from holding hands. Two of the four beings take the lady and move away with her, toward a light. The other two beings gently take the guy and lead him back down to the car.”

A guy and a gal are driving to Canada and have a bad car wreck—the two of them are actually holding hands as they share their near-death experience rising above the car. They’re met by spiritual beings, and they feel intense love, which is all very classic. The beings separate the two from holding hands. Two of the four beings take the lady and move away with her, toward a light. The other two beings gently take the guy and lead him back down to the car, which is burning below him. He recovers consciousness in the car and his fiancé is leaning on his shoulder, though he knows already that she is dead. He knows he has been with her sharing a near-death experience on her initial part of permanent irreversible death.

We have about 15 or 16 of these accounts. Shared near-death experiences are certainly suggestive that what is reported in near-death experiences is a pathway that can occur for those who permanently, irreversibly die. Of all the shared near-death experiences that I’ve studied in my research series, one of the people permanently, irreversibly died and yet they were communicating during their near-death experience, often in great detail. So, the remarkably good news is that near-death experiences may well be what actually happens based on shared near-death experiences.

Q

When people are given a choice, whether to continue with death or return to life, or when a situation like this happens when fiancées are separated, what is the idea? Was it an inevitable that she was going to die, and it was not yet his time?

A

Interestingly, during some near-death experiences some people are given a choice, and some are simply returned to their body involuntarily. Among those who are aware they have a choice to return to their earthly body, it is remarkable that the great majority do not want to return. That’s very puzzling, isn’t it, when you consider that all their friends, family, and loved ones are on earth, and everything that they remembered for their entire life up to that moment was their earthly life. How could they not want to go back? According to 75 to 80 percent, the answer is they feel very intensely present, positive emotions in their near-death experience, more so typically than they ever knew on earth. They very strongly like this afterlife realm, this unearthly realm, which some call Heaven, and there’s a sense of familiarity like they’ve been there before. They very much want to stay. It’s amazing how powerful these experiences are.

“They very strongly like this afterlife realm, this unearthly realm, which some call Heaven, and there’s a sense of familiarity like they’ve been there before.”

To more directly answer your question on why some shared NDEs have a choice and some don’t, reading between the lines, you can tell that the other person in the shared NDE had more severe trauma—either injury or illness—and their body simply wasn’t able to support life. These are people who really did die irreversibly because that life-threatening event was so severe that this was not a near-death experience to them, it was a witnessed death experience. And there was no choice.

Q

In your second book, you talk about evidence of God—can you explain how that manifested in survey results?

A

One thing that was obvious to me early on is that God would appear quite regularly in near-death experiences. So, in the most recent version of the survey, I directly ask: During your experience, did you encounter any awareness that God, or a supreme being, either exists or doesn’t exist? I worded it in the binary format because the skeptics would say: Aha! You only asked if they had awareness of the existence of God and you didn’t ask about awareness that God doesn’t exist. How do you know an equal percentage of people aren’t going to come back and say, “I was aware God didn’t exist but you didn’t ask.” We sorted that out by having a narrative response, and once again, I was more than a little embarrassed when it was extremely obvious that virtually all—I think there was one exception out of hundreds—answered yes, they encountered an awareness of, or encountered God directly, during their near-death experience. Something like 44 percent of people answered yes, and I was astounded. The narrative response that followed made it very clear that, indeed, God does exist. That’s never been reported by any other researcher before. I think a lot of researchers consider that to be sort of taboo, and if they have an academic affiliation, what are their colleagues going to think? That’s the glory of being in private practice. I don’t have to worry about academic constraints.

My methodology was to get a huge number of sequentially shared near-death experiences; we included everybody who encountered God, or Jesus, over the span of 1,000 near-death experiences in the study. I found 277 people who were aware of or encountered God (I limited it to those who mentioned God specifically rather than supreme being). Within this group, the consistencies of their descriptions of God were amazing to me, in particular, because it’s not consistent at all with conventional religious thinking. For example, God is essentially never described as judgmental. God is essentially never angry or wrathful. People who do encounter God find an overwhelmingly loving presence, and an overwhelming sense of peace. Often there is a dialogue with God. It doesn’t seem like God wants to be worshipped.

“God is essentially never described as judgmental. God is essentially never angry or wrathful. People who do encounter God find an overwhelmingly loving presence, and an overwhelming sense of peace.”

The two things that stuck out as the most common descriptions within their experiences are two-fold. First, by far, God’s overwhelming loving nature; a close second is that people felt a unity, a oneness with God. Typically, they use the stronger language of unity or oneness, as opposed to the less strong words of connection or connectedness. That surprised the heck out of me because that’s not conventionally taught in American or in Western religion. For most of reported history, you could be murdered by the church of power for such thoughts. And yet here were people expressing that overwhelmingly, consistently, and very vividly. It certainly changed my view of God doing that research. I had a liberal Protestant upbringing, but this God is a God I would have more respect for than any God I was taught growing up.

Q

So it was a more Eastern perception of God, that we are all one?

A

Yeah, and, I might add, best I can tell there is no correlation at all between sub-types of religion. The people who report on these experiences with God aren’t “new age”—in fact, people who identify as “new age” are five percent or less. These are people from Protestant, Catholic, and every denomination of religion you can think of who are having these encounters, which again to me is further striking evidence that they’re consistently seeing something that is not conventionally taught in religion. In fact, it is poo-pooed in most conventional religions, in the West anyway.

Q

Do people come back with an idea or understanding of what Earth is about?

A

I asked very directly in the survey: Did you receive any information regarding our earthly purpose, meaning, and purpose of our earthly life? And again: yes; uncertain, no. The interesting thing was the narrative response. The gist of it is: That we are truly spiritual beings having an earthly existence, but our real nature is something beyond that.

So what are we doing here? The best I can tell from reviewing hundreds and hundreds of responses is that we’re here to learn lessons. Lessons about what? Well, the number one thing that pops up is lessons about love. Apparently, in this earthly environment, we have this illusion that we’re separate from God. We have this illusion that we are separate from everything and everyone, which in the grand scheme of things, in the afterlife, is not true. But in this unique realm of, if you will, diminished consciousness, we have an opportunity to learn things we couldn’t learn apparently in any other way. And that sort of makes sense to me. In the afterlife when you know everything and everyone is connected, and there’s unity, and there’s an overwhelming sense of peace and love, you literally could not learn some of what we need to learn down here. And apparently, interestingly, what we learn down here is important. It’s important not only for our lives but in some way, that I don’t have it all figured out, it seems to have universal, if you will, cosmic consequences. What we’re learning is important far beyond just significance for our own lives, and the lives immediately around us. There seems to be, a ripple effect, which we see in life reviews, too. An action can really have far more wide range in consequences than we ever thought possible—sometimes the simplest things can turn out to be the most important. I guess you can intellectually know that’s true, but you hear that described in near-death experiences quite a bit.

Q

Why do you think so few people have negative near-death experiences?

A

Yes, that’s true. In the scholarly literature, we refer to them as frightening or distressing, as those seem to be the emotions they evoke. And the reason we don’t call them negative is that even though they can be very frightening, the experience typically has a very positive, life-changing consequence. About 1 percent of near-death experiences are truly hellish. Now frightening, there’s a whole spectrum. For example, sometimes people, very uncommonly, are frightened when they have that initial out-of-body experience because it’s so unfamiliar. They quickly calm down and go on to have the typically pleasant experience.

The experiences that most people ask about when they’re asking about those types of negative NDEs are the ones that I call objectively frightening, in other words, these are the ones that have true hellish imagery. There are two ways that it seems to be encountered: either at a distance where they’re aware of a very frightening/horrible place, often as they’re sailing by during their near-death experience accompanied by someone else; or, about half the time, they’re actually in that realm themselves. What I think is most important is that for many of these near-death experiencers, they’re clear afterward that they needed an experience like that to force them to face some issues in their lives and grow and be more loving to people on Earth. Basically, they had the self-recognition that they literally needed a kick in the butt to become a more decent person. And so there’s really a silver lining to that darkest cloud in some of the most horrific experiences I’ve ever read about.

“For many of these near-death experiencers, they’re clear afterward that they needed an experience like that to force them to face some issues in their lives and grow and be more loving to people on Earth.”

After reading these accounts, my opinion, based on this fairly objective evidence, which is mirrored by work from other researchers, is that there is indeed a hellish realm. However, there are also near-death experiencers who say there can be no Hell here. Both are correct, and here’s why. When hellish realms are encountered in near-death experiences, they’re generally highly compartmentalized. They can’t, won’t, don’t interact with the rest of the blissful, pleasant afterlife. And why or how these hellish beings can be there is very interesting. We’ve had one near-death experiencer describe that these beings literally chose to live in that realm and all they have to do is choose to leave it. So, what you see there in these hellish realms are beings that have made unbelievably bad choices in the afterlife, not that they’ve been sentenced there or forced there, but because they are such dark, evil beings, their Heaven is literally to be surrounded by beings who are like them, who share their values. Neither I nor any near-death experience researcher that I’m aware of believes in a permanent, involuntary Hell based on our research. It seems to be a product of incredibly bad choices.

Q

Why do you think some people are so resistant to the idea that NDEs could be real, and so desirous to find a physical explanation for what’s behind them?

A

Coming from a scientific background, this is just so different from the typical scientific thinking about consciousness and literally who we are. It’s much easier for scientists to try to grasp onto what we call material explanations for evidence—and obviously, there’s no material or physical brain explanation that could account for all of this. I think part of it is they want to draw the unfamiliar to what is familiar to them, and they have a lot of confidence in science, which is a great thing. It’s interesting that the scientists who are skeptics tend to find explanations for NDEs that correlate with their area of scientific expertise. Kevin Nelson, a neurologist, will see rapid eye movement or random trusions, which is interesting. An anesthesiologist, who worries about the effects on the cell membrane, will believe NDEs are related to mitochondria, the energy producers in all cells. And the psychologist will believe that there’s a psychological explanation.

Over twenty of these skeptical explanations for NDEs have been proposed. And the reason there are so many is not one, or several explanations of NDEs based on materialist understanding make sense even to the skeptics.

Q

Is this really the question of whether the mind—our consciousness—is generated by our brain in a very literal way, or if there is a spiritual, animating force?

A

I think from the Atheist materialist point of view, they quite correctly point out: Aren’t we our brains? Isn’t what we remember generally a product of what we actually perceived at some prior time? Neurologically, if you have a stroke, that part of your brain that affects that particular muscle group is no longer working and so that muscle group doesn’t work. It’s very deterministic: There are lesions in the brain, there are lesions in the visual track, you’re going to be blind sometimes in one part of the visual field that’s part of the occipital lobe. There’s no question that who we are, and what we are in our perceptions found here, are clearly based on the physical functions of the mind. I don’t doubt that.

“It’s just that there’s some other part of us that seems to be intimately related to our consciousness and who we are, and what we are, that’s much more than our physical brain.”

It’s just that there’s some other part of us that seems to be intimately related to our consciousness and who we are, and what we are, that’s much more than our physical brain. And it’s non-physical clearly. Some call it the soul, but the term to use is neither here nor there. Every shred of evidence from near-death experience and a number of other related experiences all convincingly point to the conclusion that consciousness, that critical part of who we are, survives physical brain death.

Q

Do you believe that our deaths are pre-determined or fated? Why do some people die so young?

A

I think that’s probably who we are as biological organisms, especially if you’re talking to a doctor that treats cancer. It seems to be biologically determined that even the most curable kinds of cancers are about 99 percent curable, and the most fatal kinds of cancers are over 99 percent fatal no matter what we do. It just seems to be that so much of what we think, and learn, and the ways that we ultimately grow are based (I think out of design) on us having a physical existence. So, how long we’re around in life to learn our lessons, who knows. Certainly, biology is a part of it, but you could say that there are people genetically predisposed to live a long life, there are children literally born with cancers that will be fatal in their first year of life, and everything in between. It ultimately goes back to the genes, the biology, accidents or illnesses, bad luck if you will, which doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason. So, I guess there’s no good answer for that. If there is a design in why some people live longer than others, I’d have to take it back to what God told the near-death experiencer, and that is, “Love falls on everyone equally, this is what you needed to live your life.” I’m pretty sure with an infinitely loving God, in an infinitely loving universe, that if we need opportunities to learn lessons we will have those opportunities above and beyond what we experienced in our life. That’s based on my confidence in the overwhelming loving nature of God.

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Jeffrey Long, M.D., a radiation oncologist in Louisiana, has been collecting and documenting near death experiences—across cultures, languages, and countries—since 1998. He has written several books, including Evidence of the Afterlife.

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