At least 15 million American adults say they have had a near-death experience, according to a 1997 survey—and the number is thought to be rising with increasingly sophisticated resuscitation techniques.
The once-taboo topic has gotten a lot of talk these days. In the movie "Hereafter," directed by Clint Eastwood, a French journalist is haunted by what she experienced while nearly drowning in a tsunami. A spate of books details other cases and variations on the theme.
Yet the fundamental debate rages on: Are these glimpses of an afterlife, are they hallucinations or are they the random firings of an oxygen-starved brain?
"There are always skeptics, but there are millions of 'experiencers' who know what happened to them, and they don't care what anybody else says," says Diane Corcoran, president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, a nonprofit group in Durham, N.C. The organization publishes the Journal of Near-Death Studies.
Some investigators say the most remarkable thing about near-death reports is that the core elements are the same, among people of all cultures, races, religions and age groups, including children as young as 3 years old. In near-death experiences, people report vivid memories, feelings and thought processes even when there is no measurable brain activity.
Some scientists have speculated that the "life review" some patients experience could be due to random activation of the dying brain's memory circuits. The sensation of moving down a tunnel could be due to long-buried birth memories suddenly retrieved. The feeling of peace could be endorphins released during extreme stress. Other researchers say they have produced similar experiences by stimulating neurons in parts of the brain—or by giving patients ketamine, a tranquilizer.
As a 17-year-old college student, I had a near-death experience (before it was categorized as such) during an automobile accident. During this intense positive experience, I said to myself, "If this is what it is like to die, it's not all bad." For I was at peace; calmly watching my "life review" play out while time seemed to stand still. That experience forever changed how I lived the rest of my life; for I no longer feared death nor failure as I led a passionate life.
Perhaps, the greatest emotional fear of most people is "the fear of death" and this causes them to make choices that might protect them from dying. With this fear in mind, emotional decisions in life govern why we vote for the politician who promises to protect us from the fear of terrorism...or...we choose to practice a religion that promises us life after death...or...buy the big SUV with the front and side airbags that could save us from death in an accidental crash.
Reading near-death experience reports, recognizing that the "hereafter" is spiritual (not a mirror image of this physical life) and talking to people who have experienced near-death encounters can help us all understand that death is a peaceful and pleasant ending to this physical life experience.
Source: The Wall Street Journal, October 26, 2010
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