Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Near-death experiences and emotion

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Near-death experiences and emotion:
What emotions are involved during and following NDEs?


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Figure 1. Bright white lights at the end of a tunnel are commonly reported elements of NDE's[grammar?].

What lies beyond death is unknown to humankind. No one can answer the age old question of: what happens after we die? where do we go? However, Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) provide some scientific insight into what happens when we die. Thousands of case studies worldwide have reported a wide range of psychological phenomenon following a NDE, particularly following a state of unconsciousness, being in a coma, being resuscitated or even under anaesthesia.

Individuals who have verged on the edge of death and "returned" have recalled events and emotional experiences following their near death (Hagan & Moody, 2017). These experiences are intense and provocative psychological events with distinctly emotional and personal associations (Cassol, D’Argembeau, Charland-Verville, Laureys & Martial, 2019). There is no complete theory addressing the NDE phenomenon in its entirety, however, numerous hypotheses have been developed regarding the various components that cause NDEs, particularly neuropsychological (Cassol, D’Argembeau, Charland-Verville, Laureys & Martial, 2019). NDEs are not singular events, but are rather comprised of a range of patterns of perception that can be categorised into one memorable event (Greyson, 2015).

Our emotions are central to our emotional wellbeing and holistic mental health. Stressors placed upon our emotions can lead to potentially deadly illnesses, such as depression (Stewart-Brown, 1998). Therefore, it is important that the emotions involved during and following NDEs are understood, as they will determine the individuals state of emotional wellbeing to a significant extent. The nature of a NDE, whether it be positive or negative, influences the emotions of those experiencing the phenomena and also plays a large role in determining what aftereffects the individuals will experience. Positive experiences are associated with feelings of tranquility, warmth, serenity, peace and guiding lights. Positive experiences will presumably facilitate positive after effects. For example, becoming more loving and empathetic towards others, enhanced beliefs in afterlife/strengthened faith, a new sense of purpose and meaning in life[grammar?]. On the contrary, negative experiences (feelings of distress, sense of nothingness after death, horrific imagery etc.) will facilitate negative after effects. For example, heightened fear of death, feelings of dread and anxiety/anguish and impending doom (Atwater, 2014)[grammar?].

Focus questions:

  • What are NDEs?
  • What sensory experiences are associated with NDEs?
  • What emotions are affiliated with NDEs?
  • How can psychological theories help our understanding of NDEs?

Defining Near-Death Experiences

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[Provide more detail]

What are NDEs?

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Near-death experiences can be any incident reported by an individual following a life threatening situation where they were either close to dying, or were brought back to life via resuscitation. To be considered near-death, an individual must have reached a physically compromised state in which lack of improvement would result in death (Greyson, 2019). Individuals report a range of phenomena, most surrounding visual encounters of their experiences with the process of death. NDE's typically have resulted from cardiac arrest, trauma, surgery or suicide (Konopka, 2015). NDEs are reported by approximately 17% of those who almost reach death (Zingrone & Alvarado, 2009).

When people think about NDEs they picture the emotions and events that occur during the NDE, but there are limited connotations with what happens after a NDE; the after effects. The events or experiences following a NDE form a majority of NDE research and provide neuropsychological insights into their occurrences (Wren Lewis, 1994). The events that occur during NDEs often place individuals in alternate planes, often taking them to a "heavenly" world, yet, more focus should be directed towards what happens after the individual returns and their experiences in this world (Wren Lewis, 1994).

What does the research tell us?

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There is much debate surrounding whether NDE's[grammar?] are spiritual or neurological. During the dying process, our brain dies. No scientific explanation for NDEs has provided reasoning for all aspects of a NDE, but several components of an NDE have been explained by lack of oxygen to the brain, carbon dioxide excess, seizure activity in the temporal lobe, the effect of drugs (DMT or ketamine), hallucinations, cessation of brain activity and psychological avoidance/fear of death. A chemical called N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is released when the brain dies, which can lead to hallucinations (Timmerman et al., 2018), and therefore, NDEs have been reported as hallucinations of the dying brain and are not real. Contrastingly, some scientists believe that NDEs are medically inexplicable and cannot be explained by neuropsychological functions. Long (2014) conducted a research study investigating the existence of NDEs and proposing substantial evidence confirming their reality[explain?].

Test your knowledge
Select your answers and then press submit.

What is the most correct description of an NDE?

an out-of-body experience
a singular event in which an individual transcends to another dimension
an intense and provocative pattern of perceptions that can be categorised into one memorable event
a series of emotions experienced when in a life-threatening situation

What sensory experiences are associated with NDE's[grammar?]?

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Although every NDE is different, the majority of people who have reported NDEs have reported similar sensory experiences, particularly things they have seen and heard. Individuals such as physicians, priests, children, scientists and adults from all over the world who have reported NDEs, have shared the following common sensory experiences:

Figure 2. Robert Blair's poem "The Grave" (19th century) illustrating a woman's "soul" separating from her physical body (out-of-body experience).

Intense, brilliant light/the tunnel

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(As depicted in Figure 1).

Perhaps one of the most commonly reported images, is that of an intense, bright white light that typically fills the room or is seen at the end of a tunnel. People associate these brilliant lights as being divine or heavenly. The tunnel and light phenomenon typically coincide with one another, with the individual passing or floating through a dark tunnel with a brilliant light at the end, often leading into a mystical or unearthly world/realm (Wren-Lewis, 1994). Research studies have highlighted the prevalence of tunnel/light experiences amongst individuals under anaesthesia (Long & Perry, 2011). The experience of this brilliant light contributes greatly to the after effects one will experience by encouraging positive effects associated with the feelings of serenity reported by the light.

Out of body experiences

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Out of body experiences (OBEs) occur when an individual feels themselves leaving their body, and often float above their own body and can see themselves from an outside perspective. This phenomenon is defined as a separation of the physical body from consciousness (as shown in Figure 2). Approximately 45% of those who have had a NDE report an OBE (Sabom, 1982). Out of body experiences are arguably the most commonly reported and well-known aspect of near-death experiences. These experiences often occur in a hospital setting, where one will view the medics resuscitating them and even see their own corpse (Wren-Lewis, 1994). Survey-based research conducted by the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF) concluded that 75.4% (approximately 462 of 613) of subjects reported a separation of their consciousness from their body (Long & Perry, 2011). OBEs contribute significantly to the aftereffects phase of the NDE and can encourage either positive or negative effects, depending on the individuals[grammar?] emotions during the OBE.

Entry to another dimension

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Individuals have commonly reported leaving Earth and entering a separate realm, typically somewhere perceived as Heaven or Hell. The survey distributed by NDERF as mentioned above, also found that 52.2% of subjects reported entering another, unearthly world. Subjects of a survey shared their experiences of entry to another dimension, with a relevant example being "The landscape was beautiful, blue skies, rolling hills, flowers. All was full of light, as if lit from within itself and emitting light, not reflecting it". (Long & Perry, 2011). Upon entry into another world or dimension, a godlike being or deceased person (well-known to the individual) is commonly reported as instructing the individual to return to earth to complete their work, (e.g. "You must go back, your work on Earth is not done yet.") (Wren-Lewis, 1994). This component of the NDE typically encourages positive aftereffects, as people more commonly experience heavenly worlds as opposed to horrific ones.

Deceased loved ones/Divine Beings

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Divine beings, typically interpreted as "God" or angels have been reported, described as entities of pure light. Additionally, people have reported seeing loved ones who have passed on. The majority of people known to the individual that are encountered during NDEs are typically deceased. Dr. Emily Kelly conducted a comparative analysis and found that 37% (74 of 200) of individuals who reported NDEs described an encounter with a deceased individual, and only 4% described an encounter with a non deceased individual. This study found that in one third of those who described an encounter with a deceased individual, stated that they had a poor/distant relationship with the deceased individual or they had passed on prior to their birth. One individual stated that her experience taught her that everything is known. She related that "At the time, I did not feel it was important to ask anything. God has made it so we will know everything when we die." (Long & Perry, 2011). Cultural background/beliefs and age have a significant influence on one's experiences with death, for example, christians would presumably encounter "God" as portrayed in scripture, however, indians may report encounters with the Hindu King of the Dead (Dagnall & Drinkwater, 2018). This aspect of the NDE arguably has the greatest positive impact on the individuals emotional wellbeing following their NDE. Encounters with loved ones and spiritual beings promotes feelings of hope and peace, associated with positive perception and belief changes during the aftereffects stage.

Life flashbacks/review

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Individuals have reported seeing their lives played back to them through flashbacks, sometimes in a panoramic view. It is a widely held belief that when we are going to pass on, we will see our lives flash before our eyes. The terminology for this component of NDEs is "life review". Life reviews typically are experienced through the third-person perspective. Life reviews often consist of the individual gaining an awareness of what people they know were thinking and feeling during particular events/interactions earlier in their life. These awarenesses often come as a surprise to the individual and are unexpected perspectives. Life reviews may also entail previously forgotten aspects of the individuals life. One study found that 14% (88 of 617) individuals who reported a NDE experienced a life review. The participants found that all life review experiences were accurate and realistic, therefore, providing personal confirmation that the NDE was real (Long, 2014). Life reviews have either a positive or negative influence on the emotions that will follow the NDE as they can either leave feelings of life satisfaction or regret.

(Grabianowski, 2006).[say what?]

How is this emotionally relevant?

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The sensory experiences that an individual endures during an NDE will have a significant impact on their emotions when they "return". For example, for those who encounter their deceased loved ones are likely to return with a sense of hope and wholeness that can replace the grief experiencing from the loved ones[grammar?] death. All of the above experiences have been commonly reported as positive encounters/perceptions. However, these experiences can be interpreted negatively as well. The brilliant light in the tunnel has provided individuals with immense feelings of love, peace and happiness. One individual stated that all they felt was "love, joy, happiness, and every wonderful emotion you could feel all at once" (Long & Perry, 2011). Thus, it can be insinuated that those who are fortunate to have a positive near-death experience, have exhibited enhanced emotional stability, strength and wellbeing following their NDE.

Case Study 1
A 30-year-old woman who suffered from severe head trauma reported being in a "brilliant light in which she floated". She described that she went to "Heaven" and was faced with divine beings.
Case Study 2
A 22-year-old male who suffered from anaphylactic shock reported an OBE in which he viewed "the rush of medics to resuscitate him". He also described travelling through "a tunnel of white light". He reported feelings of complete calm and peace.

(Purkayastha & Mukherjee, 2012).

Select your answers and then press submit.

Which of the following is not a commonly reported characteristic of NDEs:

separation of one's consciousness from their physical body
ascendance of a staircase leading to the sky
a panoramic playback of one's life
emergence into an unearthly realm/world

What emotions are affiliated with NDE's{gr}}?

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[Provide more detail]

NDEs from an emotional and transcendental perspective:

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NDEs are emotionally provocative experiences, typically due to their profoundly personal nature, for example, seeing loved ones and finding peace and reassurance in death. Following NDEs, individuals commonly report a range of emotions, which can often facilitate changes in perception following the NDE. The most commonly reported emotions include:

  • A sense of complete serenity and calm
  • The loss of a fear of death
  • Strengthened beliefs in the afterlife
  • New sense of self (which can lead to enhanced self esteem)
  • Reevaluation of relationships
  • Changes in attitude (typically become more open and caring)
  • Feeling very comfortable and pain free
  • Altered perception of time
  • Uncertainty/Fear
  • Grief

(Mendoza, 2018), (Greyson, 2019), (Cassol, D’Argembeau, Charland-Verville, Laureys & Martial, 2019).

Positive emotions are generally more commonly reported than negative emotions (Moody, 1975). Why are these emotions associated with death? This is a result of the aftereffects of NDEs. During an NDE, both positive and negative emotions can be experienced.

Why are NDEs associated with these emotional responses?

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[Provide more detail]


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After effects occur following a NDE when significant changes occur in the lives of those affected by NDEs. These changes can include changes in beliefs and values. Pim van Lommel MD, conducted the largest scale study investigating NDEs and reported significant findings regarding their after effects. The study investigated cardiac arrest survivors, placing some participants in a control group that did not report a NDE, and placed the remaining in a group that reported a NDE. Those that reported NDEs were statistically more likely to exhibit a reduced fear of death, increased belief in the afterlife, enhanced interest in the meaning of life, were more accepting of others, and were more loving and empathetic.

Case Study 3

A new consciousness:

A man reported a complete alteration to his consciousness following an NDE. One of the main characteristics of his new consciousness was the transformation of previously perceived unpleasant experiences to pleasant ones. For example, enjoying foods he previously disliked and experiencing pleasure in his tinnitus which previously drove him crazy.

This implies that NDEs can have a positive effect on one's emotions and perceptions, changing negative experiences to positive ones. (Long & Perry, 2011).

Select your answers and then press submit.

Choose the most correct statement:

negative emotions are more commonly reported than positive emotions during an NDE
after effects do not have to occur instantly following the conclusion of an NDE and can years to emerge
an individual cannot experience both positive and negative emotions during an NDE, only one or the other
all individuals report a sense of complete serenity and peace during an NDE

How can psychological models and theories help our understanding of NDE's[grammar?]?

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Psychological explanations for NDEs have been categorised into three models: the depersonalisation model, the expectancy model and the dissociation model (French, 2005). Firstly, NDE's[grammar?] have been linked with theories of depersonalisation which state that they are a type of defence mechanism. This early theory explained that the mind defends the nervous system from the "mental disorganisation" of death (Blanke, 2004). Depersonalisation suggests that NDEs are a form of hallucination that occur when the individual is under emotional conditions, specifically when their[grammar?] is in immediate danger and death is likely to occur (French, 2005). This theory is characterised by detachment from the physical body/mind and experiences are typically unpleasant. This model has negative implications for emotional wellbeing, as it characterised by anxiety and panic.

Additionally, the expectancy model relates[Rewrite to improve clarity] that NDEs are not real events, but mere constructions of the mind in response to the threat of death (Cardeña, Lynn & Krippner, 2014). This theory potentially has the most emotional relevance as the individuals[grammar?] emotional and spiritual expectations of death determine the nature of their NDE. In a sense, this model views NDEs as wish fulfilment, as people often experience heavenly worlds and feelings that they wish to experience in death. However, numerous people have had experiences that differ from their personal cultural/spiritual beliefs, contradicting this theory (Cardeña, Lynn & Krippner, 2014).

Furthermore, the dissociation model is similar to the depersonalisation model, as it states that one will withdraw from the life threatening situation by dissociating from their[grammar?] surroundings and body to avoid the emotional ramifications of death (Cardeña, Lynn & Krippner, 2014).

Finally, NDE's[grammar?] have previously been perceived as coping mechanisms of death. According to the Kübler-Ross theory, dying individuals often have unfinished needs (Corr, 1993). NDE's[grammar?] may satisfy these needs through life review, communication/visions of already passed on loved ones and confirmation of religious beliefs. Thus, a sense of complete peace and calm may be achieved following revival, as reported by individuals who have experienced NDEs.

Test your knowledge
Select your answers and then press submit.

Which of the following is not a psychological explanation for NDEs?

the dissociation model
the expectancy model
the Kübler-Ross theory
the transtheoretical model


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NDEs evoke emotional responses associated with life after near-death, including a renewed sense of self and can facilitate changes in emotional perceptions, particularly towards others. Feelings of openness and love have been enhanced through experiences of life flashbacks, and a sense of total serenity and peace. The majority of individuals reporting NDEs walk away from their experience with altered perceptions, beliefs, values and morals. Typically these alterations are a step in a positive direction, however, some individuals are left feeling an increased fear of death and a sense of impending doom/inevitable death. These conclusions, made from the substantial body of research investigating NDEs, have highlighted the emotional relevance of the near-death experience. That is, the nature of the NDE plays a significant role in the emotions that will be experienced within the NDE and during the after effects[grammar?]. Positive NDEs accompanied by serenity and peace will generate after effects that facilitate positive changes in life, e.g. newfound appreciation and empathy for others. Contrastingly, negative NDEs accompanied by dread, grief and anxiety will generate after effects that facilitate negative changes in life, e.g. enhanced fear of death and impending doom. Thus, the NDE evokes an intriguing range of emotions during the NDE whilst it is happening, as well as following the NDE in the form of after effects. The NDE has the ability to impact upon the emotional well-being of the individual.

See also

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Blanke, O. (2004). Out of body experiences and their neural basis. BMJ, 329(7480), 1414-1415. doi: 10.1136/bmj.329.7480.1414

Cardeña, E., Lynn, S., & Krippner, S. (2014). Varieties of anomalous experience (2nd ed., pp. 333-367). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Cassol, H., D’Argembeau, A., Charland-Verville, V., Laureys, S., & Martial, C. (2019). Memories of near-death experiences: are they self-defining?. Neuroscience Of Consciousness, 2019(1). doi: 10.1093/nc/niz002

Corr, C. (1993). Coping with dying: Lessons that we should and should not learn from the work of elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Death Studies, 17(1), 69-83. doi: 10.1080/07481189308252605

Dagnall, N., & Drinkwater, K. (2018). Are near-death experiences hallucinations? Experts explain the science behind this puzzling phenomenon. Retrieved 24 October 2019, from

French, C. (2005). Near-death experiences in cardiac arrest survivors. Progress In Brain Research, 351-367. doi: 10.1016/s0079-6123(05)50025-6

Grabianowski, E. (2006). How Near-death Experiences Work. Retrieved 30 August 2019, from

Greyson, B. (2015). What is an NDE?. Retrieved 22 October 2019, from

Greyson, B. (2019). Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) | Division of Perceptual Studies. Retrieved 24 October 2019, from

Hagan, J., & Moody, R. (2017). The science of near-death experiences. HQ, P. (2017). The James-Lange Theory of Emotion - The Psychology Notes Headquarters. Retrieved 30 August 2019, from

Konopka, L. (2015). Near death experience: neuroscience perspective. Croatian Medical Journal, 56(4), 392-393. doi: 10.3325/cmj.2015.56.392.

Long, J. (2014). Near-Death Experiences - Evidence for Their Reality. Missouri Medicine, 111(5), 372-380.

Long, J., & Perry, P. (2011). Evidence of the afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences. New York: HarperOne.

Mendoza, M. (2018). Aftereffects of the Near Death Experience. Retrieved 30 August 2019, from

Moody, RA. Life After Life. Covington, GA: Mockingbird Books; 1975.

Purkayastha, M., & Mukherjee, K. (2012). Three cases of near death experience. Is it physiology, physics or philosophy?. Annals Of Neurosciences. doi: 10.5214/ans.0972.7531.190303

Sabom, M. (1982). Recollections of death. London: Corgi Books.

Stewart-Brown, S. (1998). Emotional wellbeing and its relation to health. BMJ, 317(7173), 1608-1609. doi: 10.1136/bmj.317.7173.1608

Timmermann, C., Roseman, L., Williams, L., Erritzoe, D., Martial, C., & Cassol, H. et al. (2018). DMT Models the Near-Death Experience. Frontiers In Psychology, 9. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01424

Wren-Lewis, J. (1994). AFTEREFFECTS OF NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES: A SURVIVAL MECHANISM HYPOTHESIS. The Journal Of Transpersonal Psychology, 26(2), 107-115.

Zingrone, N., & Alvarado, C. (2009). Pleasurable Western adult near-death experiences: features, circumstances, and incidence. The Handbook Of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years Of Investigation., 17-40.

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