Death has been a fascination for humanity since the beginning of time. Death is in fact life’s greatest mysteries, as it has been common belief that no one can return after death to re-tell what has happened to them. However, this general idea about death is starting to change in the Western world with the phenomenon of the near death experience. The near death experience has enabled human beings to fathom what occurs after one dies. However, not everyone is open to accepting people’s reports of near death experiences, and many remain skeptical despite the vast similarities in thousands of accounts.
There are millions of people in Western society who claim to know what it is like to die. These people have all been in medical situations, where their lives have been at stake. Most of these people have actually clinically died, and have been resuscitated through medical devices. Raymond Moody, an American psychiatrist, coined the term “near death experience” (NDE) to refer to the situation where a person experiences death for a short amount of time, but then is revived and returns to life. Moody wrote a book entitled Life After Life in which he exposes the phenomenon of the near death experience. Though some may argue that, “… one should be slightly suspicious about very recent NDEs after the publicity following in the wake of Moody’s book,” Moody attempts to retrace the near death experience back to antiquity, to prove that this is not just a modern phenomenon (Bremmer 261). However, these ancient near death experiences bear almost no similarities to the modern experience, “… the exception being the feeling of drifting away” (Bremmen 263). It becomes evident that near death experiences are influenced by the time period that they are occurring in.
Near death experiences can be seen as products of their time. Since Moody’s book, the awareness of near death experiences has increased. People who have claimed to have experienced near death following the publicity of Moody’s book, perhaps only experienced these things because they have read about them. This is a common occurrence in human nature. Images and ideas often seep into our unconscious minds and we begin to believe that these images and ideas are our own. Popular culture has made use of the near death experience in plot scenarios of television shows and movies. Even on the popular animated television show The Simpsons, Homer Simpson is shown floating over his body while he is in the operating room. With these images in mind, it is not wrong to say that someone who has experienced a life threatening trauma might recall these images and believe that they have taken place in their own lives. The modern and Western near death experience involves less religious figures and symbols, as Westerners are becoming more and more secularized. What one might imagine taking place after death is a reflection of their position in the world and their beliefs as, “… every age gets the afterlife it deserves” (Bremmen 268).
Despite the detailed accounts of many near death experiences, it is difficult to ignore one’s skepticism and become convinced. Although each account is so interesting to read, and despite the similarities between each individual story, the reports of near death experiences continue to sound like dream reports. A person retelling a dream often sees themselves in the dream as if they are detached from their body. They often have difficulty recounting the events of the dream and have difficulty finding the right words to express the events of the dream. When recounting a near death experience, “Many people have made remarks to the effect that, “There are just no words to express what I am trying to say,” (Moody 273).
Dreamers will often meet random people, dead relatives and religious figures in their dreams. Similar to when a person who dreams, in the context of the near death experience no one, “has reported any odors or tastes while out of their physical bodies” (Moody 285).
The body in a dream is not a physical body, as many sensory perceptions like smell and taste do not take place within dreams. However, a dream can easily feel like reality. When waking up from a good dream, a person may wish to re-enter the dream, and when waking from a nightmare a person may feel relieved that it was in fact not real. Many people who have experienced near death describe it as a reality that they wanted to remain a part of. Near death experiences are not necessarily dreams. It is undetermined exactly what they are, however they do share many characteristics of dreams. The mere fact that, “The persons involved uniformly describe their experiences as ineffable, that is, “inexpressible,” is reminiscent of the difficulty of those who wish to express their dreams (Moody 273).
The “life review” part of the near death experience is quite remarkable. This aspect of the phenomenon has also made its way into popular culture. In various movies and television shows, the characters are often in situations where their lives seem to flash before their eyes. This usually happens at a pivotal moment when the character is either in danger or has just undergone an epiphany of some sort. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross describes the life review as the last phase of the near death experience. She interprets this phase, “… as being heaven or hell. Maybe both” (Kubler-Ross 319). The reason for her interpretation is that within this phase, one is forced to review their life, and to understand the significance of their behavior throughout their lifetime. The way Kubler-Ross describes the life review causes it to appear to be an emotionally difficult process. However, it is very difficult to imagine one’s life flashing before one’s eyes in a matter of moments. Clearly this life review is made up of many memories stored deep within one’s brain. Although not having a basis for this claim, perhaps these memories that are being conjured are due to the fact that the brain is being deprived of oxygen during the time of a near death experience.
Although lacking any empirical evidence, it is plausible to assume that there is perhaps a scientific explanation to the near death experience. Every person who has experienced this phenomenon has been in a state where their lives were at risk. Most of the people have actually died and been revived, suggesting a severe loss of oxygen to the entire body, including the brain. Perhaps the near death experience is some sort of reaction in the brain due to this loss of oxygen? Without scientific evidence, it is impossible to come to a conclusion, but with all mysterious matters such as these, the human being is often drawn to science to look for answers. The skeptic will always try to find a justifiable cause for what is inexplicable.
Considering that the near death experience is an incredibly mysterious phenomenon, Westerners have become increasingly fascinated with it. It is human nature to be fascinated with that which is ambiguous, confusing and intangible. Human beings seek answers to everything. When something does not have a concrete answer, we try to explain it and attempt to come to an understanding. Death is naturally the greatest mystery of life and therefore the near death experience perhaps sheds some light upon the unknown. The near death experience is a comforting thought for Westerners as it assures them that life does go on after death. Most of the accounts of those who have experienced near death have described it as a tremendously pleasurable experience and,
“… people [even] reported that they did not want to come back” (Kubler-Ross 317). Although it is quite difficult to believe the individuals who report near death experiences, it is also quite difficult not to. The similarities between experiences are uncanny, making even the most adamant skeptic ponder the phenomenon’s validity. It is unbelievably interesting to imagine that in the Western world today, due to all of our medical technology, we are able to actually die and come back to life to talk about it. It is simply fascinating that humanity has perhaps unraveled life’s greatest mystery.
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