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Near-death experiences refer to special states of consciousness in which people believe that they have been close to death or that they have already passed the threshold of death. In fact, many of those affected were in a situation that immediately threatened their lives - for example, a circulatory breakdown.
"Suddenly I recognized the whole thing and had the feeling: 'I've been here before'. (…) I felt that the way through the gate would mean my final physical death. Aware that I now have the chance to return with the insight that this state of being is a reality that is experienced more real than anything we understand here, and with the thought of my young wife and my three small children I decided to return ”(From: Pim von Lommel / Endless consciousness).
Others, however, who report similar experiences were not near death, but had an epileptic seizure, suffered a traumatic experience, or actively brought about this altered consciousness - through meditation.
Esoteric authors see near-death experiences as evidence of life after death and pick out certain characteristics of these experiences that they see as evidence of this: seeing one's own body from the outside, beings that appear, a tunnel that those affected see and a “ unearthly light ”.
Critical researchers, however, emphasize that neither these beings nor the view into a tunnel or the overwhelming light appear in most people who have had this experience and interpret these worlds of images as self-produced. Sober, neurobiologists consider near-death experiences as symptoms of certain brain functions being temporarily stopped.
Accordingly, near-death experiences are comparable to shock, post-traumatic stress disorder, trance or anesthesia.
"Interviews with the dying"
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has made a name for herself in the German gossip press since she published "Near Death Reports" in "Interviews with Dying" in 1969. She claimed that many of the people on the border with death had similar experiences: separation from the body, looking back at one's own life, a journey through a tunnel, and a fulfilling light.
The Christian Raymond A. Moody sent a similar message of salvation into the world with "Life after Death" in 1975: After death it goes on and dying is beautiful.
Moody and Kübler-Ross were both believers and chose exactly what fit in their religious stuff. Hubert Knoblauch, a sociologist, examined so-called near-death experiences without these esoteric-ideological glasses.
He interviewed over 2,000 people about near death experiences. The results were completely different from those of the two religious heralds of salvation: they could not be generalized. After all, 60% of East Germans and 30% of West Germans had terrible experiences.
Garlic could not confirm the beautiful death, which adheres to certain rules. Garlic's conclusion was clear: "The whole design of the hereafter, which is encountered in the near-death experience, is of course from this world". In other words, how a person experiences this state depends on the culture in which he grew up.
The patients examined by Moody all came from the same Christian fundamentalist milieu as he, and his questions were suggestive. His “research” had nothing to do with science, but with the proclamation of faith.
What are the causes?
The causes of the changed consciousness have long been the subject of research. In the 1990s, scientists examined possible changes in the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the brain.
Doctors at the Virchow Clinic let subjects breathe quickly in 1994 and then fainted them. The images of healthy clients were similar to those of near-death experiences: They saw their lives go by "like in a film" and thought they were leaving their bodies.
The psychic experience of leaving the body is also a core experience of the shamanic journey that a shaman embarks on in a non-ordinary state of consciousness. He goes into a trance using fasting, drums, drugs or dancing.
A key element of this psychic journey is the experience of a tunnel, behind which hides the entrance to an invisible world that can be as full of miracles as it is terrible. Shamans also believe that their bodies "die" to a certain extent while they are in this "other world".
However, shamans are in a state in which brain functions change, but generally not in a situation that is close to physical death.
For the near-death experience, however, it is important that shamans also believe that they will penetrate an afterlife, i.e. a world of the dead, and come into contact with the spirits of the ancestors.
Neurobiology has now found that these experiences are not spinning mills, but that the trance, like hallucinogens, actually produces visual worlds that resemble those of a dream. The difference to the drug frenzy, however, is that the shaman recalls his experiences in detail. This is exactly what applies to near-death experiences.
Oxygen deficiency was not the cause of the experience in patients with cardiac arrest, but seven of those affected who reported an near-death experience had even higher oxygen concentrations than patients without such an experience.
The near-death imaginations could not be explained as hallucinations either. The chief doctor, Dr. Sam Parnia from the Stony Brook Medical Center in New York emphasized: “All patients were able to remember what they had experienced very precisely and in great detail. That doesn't indicate hallucinations. "
The body's own substances obviously influence the near-death experience - but not only in the face of real death. Dying people often report an overwhelming feeling of happiness. But what Christians and esotericists present as "evidence" for an afterlife actually turns out to be the push of the organism to survive.
People experience the same feelings of happiness in extreme situations when they are on the verge of physical exertion. Even more: For many marathon runners, the euphoria that sets in after many kilometers of running is the reason why they put up with these strains.
People who are critically injured in a car accident, who are about to freeze to death, free climbers who climb an overhang, bungee jumpers or drowning people, all report a state of bliss that is just at the height of the stress.
Victims of torture also know that their mind is released from their bodies and they no longer feel the pain. Agents even train themselves to consciously learn such states.
Instead of looking into an afterlife, the body is therefore extremely tough about the here and now: the brain releases happy hormones so that people in need survive the dangerous situation.
Scientists see so-called near-death experiences not as one phenomenon, but as different experiences that have to be explained differently, but all of which lead to the brain releasing special substances to a high degree and blocking others.
One of the bestsellers of religiously inspired NDE literature is the fundamentalist Christian Raymond Moody from America. He systematically divides the near-death experience into twelve elements:
1. The unspeakable of experience.
2. A feeling of peace and calm. The pain is gone.
3. The knowledge of being dead. Sometimes you can hear a noise afterwards.
4. Leaving the body or an out-of-body experience (LFS). Your own resuscitation or operation is perceived from a position outside and above your own body.
5. Stay in a dark room, at the end of which there is a small spot of light to which the dying is drawn: the tunnel experience. They are drawn towards the light at high speed, which is very bright but not dazzling.
6. Perception of an outside world, a wonderful landscape with wonderful colors, beautiful flowers and sometimes music.
7. Encounter and communication with the deceased.
8. Encounter with a radiant light or a being made of light. The experience of total acceptance and unconditional love. You get in touch with deep knowledge and wisdom.
9. Life view, life panorama or review of the course of life since birth. Everything is relived. You can see the whole life in a single moment, there is no time or distance, everything is at the same time, you can talk about this life view for days, which only lasted a few minutes.
10. Foresight. You feel like you are overlooking and looking at a part of life that lies ahead. There is neither time nor distance here either.
11. The perception of a limit. It can be seen that once this limit has been exceeded, it is no longer possible to return to your own body.
12. The conscious return to the body. It takes great effort to leave this beautiful environment. After returning to the sick body, you feel deep disappointment that something so wonderful has been taken from you.
Moody describes: “A person is dying. As his physical distress approaches the climax, he hears the doctor declare him dead. Suddenly he perceives an unpleasant sound, a penetrating ringing or humming, and at the same time he has the feeling. that he moves very quickly through a long, dark tunnel. "
The Christian author explains how the soul seems to leave the body: “After that, he suddenly finds himself outside his body, but in the same environment as before. As if he were an observer, he now looks at his own body from a distance. Deeply agitated in his feelings, he attends the resuscitation attempts from this strange observation post. ”
Richard Kinseher, on the other hand, sees NDEs not as a process of dying, but as processing the brain's stimuli.
- NDEs also report ‘out-of-body experiences’ with detailed perception of the environment: in order to have sensory perceptions, the sensory organs must first be functional so that sensory stimuli can be registered. Then these stimuli must be sent to the brain via nerve conduction for further processing. And only then - in the brain - does the sensory perception arise.
- According to my explanatory model, NDEs consciously experience how a single stimulus is processed by the brain - a unique phenomenon. This enables you to understand how the brain processes stimuli, how experiences are stored and remembered. Here one could learn to understand the basic workings of the brain.
- According to my explanatory model, it can be seen in NDEs how memory processes work or how a virtual simulation is created by the brain (OBE). In the ‘The AWARE Study’, which has been running since 2008, one wants to research NDEs as death processes - i.e. senseless research is carried out on patients. If this delays treatment, it would be bodily harm through questionable research.
- With NDEs, it is clearly recognizable how reminders work. Because people are getting older and are suffering from diseases that impair their memory (dementia, Alzheimer's), every opportunity should be used to understand how the brain works - so that useful therapies against forgetting can be developed.
When do near-death experiences occur?
1.) Cardiac arrest in patients with a heart attack or with serious cardiac arrhythmias
2.) Coma due to brain damage in a traffic accident or brain hemorrhage
3.) coma when people almost drown
4.) In case of respiratory arrest or sugar coma
5.) In the event of loss of consciousness due to low blood pressure - shock
6.) With allergies
7.) In case of severe sepsis
8.) During anesthesia
9.) During an electric shock
In all of these situations, brain functions are temporarily out of order.
Near-death experiences also occur without the brain functions being damaged:
1.) In diseases with high fever
2.) When drying out and hypothermia
3.) For depression and psychological crises
5.) With meditation, trance and ecstasy
6.) Spontaneously with no apparent cause
7.) In situations of fear of death - not necessarily close to death, for example when a truck drives in front of the car during aquaplaning, or when we slide off while climbing
A victim reports
“A few weeks ago, I went to a hospital outpatient clinic for a harmless traffic accident due to neck pain and cervical spine syndrome. Despite the advice of a caregiver, I did not want to lie down there even though I was dizzy, which unfortunately resulted in a fall and an artery injury in the nose. What then followed only slowly came back to mind in the past few weeks. "
In the operating room, the patient suffered a cardiac arrest: "Since there was massive shock and circulatory problems anyway and I actually had an allergic reaction, I had a cardiac arrest with resuscitation, thank goodness !! was successful. I learned a lot from this phase, counting during the cardiac massage, laying on the defibrillator and voices. Partly like in a dream, partly totally distant, partly totally factual. I felt cold and walked through the so often described tunnel to the light, saw dead relatives. "
It describes an experience that esotericists see as evidence of the existence of an afterlife: “But I also heard a voice that asked me to come back. That told me what I still want to do in life, how great life is. As I learned afterwards, it was the emergency doctor who was still present in the emergency room. ”
She actively returned to life: “There was a moment when it became clear to me (as clearly as it is subconsciously) that I am on the border and how much I want to live. And it went back with the help of the doctors. "
Like many others affected, this borderline experience was a turning point for them to take life more seriously than before: “Life is a gift. I also liked to live before, but I have only now seen how strong my will to live was. The doctors told me afterwards that I was fighting quite a bit. Don't throw it away lightly, it's always worth it. "
Near-death experiences show many elements that people who have had mystical experiences also report: a positive-sacred mood, a feeling of intense reality, experiencing a feeling of unity, the transcendence of time and space, a fleeting experience, speechlessness about the sensations and paradoxical Happenings.
Mystical and near-death experiences also have in common that many of those affected give meaning questions a higher priority than before and deal intensively with religious and philosophical questions.
Science and religion answer these overlaps between near-death and mysticism differently. Religious authoritarians see evidence that the mystics look into the hereafter and those near-death experienced get an insight into life after death. In other words, they consider such experiences to be independent of the brain and body.
Agnostics, on the other hand, see these experiences as subjective and explain the interpretations due to socialization and culture.
Psychology, psychiatry and neurophysiology also know classic elements of near-death experience such as stepping out of the body and see this depersonalization as a biological process. There are autoscopic hallucinations in which someone sees a picture of themselves outside of their own body. A basic pattern of optical hallucinations is the tunnel, which is confirmed by near-death experiences as well as shamanic journeys.
Out of body experiences
Out-of-body experiences are similar in many ways to near-death experiences, of varying lengths and durations. Sufferers believe that they are detached from their bodies, a unit of their bodies, even if they are paralyzed or have had their limbs amputated.
They feel no pain, believe they can float and glide through the air, feel invisible and think I can see them at a 360 degree angle. They think they can slide through walls, people or ceilings.
These similarities suggest that certain brain areas are activated and others paralyzed in near-death experiences. Out-of-body experiences do not only occur in close proximity to death, but in meditation, migraines and vascular brain damage, but also in the “aura” that precedes an epileptic attack.
Near-death experts report on these AKEs, but also hypnotized and ecstatic patients, LSD users as well as people under the influence of psilocybin or mescaline. In many cultures, leading AKEs deliberately is considered a “tool” of the shaman.
A victim describes an out-of-body experience that he did not associate with death:
"When I was about 10 years old, I lived with my older brother in my uncle's house, the major in the U.S. Medical Corps. Army was. One evening I lay awake on my bed and looked at the ceiling beams of the old Spanish building where the living quarters were. I asked myself some questions about what I was doing there and who I was. Suddenly I get up from the bed and go to the next room. Then I felt a strange feeling of weightlessness and a strange, happy mixture of feelings. I turned on the spot to go back to bed when I was amazed to see myself lying in my bed. This surprising experience at this young age gave me a kind of jerk that shook me back into my body, so to speak. ”
Both the feeling of happiness and the "seeing his body from the outside, he experienced as in the reports of near-death experiences.
Another victim tells more clearly how he left his body:
"I woke up around 3:00 a.m. I meditated briefly while lying down and then fell asleep again. A short time later, while I was falling asleep, I clearly and consciously felt a kind of detachment from my body. It felt like floating gently back and forth. I still remember that I was surprised by the ease with which it came off. I hovered on my back from my bed over my wife's and then slowly turned and looked down at my EMPTY bed. "
The out-of-body experience of an NDE reads in a similar way: “I saw the room of the children's ward from above: the children's beds, my mother on my bed and my shape (indistinct). (...) It seemed to me that I should hold back my strength and creativity. - The fact was that after this clear experience I made contact with my body again. For a while I felt around and body at the same time. I experienced the hospital room like my own "body." And when I felt the pain of another crying mother who was staying with her terminally ill child, it hurt everywhere. ”
Out-of-body experiences also go hand in hand with so-called true dreams. A victim reports:
"Then it suddenly changed again when my son was 1.5 years old. He was pretty sick and I was always worried that, despite the baby monitor, I might not hear him at night if there was anything with him. It was very strange almost like the first time, my son started to cry and I was suddenly in his room, he was sitting in his bed. I wanted to comfort him but it didn't work and then I suddenly "woke up" and heard on the baby monitor that he was really crying and went to his room. He was sitting in his bed just as I had seen in a short while ago. Then I realized that it couldn't have been a dream. "
The imagery of near-death experiences partially coincide with lucid dreams, illusionary consciousness (oneiroid syndrome) and a loss of consciousness that is triggered by centrifugal force.
Trance and dissociation
In a dissociative trance, those affected lose their sense of personal identity, their consciousness narrows down to certain stimuli. Movements and language are reduced to repeating the same actions.
Obsession trance leads to the actors temporarily adopting a different identity, which they attribute to a spirit or God.
Psychologists describe the perception that personality is detached from the body as a dissociative experience.
Lack of oxygen
Research has shown that in some near-death experiences there was a lack of oxygen or an excess of carbon dioxide in the brain. In many cases, artificially induced fainting led to out-of-body experiences, as well as feelings of peace and happiness, painlessness, light effects, a different world, mythical creatures and tunnel experiences.
The interpretation depends on the culture
The sociologist Knobloch carried out a comprehensive study of near-death experiences and found that the afterlife experiences claimed by Christian esoterics such as Moody were not at all a common feature - the reports rather reflected diverse biographical, cultural and social characteristics.
No direct risk of death
Near-death experience is a misleading term because garlic found that less than half of those affected were in real danger of death. Conversely, very few of those interviewed by him, who were actually on the verge of death, reported such an experience. Sociology therefore speaks of near-death experience.
Knoblauch emphasizes: "Contrary to the common assertion of a constant structure, there was a very large variety in terms of content."
Conclusion: There are hardly any generally valid elements. On the contrary, there are typical cultural patterns: angels or grim reapers.
The ethnologist Hans Peter Duerr explains: "To believe that such abilities or conditions can sometimes detach from the organism and, for example, go somewhere through a tunnel, is as pointless as the idea that you can knock a thought flat with a hammer."
What does brain research say?
Brain researchers believe that near-death experiences are the brain's ability to make sense in chaotic processes.
What do the religions say?
Shamanic cultures take it for granted that the soul releases itself from the body. Jakob Ozols sums it up like this: “After death, the soul shape separates from the body and continues its own life, largely separate from the body. However, she keeps coming back to the skeleton and especially the skull to rest. In the living, it leaves the head only at night or in extraordinary situations, such as sudden fright, serious illness or in special conditions such as in trance and ecstasy. The soul shape must not be absent for long. If she doesn't return soon, the person will get sick, face many dangers, and even die in the long absence of the soul form. ”
The mythical religions of antiquity already refer to the paradisiacal elements that occur in some near-death experiences. As the Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh relates: “After a long time, it reaches the Chubur River, the last frontier before the realm of the dead, behind the seas at the end of the world. Gilgamesh left the world and crawled through an endless dark tunnel. It was a long, uncomfortable journey ... but in the end he saw light at the end of the dark tube. He came to the exit of the tunnel and saw a magnificent garden. The trees bore pearls and jewels, and above all a wonderful light radiated its rays. Gilgamesh wanted to stay in the other world. But the sun god sent him back into his life through the tunnel. ”
Plato wrote about an experience at the border to death: "After leaving the body, he came to an beyond, which was crisscrossed by four enormous caves ... (Then) he saw" impure and tainted souls "at the exit from the underworld ; but on the path that led down from heaven, pure and purified souls. They all camped in a meadow and told each other about their experiences at the place where they came from ... (those who) had descended from heaven spoke of the immeasurable joy and bliss they were given there. "
What does neurobiology say?
The neurologist Dr. Birk Engmann from Leipzig says clearly: “There are experiences like this not only after a clinical death, but also in everyday life, with diseases such as epilepsy or when someone misuses drugs. So different things can trigger the same reactions in the brain. I had a client who talked about light visions and thought I had a near-death experience. It turned out that he had never been clinically dead in his life. "
According to Engmann, the term is incorrect in general parlance: “One speaks of near-death if someone has survived a clinical death. It is not exactly clear what causes these symptoms especially in clinical death. You cannot study near-death phenomena at the exact moment when they are likely to occur, that is, when brain death has just occurred. ”
The neurologist explains: “When someone is clinically dead, that is, when the heart is stopped, blood no longer circulates through the body. That is why all organs are no longer supplied with sufficient oxygen and nutrients, especially sugar. The brain can only do without oxygen for about five minutes, after which nerve cells die. Then there is irreversible damage and finally brain death. If the brain receives too little oxygen during near-death, it can no longer function properly: signals are no longer transmitted correctly. "
But what does that say about the experiences that those affected tell in dazzling colors. Engmann explains: “For example, light visions can arise in the occipital lobe, which processes visual input even though there is no light at all. Out-of-body experiences, in turn, should arise in the area of the apex and temporal lobe, because these brain regions are important for the self-awareness of one's own body and its location in space. But that stops when you have survived near death and enough oxygen arrives in the brain again. "
The neurologist Prof. Dr. Wilfried Kuhn from Schweinfurt has seven characteristics of NDEs: awareness near death, experience, tunnel phenomenon, life review, extrasensory perceptions, spiritual transformation, difference from hallucinations.
Birk Engmann is certain: near-death experiences can be explained neurobiologically and give no indication of life after death. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch
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