How Can NDEs Be Real If Having One Means You Are Crazy?
I was counseling one of my young patients on what to expect after having his tonsils out. I was just getting to the good part where I was going to tell him that he would get to eat ice cream for a week, when his grandfather interrupted me and said vehemently, “Tell him about the tunnel”?
“What do you mean?” I asked. “What tunnel?”
“You know,” the elderly man said, “the tunnel he’ll see after he gets his tonsils out.”
“Oh don’t listen to him,” his daughter (the young man’s mother) said to me. “He’s crazy. He is always talking about the tunnel he saw when he had his tonsils out when he was a child. Don’t pay any attention to him.”
Even though I was already 30 minutes behind in my schedule, and my nurse was giving me the “hurry up” look, I took the time to ask the man, “What do mean that he will see a tunnel?”
The elderly gentleman sat back in his chair and said, “You’ll think I am crazy, but when I had my tonsils out, I saw a tunnel. Then I went down the tunnel. The sides of it were lined with lights like airplane landing lights. I came out on a beach, where it was so beautiful. I felt so loved, so at peace. I have never forgotten how wonderful it was. I learned that life is about trying to find that love in everyone I meet. You’ll think I am crazy, but. . .”
This statement is the hallmark of the authentic spiritual experience as told by a late 20th or early 21stcentury American.
I have heard spiritual experiences that could be the core understanding of any religion in existence today, that began with those words. The drawing above was sketched by a young boy who was part of our study of near-death experiences at Seattle Children’s Hospital. He too saw a tunnel that was lined with airplane lights, during the time that he was documented to be clinically dead. He told me, “You’ll think I am crazy, but all I wanted to do was to get to the end of that tunnel. Forget my body, forget being alive. I just wanted to get to the end of that tunnel, but then I was back (in my body), and you were standing over me!”
I enrolled the 83-year old gentleman, who was the grandfather of my patient who was to have his tonsils out, in my long-term study of adults who had near-death experiences as children. I reviewed his medical records and discovered that in fact he had a cardiac arrest when he had his tonsils out at age 7. Those were the days of the use of drop ether as an anesthetic agent. Those were also the days when patients had cardiac arrests and if they survived, they were never told about the event.
I did my study with Dr. Vernon Neppe, director of neuropsychiatry at the University of Washington. We studied adults who had near-death experiences as children. We carefully compared them to adults who had near fatal events as children but did not report a near-death experience. We also studied control patients who had no sort of spiritual experience or near-fatal event at all, as well as patients who had spiritual events but no near-fatal experiences.
We gave the study subjects an intensive battery of psychological tests, basically designed to answer the question of whether or not they were crazy. We had them fill out personality profiles, interviewed family members, got their employment histories, examined their tax returns, gave them death anxiety profiles and numerous other tests. We published out results in the popular book Transformed by the Light.
What we learned was that it is good for you, from a psychological point of view, to have a near-death experience. Far from being crazy, our subjects who had NDEs as children had jobs in the helping professions such as social work or being physicians, gave more money to charity than our control groups, had better personal relationships and family ties than our control groups and spent more time in quiet meditation and private time than control groups. They lived rich, wonderfully inspiring lives filled with love and compassion and strong interpersonal and family relationships.
Our study reached the same conclusion as numerous social science studies of persons who have had near-death experiences. These include studies by Ken Ring PhD, Bruce Greyson MD, Michael Sabom MD, and numerous other studies. The bottom line is that the transformation seen after the near death experience is very real and results in healthy life affirming positive consequences for those who have them.
This is in stark contrast to the negative consequences of hallucinations. Indeed, our control group of patients who had near-fatal events but did not have an NDE showed that they frequently suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome. The positive transformation associated with the NDE can be considered a post-traumatic bliss syndrome.
There are numerous psychiatric syndromes characterized by beliefs in aspects of reality that no one else can see or experience. These include people who believe that their family members are aliens, people who think that they are the subject of a television show (called the Truman Syndrome) and many other psychotic thought disorders. What makes these people different from people who have had NDEs?
All the research documents that people who have had NDEs are otherwise completely psychologically healthy and function well in society. They do not have thought disorders. They use language properly. They have healthy relationships with family and friends.
People who have psychotic syndromes such as believing family members are aliens or the Truman Syndrome also have numerous other psychiatric symptoms. They don’t simply have a weird belief and yet otherwise are normal. Their psychotic ideas are part of a greater psychiatric dysfunction. This is the primary way that psychotic belief systems and conditions are differentiated from those who have had near-death experiences.
Unfortunately, those who have had valid spiritual experiences, including near-death experiences, in the late 20thand early 21century are often perceived to be “crazy’ even though the scientific evidence is that they are often saner than the ordinary population.
It is realistic to be concerned that someone who says that they have “seen God” is then going to claim that they have been told to kill the president or start some sort of religious war. The headlines on the Internet and newspapers seem to be filled with examples of crazy people who claim that God has told them to do terrible things.
Yet the scientific research is clear that there is a huge difference between people who have seen God and are otherwise psychologically healthy, and those who see God in the context of a wide variety of psychiatric symptoms. These two situations are clearly being confused by our society.
In turn, this confusion and lack of understanding of the science of spiritualty has led to a devaluation of the valid and real spiritual experience. This is very unfortunate, as our society needs spiritual inspiration and transformation and we are ignoring the input of those who have had near-death experiences who have much to share with us about how to live productive and healthy lives.