This is a question that has interested me for as long as I can remember. Near death experiences are a very real phenomenon and many people who have tasted death report something outside their life experiences happening to them during the time when that they were dead. The only thing is that the only experiences we know about are the ones of those people's whose lives continue after that experience so we do not know if what they see is the same as those who actually pass on, and we have no way of knowing for sure either. So, why do near death experiences happen?
I have written a short story exploring why near death experiences happen called Bungee which works through my ideas quite thoroughly using fiction. As far as I can work out there are only two possible answers to these questions and neither is less of a fantastic phenomenon than the other.
One explanation is that a near death experience is a glimpse of what happens after we die. There are many consistencies in people's accounts: such as an out of body experience, a tunnel, people waiting to greet, light, overwhelming love and these similarities can be seen across different cultures or religious beliefs.
There are however quite strong differences as well: differences in who is meeting the newly departed for example, the space in which the greeting takes place and the types of things that are said. This does not prove anything as we all do the same things in different ways on earth as well, but I can't help wonder if this subjectivity means that the experience is down to the individual rather than the bigger picture itself.
So what does that mean? If they are not a glimpse of the afterlife then why do near death experiences happen? As we go through life we are constantly preparing ourselves for the next stage.
We tell our children stories where the characters live happily ever after to motivate them for growing up and leaving the nest, we spend our middle years working hard to ensure life is comfortable as we enter the Eden of retirement, a period that we can look forward to doing what we want whenever we want before we start to slip from independence back into dependence in old age. Throughout life we tell each other stories of life, the universe and everything – these stories are not the truth but they keep us interested, keep us entertained and motivated and give us greater purpose than the daily grind. In these stories is usually some sort of comfort for us to ease the sadness that we are not going to be around forever. Death is inevitable, but we must be prepared for it.
Now let's look at the mind. The mind is amazing and works hard outside our conscious efforts to protect us. When something horrific happens to us the mind can knock us out so that we do not have to experience it or it can hide that memory away so that we cannot recall or it can fill in the gaps with a more pleasant fiction. Sometimes in moments of great need, we can find a solution popping into our awareness as if from nowhere so that we can say the right thing to help someone else or make a decision that will save the day. In hypnosis, a hypnotist can engage the imagination in solving a problem that can make a dramatic improvement to someone's life. With all this in mind, I suspect that near death experiences happen because the mind senses the end and takes it in stride offering a story to you in your last moments, a story that gives you hope and distracts you from the horror that you will never draw another breath again. The mind takes action so that you can enter death with a smile on your face instead of despair.
I use the words 'my suspicion'. I would like to believe that there is something bigger out there. Whatever it is can be no stranger than the fact that we are all here in the first place, but I cannot say hand on heart that I believe this. I hope that death will be a little like the end of a virtual reality game and that my death experience will be to turn from that game and say something like “that was intense,” and go away and relax and take it all in so that I can be better next time I play.
I also suspect that if there is life after death it may be something very different to life. All our experience and knowledge of the world is through our five senses, but if our body is dead, we will be in a different form and the senses we use in that form may be completely different which means that we cannot possibly experience what death is like while locked into these five senses. Try to imagine something now without using smell, taste, sight, sound or feeling. You can't. And if you can I would be fascinated to talk to you.
My novel, The Hereafter, is about a man made heaven, an artificial afterlife. If near death experiences could reliably tell us what happens when we die then there would be no need to entertain the idea of creating such a thing, but until we know for sure that there is an afterlife we will need some kind of reassurance, or in the case of The Hereafter, some guarantee, that when our body dies, we can live on whether it is true or not.
My novel, The Hereafter, is about a man made heaven, an artificial afterlife. If near death experiences could reliably tell us what happens when we die then there would be no need to entertain the idea of creating such a thing, but until we know for sure that there is an afterlife we will need some kind of reassurance, or in the case of The Hereafter, some guarantee, that when our body dies, we can live on whether it is true or not. The Hereafter is available on Kindle for £2.05