1.3 Near-death experiences
1.3.1 Reactions to near-death experiences
A number of people have claimed that they have been at death’s door and can recall some of the sensations. Attempts to speak about near-death experiences (a term used to describe the extra-ordinary experiences some people have when close to death or when deeply unconscious) can meet with incomprehension, fear and hostility from friends as well as medical experts and researchers, many of whom refute the existence of near-death experiences. As Toates (1999, p. 1) says:
to the hard nosed ‘no nonsense’ scientist, it either risks undermining the materialist foundations of modern biology and psychology or, at the very least, serves to sell large numbers of pseudo-scientific books that mislead the naïve and neurotic into superstitious beliefs more appropriate to the Middle Ages.
The medical establishment has by and large been sceptical about the reliability of accounts of near-death experiences. Michael Sabom, a medical doctor who studied near-death experiences, found that some of the people he interviewed had been very disturbed by the unwillingness of others to listen or take them seriously. For some this even led to a fear of insanity, as in the case of this woman who spoke of her experience as a teenager during a severe car accident.
I told the doctor that something had happened to me. I said ‘There was this light and this voice spoke to me. Do you think that was God?’ …he said ‘No, I don’t,’ and he told my parents. At first they thought I was in shock and then they realised that I wasn’t in shock and that I was alright. I was never afraid … then two months later we were going downtown or something and they said we were going to visit this doctor and I said ‘OK’ thinking it was for them. Then there was this psychiatrist and I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding’… I felt I had done something wrong by saying what had happened … I am 37 years old, and I have never told anyone about it since.
(Sabom, 1982, pp. 136–137)
Near-death experiences are not as uncommon as you might think. Fenwick and Fenwick (1996) quote a National Opinion Poll in the USA which suggests that over a million Americans have experienced this phenomenon. It is therefore necessary to take it seriously. In this section we provide descriptions of ‘near-death experiences’ and illustrate the impact on those who have experienced them. There are three main points:
a significant number of ‘normal’ people may have had such an experience and may wish to talk about it
for many, but not all, the experience has led to a more positive view of both life and death
there is considerable debate about the wider significance of this phenomenon and whether it is to be explained in physiological or spiritual terms.