149–150: Near-Death Experiences

January 29, 2013
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Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) fascinate. Most share similar features that suggest the existence of a spirit or consciousness separate from the body that can continue to exist after the body and brain have ceased functioning in ways generally thought to be necessary for “life.” Those who have experienced a NDE also often undergo changes in worldview and personality traits, including a greater sense of compassion, less desire to judge others harshly, a sense of one’s own importance (even divinity), and peace amid life’s chaos that stems from a feeling that no matter what, everything has purpose and all will work out in the end. Some even claim that afterward they are more intuitive and/or have a different energy about them that affects electronic devices, etc. Others claim and exhibit a lack of interest in the mundane world anymore, with many of them failing to ever successfully re-integrate into the purely mortal realm—as it seems to be far less  “real” as the other, a mere shadow of true Reality.

But are NDEs truly a glimpse at an afterlife, a real hint about the nature of spirit, human personality, structures of the universe, the existence of God or Divine purpose? Can purely physiological explanations account for the different types of experiences that people report following an NDE? What might NDEs suggest about the role and status of “religion versus deeper “spiritual” modes of experiencing?

In this two-part episode, panelists Jeff Olsen, a person who has had a profound Near-Death Experience, Tom Haws, a long-time student of NDEs, and Lisa Hansen, a psychologist with a strong interest in the subject, join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon in an exploration of all of these and many more aspects of or questions raised by Near-Death Experiences and studies of this phenomenon. As they are all also Latter-day Saints, at various points in the discussion the panel notes connections and discusses aspects of Mormonism (and religion in general) that line up with or are challenged by NDEs.

We welcome you to listen and then share your experiences or engage the panel and each other in the comments section below! 

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Links:

International Association For Near-Death Studies (IANDS) website.

Tom Haws’ blogpost about NDEs. His blog also contains other posts and links related to NDEs.

Jeff Olsen’s book, I Knew Their Hearts: The Amazing True Story of a Journey Beyond the Veil to Learn the Silent Language of the Heart, is available through many outlets and formats, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Deseret Book, Kindle, and Nook.

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  • Tom Davies

    Just finished listening to both parts of the podcast. Thanks to each of you, and especially to Jeff, for sharing.

    For me, one of the important messages that Jeff emphasized is that God does not judge. This seems to apply not only to God, but to all spirit beings who are in someway involved in our welfare. Because there appears to be no judgment, I have difficulty with those aspects of Mormonism that speak of God’s judgment in the past or seem to require God’s judgment in the future. I am thinking in particular of examples of God’s judgment in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon as well as the belief that there will be a final Judgment in which God will assign us, apparently for all eternity, to a state of existence determined primarily by the life we lived on earth. On the other hand, I laud the emphasis that Mormonism places on unselfish service.

    I think the words frequency or vibration were used once or twice in the discussion. These two words should perhaps be combined into frequency of vibration. From all that I have read, and I wonder if Jeff agrees with me on this, it appears that as a person increases in spirituality the vibrational frequency of that person increases. This may account for some of the effects on electronics here in our physical world, but also may be the determining factor, not God’s judgment, in our progress back to the presence of God in the spirit world.

    Regarding the pre-planning that may go into our lives as they are lived, let me refer you to the book Cosmic Cradle by Elizabeth and Neil Carman. It includes a number of interesting examples of how we planned our upcoming mortal lives while in the spirit world. I also refer you to books by Michael Newton. Although the purported access to the spirit world that he describes involves hypnotic regression, he does include numerous examples of pre-planning.

    The most important message that I get from all of this, and in which I constantly fall short in my life, is the importance of love and forgiveness and of seeing every person as a child of God.

    Thanks again for taking the time to put together this podcast.

    Tom Davies

    • Tom Haws

      I like your comment on the possible nature of “The Judgment”. I like to think it works in some sort of natural way like that. In a lot of NDE’s, as people approach the Source, they begin to fear or become uncomfortable about the intensity of the light. Those feelings seem to prevent an increase of glory. For other people, the glory increases apparently all the way to blissful at-one-ment.

      • Tom Davies

        Yes, I agree. Those spirits who migrate to “outer darkness” when they make the transition appear unable to tolerate the frequency of light that is described by most of those who have NDEs. As you mentioned in the podcast, this is apparently where Howard Storm found himself. Those who come to minister to them are apparently unseen until, as with Howard Storm, they are willing to “look towards the light.” On the other hand, Beings of Light of an even higher frequency are described, who come to minister to those who have just died and are in the light. It may all be relative. Perhaps the same holds true for the Beings of Light, “all the way to blissful at-one-ment.”

        Any judgment, if it occurs, as during a life review, is self-judgment. Other spirit beings who observe the life review tend not to pass any judgment and may even try to help the spirit being having the life review be more accepting of its apparent shortcomings. I think Jeff emphasized this.

        If a Mormon is going to accept NDEs as a valid description of the spirit world, then at some point he or she is going to have to deal with the discrepancies that appear to exist between what has been experienced and what has been taught. At least that is my opinion.

        Tom

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thomas-Gail-Haws/1579874548 Thomas Gail Haws

          Ditto and amen.

    • Emily

      Thanks for recommending those books, I have just added them to my list. I appreciate your insights on the judgement… the way you describe it has always resonated with me more than the idea that we have a one time “grade” issued to determine our eternal destiny.

  • Jane

    Very interesting podcast. I especially appreciated Jeff’s message in the later part of Part 2. It’s making me view others in a different way today. That we all make mistakes, good/bad choices, whatever, but that we are all valued and loved immensely. Thank you.

  • Chris Brewer

    I was profoundly moved by this discussion and am very grateful to everyone that contributed. These insights helped me flesh out and think differently about some of my own spiritual experiences. Some ideas that have been developing in my mind were solidified or clarified after hearing your views. You all have helped me to refine my language and vocabulary and understanding of this strange type of substance that is spiritual truth. I encounter so many valid sounding arguments that would encourage me to discount the significance of spiritual insights but there is a measurable amount of goodness that comes out of them and this cannot be debated, especially by the people who experience it first hand. Great stuff! Thank you!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thomas-Gail-Haws/1579874548 Thomas Gail Haws

      I find I get so immersed in and accepting of the secular aspects of life and the materialistic world view that I can tend to “forget” the reality of the bigger world. Plugging back into the Near Death Experience reminds me that there is pervasive reason to keep expanding my view.

  • Wonder girl

    Exceptional podcast. I have read many NDE books including Howard Storm’s book. I will buy Jeff Olsen’s book next week!

  • Justin

    I would like to thank Dan for the Mormon Matters podcast and for discussing this fascinating topic.

    And as a preface to my comment I would like to say that, until this past year, I have never put any effort into learning about NDE’s. And I still don’t, but I am completely interested in the topic.

    In the intro to part 1, and in other segments, it was discussed that neuroscience studies and research explains how our physiology creates the NDE.

    After hearing this it made me think of a book I recently read. The book was advertised on an NPR radio show. Anyhow, the name of the book is: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, by Eben Alexander, M.D.

    Dr. Alexander is a neurosurgeon, as mentioned in the title. He earned his bachelor’s degree from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1976. Earned his M.D. from Duke University in 1980, did his residency training at Duke, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard, and completed a fellowship in cerebrovascular neurosurgery in Newcastle Upon-Tyne in the UK. He was on faculty at Harvard Medical School for 15 yrs. and has authored or coauthored 150 chapters and papers for peer-reviewed medical journals.

    Prior to his own NDE, Dr. Alexander was a skeptic of the afterlife and of NDE’s because he had all the understanding of how our physiology supposedly created NDE’s. He became a believer in NDE’s when he had an experience of his own that occurred while he had a meningitis infection that left him brain dead for a long time. And the parts of the brain that science has determined cause NDE’s were not functioning in him during that time. So, as far as medicine and science was concerned, it should have been impossible for him to have an NDE, but he did have one anyway.

    His story is fascinating and the book is a quick read, and if a person is interested in NDE’s then his book is a must read. After hearing what was discussed regarding physiologic causes for NDE’s I wanted to share what I read about Dr. Alexander because he is living proof that science hasn’t fully explained why we have NDE’s.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thomas-Gail-Haws/1579874548 Thomas Gail Haws

      We each approach NDE’s from our own perspective, and many of us have desires toward NDE’s, such as wanting them to prove the survival of consciousness or wanting them NOT to prove the survival of consciousness. This is just a frank statement of how we are. I’ve experienced a range of wants and apathies about NDE’s.
      Because of my perspective, I see the following as persistent facts. But they may not seem that way to others, which is okay:
      1. Phenomena and effects at least partially similar to NDE’s result from a variety of circumstances (including drugs, stress, and ecstasy) seemingly unrelated to death.
      2. NDE’s and other phenomena result in an acquisition of knowledge and traits that is not explained by any materialistic model.

      • Rude Dog

        I’ve not listened to the podcast nor do I wish to disparage. I am not a believer in the supernatural, nor in God. I am interested in NDE’s a well, but for me, perhaps more objectively as it is a window into one of the grea mysteries presented to humankind, and that is of the brain and its complexity. I have read Dr. Alexander’s account, and his like many others, is sincere and moving. However, those in the field of neuroscience, neurophysiology mostly would agree that neurosurgery is quite a different thing than neuroscience, and weight given Dr. Alexander because of his title may be misplaced, though his expereince deserves consideration, consideration due to the experience, not his title.

        Attributing many NDE’s quickly and conveniently to a supernatural explanation is also wishful. We have had a tendency as a species to always label things we don’t understand as a metaphysical event. This is also the “God of the Gaps” idea. The problem is that as our knowledge expands, it seems that the God explanation shrinks, and eventually, if we keep inserting God into shrinking gaps, could end up with no God at all. Not bad for me an Atheist, but for those who place their hopes there, future discoveries could prove challenges to ideas of God and misplaced assertions of the afterlife.

        It especially is bothersome that the explanations, some often explained as miraculous, lie in the haze and twilight static of mulitple explanations, each competing for recognition. We hear this all the time as miraculous recoveries from say, cancerous tumors are shared as divine interventions with even attending oncologists admiting the rarity of such outcomes. They admit the rarity, but not the impossibility, whereas we never hear the tearful accounts at the pulpit about the lost limb growing back. Same with the NDE. We always hear about the experience of the “near death”. Why don’t we have the experience of the “far death”, or “really dead”, or “dead for two days” experience? Why wouldn’t the spirit of a two day dead corpse have the same right to return, as per some who’ve had a choice in some NDE experinces to come back and finish tasks left undone or overlooked. I find it interesting that the miracles of NDE’s lies in the twilight of where we happen to not have enough “material” explanation of perhaps the most complex thing in the universe, our brains.

        As far as the “acquisition of knowledge” angle. I certianly don’t have the expertise to engage this aspect, but one would have to pose, where is this knowldege? Was it intra-personal knowledge about families? Or was it knowlede about the unknown, even to humanity? I was taught in a psychology class long ago when quarters, not semesters were the rule, that everything we’ve ever experienced, every thought, idea, word, utterance, everything that has ever passed over the senses and perceivrf by the human experience, lies somewhere in the brain. The difficult part is the retrieval of such information, in fact, most of it will stay there, untouched throughout our lives even unto death. Are we sure NDE’s don’t unlock somehow an ability to recollect deep buried learning or experience in the brain?

        There is much we don’t understand, expecially about the brain. One thing we understand better is interpreting history and weaving an epistomological framework from it. It is this reason that I always believe that with things we don’t have the best grasp of understanding, like the brain, that it probably unwise to assign a supernatural afterlife meaning to NDE’s, as hisotry has shown that a more plausible explanation, though down the road, will most likely come.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thomas-Gail-Haws/1579874548 Thomas Gail Haws

          Insightful. We are all most happy when we are open to surprises.

        • Toni

          You can go on and on all you like, but the bottom line is this: If you have never had a near death experience, you cannot judge them. You know no more about their reality than a red ant knows how to drive a car. The same with any of us who have never experienced them. We can explain them away to our heart’s content. Means nothing to the ultimate reality that exists beyond this plane of existence.

    • Emily

      Yes, Thank you Dan for discussing this topic on Mormon Matters. I think it would be awesome to do another podcast on reincarnation and how that agrees/disagree with LDS theology, current scientific understanding, and people’s NDE’s.

  • Carey

    I was so impressed with Jeff Olsen’s response to Dan Wotherspoonquestion about how he remains an active member of the LDS church even though his views are more expansive then the typical weekly rhetoric one encounters at church that I decided to make a clip of it to share.

  • Debbie

    This was a fascinating podcast. I love the message that we are all divine and all part of divinity.

    I was in a very serious car wreck in 2004 with two of my daughters. I was taken to the hospital by ambulance and my 16 year old daughter was taken by life-flight to the hospital. We were both very near death but our injuries were not as severe as Jeff Olsen’s. Neither of us had an out-of-body experience. I broke my jaw in two places and dislocated it. I also had a blood hemorrhage in my brain which resolved itself. My daughter shattered her pelvis and had a hairline fracture in her neck. Fortunately we recovered from our injuries and we”re both fine now. When we talked about the wreck later, we both had similar recollections. Neither of us have any memory of the wreck. It was very traumatic for my 14 year old daughter who was in the car with us and for my family who arrived at the wreck after it happened to see all the police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, helicopter etc. But my 16 year old daughter and I have no memory until much later at the hospital. We felt no pain or fear. It was like going instantly from consciousness to unconsciousness, sort of like falling instantly into a deep dreamless sleep. We both agree that it wasn’t a terrible feeling even though our injuries were serious. In fact I could be described it as sweet and peaceful. After our experience, we are not afraid to die.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thomas-Gail-Haws/1579874548 Thomas Gail Haws

      That is a very interesting case of possibly having some sort of life-changing experience without possessing a recollection of the experience. I read a lot of experiences that are very short and “absent”, but give the distinct impression that the person’s life and perspective were forever changed.

  • Emily

    I found this podcast so fascinating, lots to think about! I have recently finished reading a few NDE books and am almost finished reading What Happens When we Die by Sam Parnia. NDE’s touch my soul in a way nothing else does and I am fascinated that the experiences usually are similar in important ways yet very unique to the individual at the same time. I have been searching for accounts that make mention of the divine feminine, is anyone aware of any? I read one by an LDS man who remembered being sent off by his Heavenly parents before his birth but that is the closest thing I have found so far. Also, besides Jeff Olsen’s book and Howard Storm’s does anyone have any more reading recommendations? I can’t get enough! Thanks!

  • Glen Fullmer

    Thanks for the podcast. Enjoyed it.

  • Glen Fullmer

    Here is a link that I found interesting about a number of NDE’s documented on BBC:

    • Toni

      The video has been removed by the user.

  • Tom Davies

    For any who may still read the comments to this podcast, I recommend the following 2 part YouTube presentation on NDEs:

  • Valerie

    What an incredible near death experience. I’ve read and studied many of them over the years. They are so inspiring. One question I have regarding the no judgement from God as told by Jeff and many other NDErs, if God does not judge, then why do some near death experiencers see hell and see many people suffering in hell? Doesn’t that mean there was some kind of judgement for them to be there? vfulmer@facebook.com

  • deskjockie

    Richard L. Bushman gave a podcast about Joseph Smith’s First Vision experience being an NDE. You can listen to it here: https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/audio/DC01007.mp3

    • Dan Wotherspoon

      Robert Bushman is not Richard L. Bushman. Out-of-body experiences are not the same thing as Near-death experiences.