People with Near-death Experiences Healthier Than Others
- From The New York Times Health Section:
Following a Bright Light to a Calmer Tomorrow
By ANAHAD O'CONNOR
Published: April 13, 2004
Carlene Huesgen is not afraid of death, she says. Not since she felt
herself slip from her body, float to a hospital ceiling and move
toward a bright light three decades ago.
"I feel assured that there is life after death," said Ms. Huesgen, 61,
who lives in Tucson. "There really isn't such a thing as dying."
To some people, near-death experiences reported by millions of
Americans in recent years, are windows to a world beyond. To others,
they are simply comforting delusions.
Scientists have tended to fall into the latter group. But in several
small studies, researchers are finding that the elaborate accounts of
mysterious tunnels, flooded with bright golden light, may be a healthy
coping mechanism that protects against traumatic stress.
People who have such experiences, one study shows, are far better at
handling stress than researchers had expected. And scientists have
uncovered neurological and biological differences that may lie at the
core of the coping mechanisms.
"We found that people who have these experiences are just the opposite
of what people
think," said Willoughby B. Britton, a doctoral student at the
University of Arizona who is the lead author of a study in the April
issue of Psychological Science. "They aren't more likely to run away
Almost everyone, at some point in life, experiences a moment of fear
and anxiety after a catastrophe. For some people like those with
post-traumatic stress disorder, the effects can linger for years,
returning as flashbacks, nightmares or emotional numbness.
But people who report having had out-of-body experiences like Ms.
Huesgen, who suffered a near-fatal reaction to an influenza shot 34
years ago, exhibit the reverse. Their lives are changed.
They switch careers and adopt new values. Many fears they had are erased.
Ms. Britton and a colleague, intrigued by the lack of scientific
information on the subject, compared a group of people who reported
near-death experiences, including Ms. Huesgen, with a group that had not.
The scientists assumed that the near-death group would show patterns
of brain activity similar to those seen in temporal lobe epileptics,
who often describe undergoing spiritual out-of-body events during
seizures. The abnormal activity, however, did not spring up in the
right temporal lobe, as is sometimes the case with epilepsy. Instead,
the activity appeared almost exclusively in the left temporal lobe.
Unexpectedly, the researchers also found that the participants, like
many people who suffer depression, had abnormal sleep patterns. But
unlike people with depression, who move unusually quickly into the
rapid eye movement or REM phase of sleep, the subjects who reported
near-death experiences took an unusually long time to move into REM.
"This is the first study to show these kinds of neurological
differences in people who have near-death experiences," Ms. Britton said.
Psychological tests showed that the participants' physiological
differences were associated with what the researchers called active
coping, a tendency to "take the bull by the horns" in stressful
situations. The findings conflict with those of earlier studies, which
found that people who distanced themselves from traumatic experiences
were more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dr. C. Bruce Greyson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia,
has noticed a similar trend in his research. In two studies of
hundreds of people who reported near-death experiences, Dr. Greyson
found that they showed surprisingly few signs of shutting out reality,
a behavior known as dissociation.
Though they had slightly more dissociative symptoms daydreaming, for
example, or forgetting to eat lunch while reading a book than other
people, their responses were still far from pathological.
"They were still within the normal range," Dr. Greyson said. "In fact,
people who have N.D.E.'s tend to be a little healthier than others.
They seem to have positive coping skills."
From 9 to 18 percent of people who have almost died, Dr. Greyson said,
later report having had near-death experiences. As medical techniques
to save patients become increasingly sophisticated, that number is
likely to grow.
In the early 1980's, a nationwide Gallup poll found that eight million
Americans said they had had near-death experiences. By the late 90's,
15 million people reported having had them.
Most doctors dismiss such events as hallucinations caused by
medication. Other experts suggest that the illusions are caused by
oxygen deprivation or the last-minute firing of neurons in the visual
Dr. Greyson theorizes that the experience may be a protective
mechanism that insulates some people against developing post-traumatic
stress disorder. Certain personality traits, he suggests, may make
some people more likely to have near-death experiences, while others
are predisposed to developing severe psychiatric illnesses.
The evidence of active coping and physiological differences in people
who have had near-death experiences squares nicely with that theory,
Dr. Greyson said.
But there is still a question of cause and effect.
"We don't know yet whether these were pre-existing characteristics
that caused the N.D.E. or whether they are the result of the
experience," he said.
The answer may soon be clear. In a study that began this year, Dr.
Greyson is interviewing a large group of heart patients before they
undergo surgery to implant automatic defibrillators in their chests.
In the operation, the patients are briefly put into cardiac arrest,
setting the stage for some to have near-death experiences. Several
months later, Dr. Greyson will interview them again, looking for any
"There are so many things to measure anxiety, depression,
adjustment, acceptance of death," he said. "We're still just
scratching the surface. There's a whole lot more to be done."
- Bad Boys
Two brothers, about 8 and 10 years old, were
exceedingly mischievous. Whatever went wrong in the
neighborhood, it usually turned out they had a hand in
it. Their parents were at their wits' end trying to
control them, so hearing about a priest nearby who
worked with delinquent boys, the mother suggested to
the father that they ask the priest to talk with the
boys. The father replied, "Sure, do that before I kill
The mother went to the priest and made her request. He
agreed, but said he wanted to see the younger boy
first and alone. So the mother sent him to the priest.
The priest sat the boy down across a huge, impressive
desk he sat behind. For about five minutes they just
sat and stared at each other. Finally, the priest
pointed his forefinger at the boy and asked, "Where is
The boy looked under the desk, in the corners of the
room, all around, but said nothing.
Again, louder, the priest pointed at the boy and
asked, "Where is God?" Again the boy looked all around
but said nothing. A third time, in a louder, firmer
voice, the priest leaned far across the desk and put
his forefinger almost to the boy's nose, and asked,
"Where is God?"
The boy panicked and ran all the way home. Finding his
older brother, he dragged him upstairs to their room
and into the closet, where they usually plotted their
mischief. He finally said, "We are in BIIIIG trouble."
The older boy asked, "What do you mean, BIIIIG
trouble?" His brother replied, "God is missing and
they think we did it!"
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