On the details of the study of NDEs

On the details of the study of NDEs by Gregory Shushan

A Response to Episode 329 ” Near Death Experiences” with Jens Schlieter by Christopher R. Cotter

The notion expressed by both Prof. Cotter and Dr. Schlieter in their recent interview that near-death experiences (NDEs) have been discussed in academic contexts primarily from medical/materialist and “paranormal” approaches is somewhat overstated – particularly in the study of religions and related fields such as anthropology.  Those who have undertaken and published research adopting a “critical religious studies approach, looking at these narratives in their social and historical contexts” will be surprised at the claim that such works are “largely absent” (See the reading list at the end of this response.).

I have written an in-depth review of Schlieter’s What is it Like to be Dead?, which will appear this Spring in the Journal of Near-Death Studies (Shushan 2020).  I will resist repeating the points I made there and will instead comment mainly on the interview.  In the spirit of conversation with the podcast, I address points raised by the interview roughly in the order in which they appear in Cotter and Schlieter’s conversation.

  1. Schlieter’s definition of an NDE is somewhat idiosyncratic in the elements he chooses to highlight. His inclusion of going to a paradise or “Summerland” (a term he borrows from 19th century mediumship literature rather than NDE literature) and tours of the netherworld are actually less common than elements such as entering darkness and emerging into light, being instructed to return for a specific purpose, and others which he does not mention. Meeting “God or Jesus” is also comparatively rare, for most NDErs speak only of an unnamed spirit being, often radiating light; hence the attempt at a neutral descriptor in NDE studies, “being of light.”
  2. More seriously, Schlieter describes out-of-body experiences (OBEs) in terms that actually conflate two separate NDE elements: leaving the body and seeing the body from a vantage point outside it. This is methodologically problematic for it allows him to consider different accounts as being dissimilar when they do not correspond precisely to the parameters of his own somewhat idiosyncratic schema. Thus, if an account features a description of a person leaving the body but does not include seeing the body from a vantage point outside it, Schlieter does not consider it to be an out-of-body experience. The significance of diverse narratives describing leaving the body within an NDE context is thereby wholly lost, while the “difference” is enlisted as supportive of Schlieter’s constructivist notion that OBEs (or reports of them) only appeared later in NDE literature.  Such a notion is demonstrably not the case.
  3. Regarding the experience of French essayist Michel de Montaigne: it is important to note that references to the actual experience are diffuse, inexplicit, brief, and embedded in discussions on the circumstances surrounding it and various digressions. Indeed, much of what Schlieter quotes in his book is actually the confusional state Montaigne found himself in after reviving. Schlieter may very well be correct that Montaigne did not have an out-of-body journey to another realm or refer to any “afterdeath state,” but if so that would mean he did not have an NDE – he merely had a traumatic accident that affected his thoughts and experiences in ways he did not expect.  Or perhaps he did have an NDE and just chose not to write about it. The point is, the evidence is too slim to make any definite statements about the occurrence or content of this possible NDE.  Notwithstanding, what little can be gleaned about Montaigne’s experience is not necessarily entirely at odds with the more familiar model.  He described the moment of “death” as “like a flash of lightning that had pierced through my soul, and that was coming from the other world” (which, in his book, Schlieter interprets as simply a metaphor for shock rather than a description of an actual experience). Montaigne also reported positive feelings such as happiness, “sweetness and pleasure,” and noted a loss of the fear of death.  The fact that Montaigne quoted the 16th century Italian poet Tusso in relation to his revival could indicate an out-of-body experience, for the verse reads: “Because the soul her mansion half had quit; And was not sure of her return to it.”  Montaigne then described how “the functions of the soul” mirrored that of the body, echoing NDE reports of having a subtle or “virtual” body.  In any case, the existence of NDE reports that do have a more typical phenomenology prior to Montaigne and across cultures makes the significance Schlieter places on this one marginal account somewhat obscure.  In other words, the fact that Montaigne’s account may not correspond to what we typically think of as an NDE says nothing about NDEs before or after.  Most crucially, it has always been accepted that NDEs vary widely in their content and I know of no scholar who claims they are always “the same” across time and cultures.
  4. Regarding Francis Beaufort, Schlieter says that he was “the first who really had a classical near-death experience.” Few researchers would call Beaufort’s NDE “classical” for it is essentially only a life review along with feelings of calm at the prospect of drowning. Missing are the “classical” elements of out-of-body experience, seeing the body, traveling through darkness, emerging into light, encountering deceased relatives, a deity or being of light, being instructed to return, and so on.  There are many examples prior to Beaufort that contain such elements.  Nor is it “the first time we can see the life review phenomenon” in an NDE account.  Though uncommon, there are examples in medieval reports and earlier, and in non-Western cultures (particularly in the symbolic sense, i.e., being confronted with the all deeds of one’s life by various means).  The life review is, in any case, one of the least often reported NDE elements across cultures, and I would argue that it has been given undue attention in NDE studies.
  5. There really is no debate as to “if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon” – it has long been established that they are not. Having himself consulted some of the sources that discuss non-Western cases, Schlieter surely knows this.
  6. Not knowing Tibetan, Evans-Wentz did not participate in the translation of his edition of the Bardo Thodol, which he retitled the Tibetan Book of the Dead. He was merely the editor and facilitator. The main translator was Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup, though other Tibetan scholars contributed after the Lama’s death.
  7. As discussed in my review (with references to examples), autoscopic NDEs and interest in seeing one’s own “dead” body are by no means exclusive to Western accounts. Likewise, there are Western and cross-cultural examples of NDErs seeing their grieving families and a variety of other earthly events.  These themes are simply not exclusive to particular cultures, regions, or times.  While the focus of the individual experiencer indeed differs and is apparently cultural in some cases, phenomenologically speaking both kinds of account describe the experience of the soul leaving the body and observing the physical surroundings from a vantage point outside it.  The fact that the cultural focus differs does nothing to change that, though it again allows Schlieter to make statements about the lack of correspondence between different accounts in order to bolster his claims of having revealed the construction of NDEs in modern Western discourse.   There are, however, identifiable cultural particularities to NDE accounts.  For example, in Western accounts individuals are more often sent back to life in order to fulfill a particular task or perform a certain function.  There are very few cases of “mistaken identity” returns as we find in India and China, for example, in which someone dies prematurely because the gods or spirits confused him or her with another person of the same name.  The “wrong” person is then returned to life, and presumably the correct one then dies.  Other particularities seem to correspond to social organization or scale. Only in small-scale societies, for example, do we find descriptions of walking along a path or road to the other world as opposed to ascending to it.
  8. Few NDErs report that they were “saved” by a “force” or deity. Indeed, by far the more common emotion expressed by NDErs is that they did not want to be “saved,” that they wished to remain in the other world and were resentful at being returned to life. The idea that NDE accounts are invented in order to explain being “saved” is thus unconvincing.
  9. More broadly, Schlieter suggests that NDErs invent accounts of experiences they did not in fact have in order to explain why they returned to life. On the one hand, this notion is again belied by the fact that NDE accounts bear strong similarities across cultures and time. The implication would be that people around the world and throughout history invent the same kind of “story” involving similar themes and ideas, simply in order to explain the fact of their revival.  On the other hand, the diversity of NDE accounts and their interpretation, as well as of beliefs about an afterlife, would make such a suggestion untenable.  The more parsimonious explanation is that people actually have experiences of the kind they are describing – an explanation that is, in fact, accepted for other kinds of extraordinary experiential phenomena.  For example, while we may not wish to accept that sufferers of sleep paralysis genuinely had a ghost or demon sitting on their chests while in a hypnogogic state, there is no argument for the non-occurrence of the phenomenon.  Similarly, we need not believe that NDEs are genuine experiences of an afterlife in order to believe that people have NDEs.
  10. Schlieter doubts that NDEs can happen to people who have never been exposed to religious ideas. It is unlikely that such a claim could ever be tested, for obviously even those raised as atheists in a secular society will nevertheless have at least some notion of the religious ideas of the culture in which they grew up.  However, the suggestion that NDEs are dependent on expectation or “disposition” has been proven false by a number of studies.  Paradoxically, Schlieter then outlines a scenario in which a person revives from a near death state and “the question of meaning pops up in their lives for maybe the first time ever” and they subsequently invent a narrative based on other accounts they have heard.  He even speculates on how such a person might talk themselves into believing that they really had such an experience (implying, of course, that they did not) by actively constructing false memories.  How this squares with the idea that NDEs mainly happen to religious people who expect them and have a disposition towards them is unclear.  At the same time, Schlieter clarifies that the experiences are meaningful and not to be “reduced to these factors,” but how that might be the case is obscure in light of his persistent arguments of the cultural construction and individual fabrication of NDE narratives.
  11. The suggestion that religious beliefs about the afterlife are responsible for the content of NDEs is, to some degree, an inversion of what the cross-cultural evidence tells us: that many cultures around the world have incorporated NDEs or elements of them into their belief systems. In my recent book (Shushan 2018) I found over 40 examples from indigenous societies alone, stating overtly that their culture’s afterlife beliefs arose from the experiences of individuals who evidently died and returned to life.  This is reflected on the microcosmic level by the many reports throughout history in which individuals changed their beliefs as a result of their NDEs. Indeed, this is one of the most consistently reported features of the phenomenon. This is certainly not to argue that the beliefs, or indeed the experiences themselves, are not influenced by prior ideas, religious or otherwise.  I fully agree with Cotter’s outline of such dynamics, that individual and cultural particularities influence our experiences and our interpretations of them, while our experiences in turn contribute to our individual and cultural particularities.  That is exactly what the evidence tells us.  Schlieter also agrees with this in the interview, though it seems to me the antithesis of what he writes in his book.  In any case, such mutual influence does not support a constructivist explanation of NDEs.  On the individual level, concerning contemporary accounts of NDEs, Schlieter seems to accept the notion that NDEs can inspire – i.e., precede – new religious beliefs in an afterlife.
  12. The name of the author mentioned as “Alexander Eben” is actually Eben Alexander.

Although Schlieter repeatedly qualifies that NDErs may have had experiences of the kind they describe and that we have no way of knowing whether they did or not, he continually privileges the unfounded assumption that they did not.  The majority of his book and interview operate under the philosophical commitment to the idea that narratives of such phenomena are not reports of actual experiences but are in fact entirely culturally constructed artifacts; i.e. they are invented.  This places him firmly within the tradition of postmodernist-influenced scholars who deny the possibility that extraordinary experiences can lead to religious or spiritual beliefs. In articles on this very subject (Shushan 2014, 2016a), I argue that such an a priori assumption is just that – an assumption, a philosophical stance.  It is not grounded in science, and it is not supported by the cross-cultural and historical evidence.  While Schlieter cited the 2016 article in his book, he did not engage with its arguments.

In sum, Schlieter does an excellent job with many elements of his valuable book – particularly in charting the increased awareness and popularity of NDEs in the West and the socio-cultural reasons for it.  Many of his wider claims, however, are extremely problematic as is much of his comparative methodology as outlined my review.

Further Reading

Abramovitch, H. (1988). “An Israeli account of a near-death experience: A case study of cultural dissonance.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 6, 175– 184.

Becker, C.B. (1993). Breaking the Circle: Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism. Carbondale, IL:  Southern Illinois University Press.

Belanti, J., M. Perera, & K. Jagadheesan (2008). “Phenomenology of near-death experiences: A cross-cultural perspective.” Transcultural Psychiatry 45(1), 121– 33.

Counts, D.A. (1983). “Near-death and out-of-body experiences in a Melanesian society.” Anabiosis 3, 115– 35.

Fox, M. (2003). Religion, Spirituality and the Near-Death Experience. London: Routledge.

Hallowell, A.I. (1940). “Spirits of the dead in Salteaux life and thought.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 70, 29– 51.

Hultkrantz, A. (1957). The North American Indian Orpheus Tradition. Stockholm: Statens Etnografiska.

Kellehear, A. (1996). Experiences Near Death: Beyond Medicine and Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Matlock, J. (2017). “Historical near-death and reincarnation-intermission experiences of the Tlingit Indians: Case studies and theoretical reflections.” Journal of Near-Death Studies, 35, 215–242.

McClenon, J. (1994). Wondrous events: Foundations of religious belief. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

McClenon, J. (2006). “Kongo near-death experiences: Cross-cultural patterns.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 25(1), 21– 34.

Potthoff, S.E. (2017). The Afterlife in Early Christian Carthage: Near-death Experiences, Ancestor Cult, and the Archaeology of Paradise. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.

Shushan, G. (2009). Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations: Universalism, Constructivism, and Near-Death Experience. London: Continuum.

Shushan, G. (2013). “Rehabilitating the neglected ‘similar’: confronting the issue of cross-cultural similarities in the study of religions.” Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal 4(2), 48– 53.

Shushan, G. (2014). “Extraordinary experiences and religious beliefs: deconstructing some contemporary philosophical axioms.”  Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 26, 384-416.

Shushan, G. (2016a). Cultural-linguistic constructivism and the challenge of near-death and out- of-body experience. In Bettina Schmidt (ed.) The Study of Religious Experience:  Approaches and Methodologies, 71– 87. London: Equinox.

Shushan, G. (2016b). “The Sun told me I would be restored to life”: Native American near-death experiences, shamanism, and religious revitalization movements.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 34(3), Spring, 127– 50.

Shushan, G. (2017). “He should stay in the grave”: cultural patterns in the interpretation of near-death experiences in indigenous African beliefs.”  Journal of Near-Death Studies 35(4), 185-213.

Shushan, G. (2018a). Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Shushan, G. (2018b). “‘My heart sang within me, and I was glad to be dead.’: Afterlife myths, dreams, and near-death experiences in the cultures of the Pacific.”  Journal of Near-Death Studies 36(3), 135-169.

Shushan, G. (2020). “Book Review: What is it Like to be Dead? by Jens Schlieter.”  Journal of Near-Death Studies 38(1).  Forthcoming.

Shushan, G. (2021) The Historical Anthology of Near-Death Experiences.  Forthcoming.

Tassell-Matamua, N. (2013). “Phenomenology of near- death experiences: An analysis of a Maori case study.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 32(2), 107– 17.

Tassell-Matamua, N. & M. Murray (2014). “Near- death experiences: Quantitative findings from an Aotearoa New Zealand sample.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 33(1), 3– 29.

Wade, J. (2003). “In a sacred manner we died: Native American near- death experiences.”  Journal of Near- Death Studies 22(2), 83– 115.

Zaleski, C. (1987). Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death experiences in Medieval and Modern Times. New York: Oxford University Press.

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