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Are NDEs Universal?

Are they universal? The cultural context of near-death experiences by Dr. Natasha Tassell-Matuma

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

 

The recent RSP podcast with Professor Jens Schlieter provided an interesting discussion on a topic very close to my heart – that of near-death experiences (NDEs). Professor Schlieter speaks to his recent book, What Is It Like to be Dead?, which draws together historical first-hand accounts of Western NDEs from the 16th century through to 1975. Why stop at 1975 you may ask? Well, the truth is I simply don’t know, as I have yet to read the book (although it is now on my list of ‘must reads’)! But, it was around the early-70s that the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (author of On Death and Dying) was becoming well known, while in the mid-70s a ground-breaking book was published by Dr. Raymond Moody. In Life After Life,,  Dr. Moody described unusual psychological occurrences that transcended the boundaries among space, time, and normal everyday perception and appeared to occur on the precipice between physical life and death. These occurrences he termed “near-death experiences”, thereby (re)introducing the expression into contemporary literature. Moody’s work is often touted as responsible for deeply embedding the term into the psyche of the general populace and sprouting the scholarly field of near-death studies (yes, there is such a field).

 

Despite not quite being alive when Life After Life was published, I am one of the by-products of Moody’s work, having proclaimed myself a near-death scholar and spending the past decade conducting research into the phenomenology and aftereffects of NDEs and other exceptional human experiences of consciousness. Over this time, I had the honour of chatting with hundreds of people who told me their NDE story. For many, I was the first person they had ever told about their experience, and the privilege of that is not lost on me. Overall, it has been an emotional but enlightening journey. I have learnt a lot about the substantial changes NDEs tend to facilitate in those who have them. I have learnt a lot about the changes they tend to facilitate in those who have not had them but simply heard about them from others. I have also learnt a lot about key features of NDEs that many people describe. Although Moody first proposed a prototypical NDE containing a total of 15 sequential features, no recorded NDEs to date, nor any that I have personally had disclosed to me, contained all the features outlined by Moody. Near-death scholars now consider NDEs to be comprised of any of a combination of cognitive, affective, paranormal, and transcendental features. An altered perception of time or a comprehensive review of past actions and their implications (often termed a ‘life review’) are commonly reported cognitive features. Feelings of peace, joy, happiness, and love, as well as ineffability, comprise some affective features. Transcendental features include seeing and/or conversing with deceased relatives or a ‘being of light’, entering another realm of existence, and coming to a border beyond that one is not able to progress. An ‘out-of-body’ experience (OBE) and perceived travel through a tunnel are commonly reported paranormal features.

 

The accounts I have had the privilege of hearing tended to include descriptions of a couple of these key features, which unfolded in any order (not sequentially). Mostly, these features are incredibly lucid in people’s minds but equally ineffable in that they struggle to find the words to describe exactly what is it is that occurred. For them, there are simply no words to adequately describe the noetic quality of their NDE. The only way they can communicate what occurred during their NDE is to utilise what I term ‘linguistic reference points’, which they obtain by drawing on the linguistic system (i.e., language) they are most familiar with. This linguistic system is most typically the one acquired within the socio-cultural context they have were raised and/or continue to live in. Languages reflect the cosmologies, ontologies, and epistemologies underlying cultures and are mutually constitutive in a culture’s practices, beliefs, ideologies, and norms. As such, when people speak, they are essentially drawing on a collective legacy that speaks to the socially-sanctioned worldview of the culture they affiliate with.

 

While this may appear to be a diversion from the topic of NDEs, it speaks to a key point raised by Professor Jens Schlieter in the podcast – the tantalising possibility offered by some that NDEs reflect a universal quality. That is, they are phenomenon that occur in all cultures, across all times, and in the same phenomenological way. He cites suggestions made linking the 14th century accounts of unusual experiences cited in Tibetan scriptures, such as those recounted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with more recently reported contemporary accounts of NDEs. It has been proposed the earlier Tibetan and modern accounts (often reported from ‘Western’ cultures) appear to approximate features now considered key elements of NDEs, despite being experienced by people in different cultural contexts, several centuries apart. As an example, he speaks to the OBE and how in Western reports  individuals often describe looking back and observing their own (seemingly dead) physical bodies from a disembodied position. In Tibetan accounts, the disembodied perspective often focuses on those around the physical body who are grieving, rather than focussing on the physical body itself. As Professor Schlieter hints at, despite such descriptions having differing foci points, which likely reflect the differing epistemological (and cosmological and ontological) realities of each culture, it is the element of disembodiment considered key to characterising the experience as an NDE.

 

It is logical to infer that experiences described in similar ways must reflect similar phenomenology. Yet, moving beyond logic, such conclusions need to be examined in light of development of the field of near-death studies. What I mean by this is that while useful and beneficial in its own right, the current field of near-death studies largely reflects the worldviews, values, and perspectives of Western cultural groups. Most studies have been conducted in and with samples/cases from the United States and Western Europe. Consequently, much of the academic information generated about NDEs derives from a Western lens or perspective and in many ways is treated as the ‘reference point’ for NDEs. An example of this is reflected in previous work critically evaluating the presence or absence of five specific NDE features (tunnel sensation, OBEs, life review, supernatural beings, and other-worldly location) across 16 journal articles describing non-Western NDEs (e.g., Kellehear, 2009). While some NDE features were evident in these cultures, others were not, and conclusions were reached suggesting such features are not present in non-Western NDEs. However, an alternative proposition is that the descriptions analysed may not have explicitly addressed these features in the same linguistic way as Western NDEs. As described above, it is equally possible the features believed evident in non-Western cultures were assumed similar to those reported in Western cultures, yet the terms used to describe the features were informed by distinct epistemologies, suggesting the phenomenology of the NDE was also distinct.

 

Equally, analyses of NDE accounts cross-culturally have been typically limited to cases published in Western literature, and often in the English language. This raises several concerns. Firstly, “Not all words or phrases have an English equivalent…not all social contexts are translatable, particularly outside their contexts ” (Kellehear, 2009, p. 154). Yet NDE research typically translates accounts into English, and it is the English versions of such accounts that are subsequently analysed. This makes it difficult to know for sure the extent translated NDE accounts accurately reflect the intent of the individual’s original native-language account. Secondly, contemporary NDE research is believed to suffer from under-reporting (Zingrone & Alvarado, 2009), meaning many cases are unlikely to have the opportunity of being published to a wider forum, particularly those that remain ‘inaccessible’ to English-as-first-language-speaking researchers, who it is fair to say, comprise a large proportion of researchers in this area. Additionally, NDEs occurring prior to the era of written communication may not have been recorded or transmitted over time, so are likely to have been lost and not available for consumption outside of the community and era that they occurred. Some cultures also have a taboo on speaking of phenomena related to death (Tse, Chong, & Fok, 2003), which means published or even oral reports of NDEs may be severely limited in such cultures. Finally, it is not known to what extent NDE accounts are embedded within other modes of record-taking across cultures. For example, as an indigenous Māori person of Aotearoa New Zealand, I am aware accounts of unusual experiences approximating NDEs are recorded in oral traditions such as singing and physical artefacts such as carvings.

 

Because NDEs have effectively been studied from a Eurocentric perspective, conclusions regarding whether they reflect a universal principal (a phrase used by Professor Schlieter to describe suggestions by others that NDEs are universal) cannot be reached until a more thorough investigation of NDE-like experiences across a variety of cultural contexts is undertaken. I think this speaks well to a point made by Professor Schlieter towards the end of the podcast, in which he suggests difficulty in believing an NDE could be experienced in the absence of exposure to religion. Rather than religion, however, I find it more apt to suggest it is difficult to believe an NDE could be experienced in the absence of exposure to cultural systems and even more difficult to believe presumed NDE accounts could be interpreted without understanding the cosmological, ontological, and epistemological beliefs reflected by the language  individuals use to describe their experience.

 


References

Kellehear, A. (2005). Census of non-Western near-death experiences to 2005: Observations and critical reflections. In J. M. Holden, B. Greyson, & D. James (Eds.), The handbook of near-death experiences. Thirty years of investigation (pp. 135-158). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

Tse, C. Y., Chong, A., & Fok, S. Y. (2003). Breaking bad news: a Chinese perspective. Palliative Medicine, 17, 339-343.

Zingrone, N. L., & Alvarado, C. S. (2009). Pleasurable Western adult near-death experiences: Features, circumstances, and incidence. In J. M. Holden, B. Greyson, & D. James (Eds.), The handbook of near-death experiences. Thirty years of investigation (pp. 17-40). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

 

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.