What does it feel like to die? Although no one may be able to report that with certainty, a phenomenon called the ‘Near-death experience’ (NDE) has been offering a glimpse beyond the veil of life. The term Near-Death Experience was coined by the U.S. philosopher and psychologist Raymond Moddy in one of his bestselling books called “Life After Life”.
Many have reportedly had near-death experiences or NDEs after some life-threatening episodes like an injury, sudden blunt trauma, asphyxia, shock, heart attack, and so on. About one in ten patients with a cardiac arrest in a clinical setting report experiencing such an episode of an NDE.
Thousands of survivors who have had a NDE returned to tell the tale of leaving their bodies behind and witnessing a realm beyond what is usually experienced as everyday existence, which is unconstrained by the usual boundaries of time and space. Such mystical, powerful experiences sometimes lead the experiencers to a permanent transformation of their life.
NDEs have puzzled scientists for centuries as to why they occur and regarding their similarities across cultures, prompting them to seek answers everywhere. Researchers have been discovering that Holy Plant-based Medicines which are Psychedelics often can induce state very similar to an NDE, and may hold the key to understanding NDEs.
Present scientific understanding of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs)
According to scientists, the most striking fact with those who have had a NDE was the level of extraordinary clarity with which they could recall the experience, and the details of which remained consistent over time. One survey revealed that the details of the key characteristics of these experiences remained the same even two decades after their experience.
As these memories remain unchanged and often crystal clear, they provide an opportunity for the researchers to explore such first-hand reports and highlight the fundamental characteristics of this state. According to a recent study, most NDEs are filled with out-of-body experiences, having feelings of inner peace, seeing tunnel of light, hearing otherworldly music, witnessing heavenly beings like angels, having various mystical experiences, often with mystical ‘Deities’ and ‘Beings’.
Retired U.S. neurosurgeon Eben Alexander after experiencing a week-long coma a few years later, in 2012, answered the question, ‘what is it like to die?’ by writing a book based on his experiences named ‘Proof of Heaven’. Alexander reported that he had a transformative experience which included floating through a black void, flooded over with light; according to him, this light seemed to come from a brilliant orb. His stunning story contains several features or characteristics of what scientists today call the Near-Death Experiences.
Alexander’s experience-based book received divided opinion, with eminent neuroscientists debating about it. Professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia, co-author of one of the famous books in this field ‘The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences’, and Dr. Bruce Greyson believes that these experiences challenge a purely physical account of human experience and they present data which are difficult to explain by current psychological and physiological models.
However, many other new scientists in this field, such as Dr. Charlotte Martial at the Coma Science Group from the University Hospital of Liege and Chris Timmermann at Psychedelic Research Group from the Imperial College, believe that there is a scientific, neurochemical explanation for this seemingly unexplainable phenomenon.
Psychedelics and Near-death experiences
Throughout history, the parallels between Psychedelic experiences and NDEs have been prominent, and it is noteworthy to ask the question ‘why does the brain naturally produce DMT?’ Many researchers confirm that DMT is an endogenous compound. In an interview, Neuroscientist Strassman mentions that some unpublished data indicated that the DMT levels increase in dying animals. Rick Strassman, one of the pioneering DMT researchers, who had researched DMT for over two decades and coined the name for DMT as ‘the Spirit Molecule’ had released a book by the same name. DMT is one of the most powerful Psychedelic substances in the world which occurs naturally in countless species of Plants and animals.
DMT is found naturally occurring within the human body. According to Strassman, “When our individual life force enters our fetal body, the moment in which we become truly human, it passes through the pineal and triggers the first primordial flood of DMT. Later, at birth, the pineal releases more DMT. As we die, the life force leaves the body through the pineal gland, releasing another flood of this psychedelic spirit molecule.“
Holy Plant-based Medicines or Psychedelic substances have been consumed throughout history all over the world for deep ‘healing’ and spirituality or to visit the afterlife. Many of the main characteristics of an NDE are witnessed by people who have nearly died and by people who have consumed the Holy Medicine of the Holy and Divine Mother Ayahuasca which contain DMT, or other Holy Plant-based Medicines such as Psilocybin or Psychedelics substance such as Ketamine or similar.
The Spanish Franciscan friar and missionary Bernardino de Sahagun in 16th century described the role of Mushrooms by indigenous people in Mexico, causing them to experience terrifying and amusing ‘visions’ at the same time and how some of them experienced death in a vision and wept.
The Native Americans had also consumed the Peyote, a Holy Cactus Plant, which contained ‘mescaline’, a Psychedelic substance, which induces an altered state of consciousness which enabled them to explore the world of death. Native Americans believe NDEs are an integral part of their cultures. It is said that native American shamans have consumed the Holy Cactus to explore the underground world of death as a living being to bring messages from the ones who are dead.
Further south in the Amazons, the shamans consume the Holy Medicine of the Holy and Divine Mother Ayahuasca in Sacred Ceremonies to communicate with the spirit world.
In Central Africa, the indigenous communities consume the Holy Shrub Iboga as part of initiation Sacred Ceremonies for the young to increase their understanding of life and their responsibilities of growing into an adult. The Holy Shrub Iboga is known provide ‘Holy Experiences’ similar to NDEs.
Research findings on connection between Psychedelics and near-death experiences
Despite these striking similarities between Psychedelic experiences and NDEs, Strassman’s hypothesis remained unexplored for many years. In 2018, Martial and Timmermann, with their research team, attempted to validate this hypothetical link between DMT and NDEs. The study involved injecting a total of thirteen healthy participants with a placebo in one session and DMT in another. After the effects subsided, the researchers asked the participants to retrospectively rate their experiences using a well-established NDE Scale, i.e. a questionnaire designed to assess the experiences people had when coming close to death. The questionnaire featured key components of the NDEs, with questions like, “Did you feel separated from your physical body?” and, “Did you seem to encounter a mystical being or presence?”. According to the scale, a score of 7 is recognized as the ‘threshold’ of what would constitute a NDE.
After experiencing a high dose of DMT, the participants all passed this mentioned threshold. The researchers observed that the experiences induced by DMT were significantly similar to those reported after a NDE. Timmerman highlights that these findings support the idea that similar neurochemical activity occurs in the DMT-induced state and during an NDE.
So, the question arises if Strassman’s hypothesis was right- do we release a flood of DMT in our brain in response to death?
To rectify this, in 2019, Martial, with another international research team, investigated further with a large-scale study based on the semantic similarity of written reports. To figure out the relationship between Psychedelic substances and NDEs this time, the researchers employed deep lexical analysis. They input 15,000 Psychedelic substances-induced experience reports in a computer and 625 written reports of NDEs. The experiential reports included experiences on DMT, Ketamine, and Psilocybin. After analyzing the reports, the semantic similarities between the Psychedelic substance-induced experiences and NDEs were identified. Much like the previous study, the researchers demonstrated a significant similarity. However, unlike the previous study, Ketamine induced experience was the most similar to the NDEs.
With these new discoveries, it is still unclear whether it is endogenous DMT, a Ketamine-like substance, or something else entirely which actually induces NDEs. But these recent groundbreaking studies support the idea that neurochemistry may be at least responsible for these profound experiences.
The findings of recent researches are debated. The profound and fascinating NDE-like nature of many ‘Holy Experiences’ through Holy Plant-based Medicines or Psychedelic compounds have opened up new possibilities for helping humanity in ‘healing’ existential suffering for people with terminal illnesses and many other communities.
Research groups worldwide are now exploring and experimenting with these therapeutic possibilities, including at Imperial College in London, New York University, and at the just-opened Centre for Psychedelic Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine in the U.S. Moreover, research findings will deepen knowledge of ‘death’, an inevitable ‘experience’ which all must undergo.
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