What Does a Near-Death Experience Feel Like?

Artist's rendering of a man walking up a staircase into a bright light with clouds all around.

The interpretation of dreams is common, mysterious, and imaginary.(Image: Photojogtom via Dreamstime)

Are near-death experiences real? At 3:42 a.m. Beijing time on July 18, 1976, the residents of Tangshan City in Hebei Province, China, were in deep slumber. Suddenly, the ground shook and in just 30 seconds, almost the entire city was reduced to rubble. In the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, 650,000 houses were destroyed, 240,000 people lost their lives, 160,000 were seriously injured and 4,200 children were orphaned. The direct economic damage amounted to US$565 million (RMB$3 billion) and for a long time afterward, the whole country could not get over this tragedy. But there were also countless people who were brought back from the brink of death in that disaster.

More than a decade later, in 1987, Professor Feng Zhiying, Director of the Tianjin Anding Hospital, and his colleague were awarded special funding by the state to interview 100 random survivors of the Tangshan earthquake and they conducted a survey of their near-death experiences. Out of these 100 interviewees, 81 cases of valid data were retrieved. The two professors have since published the unprecedented research report on near-death experiences in mainland China. Today we will talk about whether spirits exist and about the world after death as seen by the survivors of the Tangshan earthquake.

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Tangshan earthquake near-death experience

The paper by Professor Feng Zhiyang and his colleague was first published in 1992 in the Chinese Journal of Mental Health. Out of the resulting sample of 81 people, there were 43 males and 38 females with an average age of 31, along with four cases of minors under the age of 18 years old. Seventy-six of them became paralyzed for life in that disaster, including 54 who experienced full paralysis. In other words, these respondents were all people who had suffered serious physical injuries during the earthquake.

Ms. Liu, who was 23 years old, was a factory worker. She broke her lumbar vertebrae in the earthquake when her house collapsed, and has since been left paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair for life.

During her recollection, Ms. Liu said she did not feel scared at all at the moment when she was knocked down, but instead felt that her mind had become incredibly clear. The past flashed through her mind like a movie, with images of her laughing and playing with friends during her childhood, the sweet scenes with her boyfriend when she first fell in love, her first day at work, and the first time she received a commendation from her boss, as if all the happy moments of her life had coalesced in that short moment. And it is perhaps this feeling of happiness that gave her the will to live.

During her near-death experience, the past flashed through her mind like a movie.
During her near-death experience, the past flashed through her mind like a movie. (Image: Fernando Gregory via Dreamstime)

Li, a 12-year-old farm boy at the time, had a completely different experience. He was hit by a falling beam that injured his cervical vertebrae. He lost consciousness and felt like he was in a morgue, surrounded by shifting shapes that looked like humans and ghosts. Then his body began to float upward, his lower limbs disappeared, and different parts of his body began to disintegrate into the air. After a while, various images of his short life replayed in front of his eyes. The replay of both good and bad events was more like a stream of consciousness, uncontrolled by the brain. 

Apart from the experiences of this boy, there were also other reported cases of flashbacks during near-death experiences. Cao, a 56-year-old university teacher at the time of the earthquake, had previously been a steadfast atheist. During her moment of near-death, she saw flashbacks from her college years, the communist political movements she had been involved in, and finally back to her work years.

Suddenly, she felt that she had been through too many hardships in her life to die like that, and then as if a hand was pulling her tightly, she was dragged back to reality. Although Ms. Cao lost her husband, her children, and her grandson in the earthquake, she remained strong and alive simply because she felt it was Heaven’s providence that she had survived. 

For Wang, a 28-year-old bank employee, his near-death experience was much more mysterious. He was awakened in his sleep by a loud bang and then a piece of the ceiling fell onto his chest. He struggled to pull free, but he could not move or shout. At that moment, a man in a robe appeared, limping toward him, but strangely enough, although he was very close to the man, he could not see his face. The man led him into a dark, bottomless cave. According to Wang, he felt that his body was completely uncontrollable and he only knew how to follow the man.

Finally, at the end of the dark cave, he saw a gilded underground palace. The man told him to wait outside for a moment, and a few moments later, a voice boomed from inside and said: “His name is not in the Book of Life and Death, so let him go back!” When he opened his eyes again, Wang was already in a hospital bed, surrounded by doctors and nurses who were trying to revive him. It was as if he had been dreaming. But years later, Wang still remembers the dream clearly, especially the glorious palace, which he thought might have been the netherworld. 

Empty road winds through a cave with light glowing from the opening at the end.
He followed the man through a dark cave until they reached an underground palace. (Image: Eugenesergeev via Dreamstime)

In the report, about one-third of the survivors interviewed said they had experienced passing through a dark tunnel. Some said they heard strange noises and had the feeling of their bodies being squeezed through the tunnel. Some were able to clearly see a bright light at the end of the tunnel, while others said that they did not feel scared at all even though the passage was pitch black. Some said that the tunnel they experienced was very windy and sandy, but they did not feel any drafts at all. The two professors categorized these experiences as the “tunnel experience.” 

Nearly a quarter of the respondents also encountered other people or spirits during their near-death experiences. Some were their loved ones who are still alive, and some were family members who had passed away, and such spirits usually carried an otherworldly glow. One female primary school teacher, who was hit on the head in the earthquake and was in a coma for several days before being resuscitated, recalled afterward that during her coma, she saw her father, who had in fact passed away many years earlier. She felt relieved to have been reunited with him during this short time. 

More interestingly, nearly half of the people felt their soul or consciousness detached from their bodies. The professors described this experience as a “separation of consciousness from the body.” One respondent described how he felt his body split into two, one lying in bed like an empty shell, and the other lighter than air, floating in the air and feeling incredibly comfortable.

The survey reported that each person sees their near-death experience differently, depending on their social experience, religion, faith, marriage status, personality, and even education level. But these various near-death experiences are not without a pattern. The two professors divided the near-death experiences into 40 sub-categories. These included flashbacks, separation of consciousness from the body, weightlessness, physical strangeness, physical abnormality, end of the world, cosmic infusion, time standing still, etc. Most of the interviewees were able to experience two or more of these experiences. 

A woman's body lies on the floor while her sould seems to rise up out of it.
Separation of consciousness from the body is commonly reported by people who have had a near-death experience. (Image: Andrianocz via Dreamstime)

The concept of near-death experiences was first introduced by Professor Raymond A. Moody at the University of Nevada in the U.S. and was defined by him as a series of clinical death experiences in which the person stops breathing, the heart stops beating, and the brain waves disappear. Around the 1970s, Professor Moody selected 50 cases out of 150 near-death experiences to study in-depth.

In 1978, the International Association for Near-Death Studies was founded to explore the meaning of life and the truth about death. The subjects of near-death experiences studied by Professor Moody can be divided into two broad categories, those who were declared clinically dead by medicine, but later came back to life, and those who were seriously injured in an accident and were close to death. 

For the first common experience, there are sounds, such as where a doctor’s pronouncement can be heard at the time of death, and there are those who hear other sounds that are indescribable. Others hear the very pleasant sound of music. Second comes the observation of one’s own body, which corresponds to the “separation of consciousness and body” in the near-death experiences of survivors of the Tangshan earthquake.

And third, there is the dark tunnel. Often the near-death experiencer will enter a dark space, perhaps a cave, a canyon, or even a drainage ditch or chimney. Inside the dark tunnels, there is sometimes a sound, which is consistent with reports of near-death experiences in the Tangshan earthquake.

Fourth comes the sighting of deceased friends and relatives, and fifth is the sighting of a luminous life form, which is bright and can be seen from far or near, ranging from being grey to very bright, and this light does not make people feel uncomfortable, and they can even feel warmth and love from the light. People of different religions have different perceptions of such a luminous being. Christians, for example, see it as Jesus Christ, while Jewish people see it as an angel, and people of no religion see it as a luminous being. After this, the near-death experiencer communicates with this luminous being, not through sound, but through thoughts and consciousness.

An image of a man walking with a cane is super-imposed on an image of the sky making it seem he is walking on the clouds.
Another common experience is seeing deceased friends and relatives. (Image: Alexandra Barbu via Dreamstime)

Sixth, there is the “life recall,” which is found to be a very frequent part of both Eastern and Western near-death studies. This is not prolonged and is often done in a flash. The last point is that the near-death experiencer feels a boundary or a limit, perhaps a gate, a fence, a river, or even a bridge. Often, when the near-death experiencer tries to cross this boundary, he or she is pulled back by an invisible force. Some near-death experiencers even say they don’t want to come back at all, but end up coming back not knowing how.

Kenneth Ring, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, has built on Professor Moody’s work to develop a five-stage model of near-death experiences.

Stage 1 is a feeling of serenity at the moment of death. Stage 2 is a separation of the soul from the body. Stage 3 is entering a state of darkness. Stage 4 is seeing the light. Stage 5 is entering into the light. Not all near-death experiencers go through the full five stages, and the details they can recall vary depending on the closeness of the near-death experience. 

In the last 20 years, scholarly reports on near-death experiences have been published in leading journals, but does the world after death really exist? The 17th-century French philosopher Descartes proposed the “dualism of mind and matter” in which he believed that there were two entities in the world, one material and one spiritual. Both exist independently of each other.

Materialism holds that matter, such as the brain, is the fundamental substance in nature, and all things, including mental states and consciousness, are the results of material interactions such as nerve reactions in the brain. But with the development of science, many studies have shown that this might not fully be the case.

Scientific research has shown that consciousness is a substance and it can even be detected and clearly measured as it changes. All kinds of states emitting from consciousness can affect the physical body of a person — states such as pain, optimism, shame, etc. So if mind is a substance, is the theory that matter comes before consciousness correct?

In 1994, Stuart Hameroff, Professor of Anesthesiology and Psychology at the University of Arizona, and Roger Penrose, a British physicist, published a book called Shadows of the Mind in which they proposed the orchestrated objective reduction theory. The central idea is that the human consciousness is like a quantum computer in the brain, and that this program does not disappear after death, but returns to the universe, offering a possible explanation for the near-death experience from a physical point of view.

Silhouette of a man standing in water with arms outstretched, contemplating the stars, with a colorful night sky with full moon above.
One theory is that human consciousness is like a quantum computer in the brain, and that this program does not disappear after death, but returns to the universe. (Image: Alexandra Barbu via Dreamstime)

The two professors believe that the human soul is a quantum process that originates within neurons and exists in the “microtubule” structure of brain cells, unlike the conventional idea that consciousness is the product of neuronal links in the brain. Hameroff and Penrose suggest that human conscious activity is the result of quantum gravitational effects within the microtubules of neuronal cells in the brain. The soul and consciousness are the basic building blocks of the universe and exist at the birth of time.

After death, when the human heart stops beating and the blood stops flowing, the cellular microtubules lose their quantum state, but the quantum information within them is not damaged. The quantum information will leave the body and return to the universe, a state of “I think, therefore I am.” If the body wakes up in a short time, the quantum information will return to the body after a trip. This theory is a perfect explanation for near-death experiences.

So let us return to the original question: Does a world after death really exist? Is there a God or Heaven? Let me share with you a little story about an atheist scholar who told his audience in a lecture many years ago that there could never be a God in this world. He said, in a loud voice from the podium: “If God exists, then come down and kill me now.”

After saying this, the scholar waited for a few seconds on purpose, but predictably nothing happened. The scholar said to the audience on stage with great triumph: “See, God does not exist at all.” At this point, an old woman in the audience slowly stood up and said to the scholar: “Sir, you are very logical and well educated, but I have a few doubts. I wonder if you can help me.”

Then the old woman said at length: “For many years I have believed in the existence of God. The teachings of God have slowly come to my mind, giving me comfort when I am afraid, making me happy when I am sad, and at the same time, I have remembered to help others when they need help and to spread goodwill as much as I can. My life has been made happier and more joyful because of my religious belief. But if one day I die, and after death, I find that God does not exist at all and that those teachings do not exist, then what, pray tell, have I lost in my life?”

There was silence as the scholar thought for a moment and said: “I don’t think you have lost anything.” The old lady went on to say: “Then I have another doubt. If I don’t believe in God, but I find out afterward that God is real, that karma, Heaven, and hell all exist, then what have I lost at this point?” The scholar was speechless. So if you were there at the scene, what doubts would you have raised? 

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