NDEs and the after-life reality

Across the ages, people have reported amazing stories derived from their experiences of non-ordinary states of consciousness. Though the underlying themes of these stories seem very consistent – as argued, for instance, by Dr. Richard Bucke (in Cosmic Consciousness) and Aldous Huxley (in The Perennial Philosophy the metaphors used tend to be enormously varied, culture-bound, and contradictory across reports. The stories of people who underwent Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) are no exception to this: while there is an unquestionable similarity and consistence of themes, the stories vary wildly in details and metaphors. This way, some report, for instance, to have met the Buddha, while others were in the arms of Christ. Such variety and lack of consistency motivate sceptics to claim that NDE reports are mere hallucinations of some sort. After all, if these people had witnessed a real, valid after-life realm, one would expect their reports to be consistent across the board and not so bound to particular beliefs and cultures. In this article, I will argue that such expectation is wrong, motivated by mere assumptions about the nature of reality, and that many NDE reports, despite being inconsistent with one another and highly culture-bound, may still be entirely valid.

Let us first look at the similarities of themes underlying NDE reports. In the video above, several testimonies are shown. A cursory analysis of these testimonies identifies the following common themes:

  1. Association between a perceived light source and the feelings of unconditional love, acceptance, bliss, serenity, and peace;
  2. The feeling of being back 'home,' to the place where one's primordial self originates from;
  3. Interactions with what is perceived as entities of some sort, variously described as angels, dead relatives, or undefined, abstract 'presences;'
  4. The sensation of knowing (or rather, remembering) everything there is to be known about reality and one's true identity, even though one cannot articulate that knowledge later in words. This often includes the idea that ordinary life is a kind of dream;
  5. A life review and excursions across the universe that transcend linear time or space constraints, as if everything happened 'here and now;'
  6. Transcendence of all dichotomies, like good/evil, positive/negative, past/future, I/you, subject/object,  etc.;
  7. The notion that there is an important purpose to ordinary life.

Such commonality of themes is indicative of a core of truth behind the reports. Yet, we have to explain the circus of contradictory metaphors often used to 'dress' these underlying themes with a more objective and descriptive language. Indeed, some people experience the presence of an abstract, impersonal white light, while others report an encounter with a blue-eyed bearded man, both of which are described as 'God.' Some people report being welcomed by dead relatives, while others describe winged angels at the doors of heaven. The religious symbolism behind different reports tends to be very tied to the particular beliefs and culture of the individual in question. If the transcendent realm witnessed during an NDE is valid, how can we explain this variety of incongruent descriptions, despite the commonality of themes?

The first line of explanation is simply to notice that there is most-likely a difference between how people report an experience and what the experience in itself looked like. Even in the ordinary world, when different people witness exactly the same events, they describe the events sometimes in different ways, owing to particular interpretations, misunderstandings, and to the use of different descriptive metaphors.

Yet, this idea does not seem sufficient to explain the differences and contradictions across NDE reports, particularly given the level of passion and certainty conveyed by the people who report them.

Here is a clue to another explanation: we tend to extrapolate certain particular characteristics of our ordinary waking world as if they were necessary characteristics of every conceivable realm. Since the ordinary world seems to be very objective, autonomous and independent from our thoughts or beliefs, we extrapolate this objectivity and assume it to be intrinsic to any conceivable realm. In other words, even if you believe you can fly, our ordinary world is such that you will likely die if you jump from a tall bridge. The ordinary world doesn't care about what you think or believe; it appears to be very separate from ourselves as subjects. And then we assume that all conceivable realms must be equally autonomous and separate from ourselves as subjects. So reports describing these other realms, if valid, should all be very similar, regardless of our cultural background or personal beliefs.

Now try to suspend you disbelief for a moment and think about the possibility that the ordinary waking world is itself a kind of dream; a product of the imagination. This way, there would be no fundamental difference between your nightly dreams, your daydreams, and your waking reality; there would be just a difference of degree: the degree of consensus across individuals and the degree of momentum a certain storyline acquires. Your nightly dreams entail little or no consensus with other individuals, being your private storylines instead. Similarly, your nightly dreams have little momentum: people don't return to last night's dream to continue the story, but instead dream of something else entirely. The waking world, on the other hand, seems highly consensual: different people report relatively consistent stories about what they witness together when awake. Similarly, the waking world has a lot of momentum: the story keeps on unfolding with tremendous continuity and self-consistency regardless of one's efforts to wish a different storyline into existence. It is these two characteristics that make the ordinary waking world seem so autonomous and independent of our will or beliefs. It is as if the ordinary world were like a persistent, collective dream we share with other individuals, and then can no longer control by ourselves.

What I am suggesting is that the only reality that exists is the reality of the imagination. But just as light can assume different colors and intensities while still being light, the imagination can take on different degrees of consensus and momentum while still being imagined. I work this idea out very explicitly and carefully in my books Dreamed up Reality and Meaning in Absurdity, so you can look those up for more details (updated in May 2017: see this paper for a technical summary). Here, what I want to explore are the consequences of this model for the interpretation of NDE reports.

Perhaps the realm people witness during an NDE – while being imagined in much the same way as the ordinary world  simply has less momentum and entails less (if any) consensus. In other words, the imagination is less constrained in the after-life state. What one witnesses there may be a realm more acquiescent to idiosyncratic beliefs and expectations. Although the underlying core of the experience  in the form of the common themes listed above  seems to be always present, different people 'dress' these common themes with the metaphorical 'clothes' that render them most evocative and recognizable to them. For a Christian, little can be more evocative of the underlying theme of unconditional love and forgiveness than the figure of Christ himself; so it is through the Christos archetype that such reality will make itself cognizable to a Christian. For a sincere atheist, perhaps a dead relative is the most evocative alternative, which then determines the atheist's particular experience of the same reality. An so on. In the after-life, our imaginations are perhaps less bound to consensus constraints or on-going momentum, so we are freer to project, and live, the metaphors that are most significant to ourselves. A similar interpretation of the after-life realm was interestingly portrayed in the film Lovely Bones (see trailer below). It is also similar to how Buddhists describe the Bardo state after death. If anything, such interpretation only enhances the meaning and validity of the after-life in the broader matrix of the imagination.

We do not have empirical proof that even our ordinary world is autonomous and independent of mind. In fact, as I have argued in several other articles in this blog, the latest empirical, as well as philosophical, evidence seems to indicate just the opposite. As such, the expectation that NDE reports should be similar and consistent at the level of descriptive symbols and metaphors (even when they are reported as literal) reflects merely a prejudice. The possibility that a realm may be significantly more acquiescent and responsive to idiosyncratic beliefs and expectations may, in no way, render it any less valid or less real than the ordinary world. NDE reports, while varying widely in descriptive metaphors, may nonetheless be accurate accounts of a reality – a particular 'place' in the broader matrix of the imagination, mother of all realm – where less consensus and momentum constraints apply.

[Revised 12 May 2017]


  1. Hi Bernardo,

    I read this and the previous article you pointed to about idealism yesterday, and decided not to respond until today. I’m rather glad I did because today Alex Tsakaris posted his most recent interview on Skeptiko with Jan Holden, an NDE researcher from the university of North Texas. She has posted some free learning materials about NDEs on the IANDS site which I have just been through, and I must say, they are excellent in content, and both interesting and androgogically sound:


    If you haven’t already been through the materials, I can thoroughly recommend them. There’s one thing I would particularly draw your attention to on page 38A – where Eva Cordray’s narrative describes her NDE and mentions that we do not realise how powerful our thoughts are. She could do anything she chose just by thinking about it – aware of human and “cosmic” logic – thoughts as things, very powerfully affecting others or objects. We’re “like children with H-bombs” she says. So in the NDE state, it appears that she was able to overcome the normal convictions that certain things are impossible, implying to me that the remanence of apparent reality could be a construct that exists through consensus.

    The thing that keeps nagging at me is how it is that things can have remanence and yet nobody currently knows about them until discovered. For example, I don’t think we know for sure how Greek fire was made (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_fire#Theories_on_composition), but suppose one day we dig up some previously unknown instructions how to make it and what it comprises, and are able to make it and verify its properties. This could plainly happen, and I’m sure there will be actual examples of this kind of thing that archaeologists have fairly recently discovered.

    This would suggest to me that it wouldn’t be necessary for a thing to be currently known to possess remanence, more that it must have been known at some stage in human history – sort of like a probability wave, once having been collapsed through conscious perception, makes a thing have continuing existence (barring actual physical destruction, by fire, for example?). Continuing existence, that is, in “normal” reality. Which may or may not be idealistic – I haven’t quite made up my mind about that, but it’s an intriguing possibility.

    Taking it a stage further, what about someone who creates something, say a great poem or musical composition, but then destroys it? It has been perceived by a conscious mind, its “probability wave” has been “collapsed” so to speak, and so, in a sense, does it continue to exist? I am aware of the fact that scientific discoveries are frequently made independently by scientists unaware of what other scientists are doing. This seems to fit in with Sheldrake’s ideas on Morphic Resonance. Maybe even in the “normal” state of consciousness, something manages to leak through from a realm where a thing is known, be that in the consciousness of another person, or in the consciousness of some higher being. IOW, one can speculate that nothing can come into remanence in ordinary reality that does not in a sense already exist as an idea.

    Michael Larkin

    1. Thanks for the link Michael, I'll have a look. It sounds very interesting and consistency with my own ideas!
      I also agree with you on the permanence of experience, something I discuss extensively in "Rationalist Spirituality." I think the transitory character of experience exists only in time, the latter being a mental construct. Outside of time (and, therefore, at a more primary level of reality) every experience ever had is simply part of a continuous 'experiencing.' From the perspective of someone within time, that continuing experience simply becomes unconscious (at least until recalled). And yes, I do think that, at that more primary level of reality, the distinction between differentiated minds blurs, and one has access to the entire repository of continuing qualia.

  2. Perhaps we are inclined to believe death takes us 'into the light' because we are ourselves beings of light, returning home....

  3. Bernardo,
    Really enjoyed your blog.

    My favourite nde is that of John Wren-Lewis. I'm sure you will enjoy reading it Bernardo. Of you've time please let me know what you think!


  4. Hi Bernardo,

    I'd like to suggest another way to look at this, which maybe boils down to what you are saying, but with a different perspective. People like Bob Monroe, who made notes on a lot of OBE experiences, seems to report a very complex multi-layered reality 'out there'. Couldn't it be that people experience different portions of that reality in their NDE's.

    Perhaps the bigger reality actually contains sub-portions derived from the main religious ideas, together with other more secular portions.

    1. It could be. Maybe different segments of it are 'shaped' by the forms and symbols that are most evocative to different groups of people. My own transcendent experiences were, I am convinced, coloured by my own background (maths, fractals, recursion, etc.).


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