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What happens after we die?
It’s a question we’ve all asked at some point during the course of our lives. We might like to think we have the answers, but certain people possess a much clearer idea; they’ve experienced moments that brought them so close to death that they could feel it.
Those instances are commonly known as near-death experiences, and are as profound as they are rare. After years as a medical practitioner, Dr. Jeffrey Long became enthralled with the concept of near-death experiences, and founded the Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF), which has collected thousands of stories from people who’ve encountered moments near death to identify trends and commonalities among these seemingly supernatural experiences.
BTRtoday spoke with Long about how he became interested in this line of research, its importance, and how it’s changed the way he views the world.
BTRtoday (BTR): Tell us a little bit about what first piqued your interest in this line of research.
Dr. Jeffery Long (JL): It was over a quarter century ago, I was looking for a cancer-related article in a medical journal, and by accident found an article that had the term “near death experience” in it. I’d never heard it before, was fascinated, read the article, and immediately I was left wondering how is it possible that people can die a clinical death, their heart stops beating, and yet have these highly lucid organized experiences?
At that time, everything I’d learned in my medical training told me “that’s impossible.” So many years later, I set up the Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF) website and decided I was going to research this myself. That was a long time ago, and we’ve had over 4,000 experiences shared over the years, and I’ve come to the absolute conclusion that they’re for real.
BTR: How important is it for people to be able to share these experiences and learn from them once they occur?
JL: I think it benefits the person sharing the experience—many times we hear that they’re thinking about it, processing it in a way. We have a very detailed survey questionnaire that asks many questions, and I think it helps them to better understand their experience, and hopefully learn and grow from that extraordinary experience they had.
Then on my side, the researcher’s side, having so many people share near-death experiences helps us to learn about near-death experiences at a depth that we simply could not before.
BTR: What types of data does NDERF collect?
JL: We have people complete well over 100 questions, so it goes into great details about their near-death experiences. There’s a lot of demographic information, a little bit of background, a lot of questions relating to what their belief system was at the time of their near-death experience and then when they shared it with us, about an average of 20 years later. And many, many questions focusing down on some of the details around the elements of the near-death experience to help us learn really what’s important.
And of course, they share that critical narrative about what actually happened in their own words.
BTR: On NDERF’s website, there’s a section devoted to “exceptional” near-death experiences. What defines exceptional in these cases?
JL: Probably about every 40th or 50th experience is considered to be exceptional. We call them that because they’re very detailed and have some exceptional content that is unusual, maybe sort of an in-depth look about some of the other concepts that are shared more superficially in many other accounts. They’re really, if you will, the deepest and most profound experiences people have shared with NDERF.
BTR: Are there any particular testimonials that stand out in your memory above the others as far as their exceptional nature is concerned?
JL: That’s tough, because there’s been so many thousands, but I’ll share one with you. Her name was Vicky. She was born totally blind, and to those born totally blind, vision is unknown and unknowable—you cannot explain that in terms of the remaining four senses. Vicky was a professional singer at a bar and was being driven home by a patron, and this person was intoxicated and got into a bad auto accident.
For the first time in Vicky’s life, she had vision, but it was while she was unconscious in the emergency room. And there she was, above her body—that’s a typical first element of near-death experiences is that out-of-body feeling—and she saw the body laying on the gurney below.
She was initially frightened because vision was so unfamiliar. It was only when she correlated what she’d known in her prior life by touch–that being her long hair and interestingly a ring her father had given her–that she was able to correlate what she only knew by touch with her newfound vision, and called down and realized that was her body laying below her.
Vicky went on to have a stunningly detailed and highly visual near-death experience, absolutely beyond any medical explanation.
BTR: You talked about the out-of-body experience and that being a commonality among people who have had near-death experiences. What are some of the other commonalities that you discovered in your research?
JL: Well, no two near-death experiences are the same. That out-of-body experience, consciousness separating from the body and typically going above the physical body, and from there they can see ongoing earthly events, including often their frantic resuscitation efforts. Following that they may go into or through a tunnel, they may see a mystical, unearthly, typically bright light at the end of the tunnel. Upon passing through the tunnel, they may be in an unearthly realm, beauty beyond anything that they’re aware of in their prior, earthly life, often called heavenly realms.
They may see all or a portion of their prior life in what’s called life review. They may encounter loved ones that they knew during their earthly life that died, and these are essentially always joyous reunions. At this time, they’re almost always feeling intense peace and love, far beyond anything they’d known previously in their life.
For many of them, there’s a decision at the end of the experience about whether to return to their earthly body or not. And if they finally do, either they’re sent back involuntarily or ultimately make that decision that they’re going to return from their body. And when they recover from what nearly killed them, they’ve got their near-death experience to share.
BTR: What do you think accounts for all these commonalities people seem to share?
JL: There’s no question; there’s so many of them, and I think the fact is that they’re so typically observed, and typically observed in consistent order all around the world. We have hundreds and hundreds of near-death experiences from around the world, and I’m personally convinced from that level of evidence that this is ultimately what the near-death experiencers themselves uniformly believe, and that is an unearthly journey, a journey to a realm of existence outside of what we know and is so familiar in our earthly lives.
BTR: What role does spirituality play in all of this? Would you say that perhaps someone who goes through a near-death experience will find a spiritual connection to the world around them afterwards?
JL: Absolutely, and that’s what’s called an after effect, where their lives change after their near-death experience, an increased belief in God and belief in an afterlife, obviously—from their perspective, that’s what they experienced. But we ask that very directly in a question in the survey, if there’s any change in their life following their near-death experience and their interest in spirituality and their religious practices. And a huge percentage find that they have much more interest in searching for spirituality. So particularly for those who have had a near-death experience, spirituality becomes much more important in the rest of their life.
BTR: Have you yourself had a near-death experience?
JL: No, thank goodness I haven’t, but after having read about 4,000 I’ve certainly learned so much. Even though I’m a physician, I have to say the greatest teachers are the people that have the courage to share their near-death experience, and it has certainly influenced me dramatically, and helped me become a much better doctor than I think I was before.
BTR: As both a researcher and doctor, clearly you allow yourself some personal distance between belief and the empirical analysis of this data. But how has this influenced you in your beliefs about life after death?
JL: When I started doing this research, I kind of hoped there was life after death, but recognized there wasn’t solid evidence–such as the type of evidence I made my decisions with daily in my medical practice. Now, after 4,000 near-death experiences, I can say conclusively that the evidence follows a basic scientific principle and that is “what is real is consistently observed.” And what’s observed in near-death experiences is overwhelmingly consistent through thousands of experiences shared over decades from all around the world. So I can unequivocally believe, based on evidence, near-death experiences are, in a word, real.
At this point in time, I’m convinced that you, me, and every person is indeed going to have what the near-death experiencers describe as an afterlife, and it’s good news. A blissful afterlife is fantastic news for me and for everybody.