Near death experiences are events that are remembered as having been perceived during apparent unconsciousness by people on the verge of dying. Some aspects of individual near death experiences are idiosyncratic, but others seem to be consistent among large portions of people who have the experiences.
One explanation for this similarity is that people have heard stories of others’ near death experiences, and therefore incorporate elements of those stories into their own experiences, which are imagined. A new study of the characteristics of people’s descriptions of their memories of near death experiences, however, suggests that the near death experiences are not imagined – at least not in the typical sense.
The study used standard measures for distinguishing people’s descriptions of their memories from people’s descriptions of fake memories that they imagined. Applying those measures to people’s descriptions of memories of near death experiences, the researchers found that not only do descriptions of near death experiences not have the characteristics of descriptions of imagined events, but that they have even more of the characteristics of descriptions of memories of real events than typical memories of real events do. The descriptions of memories of near death experiences seem to be packed more tightly with the linguistic cues that suggest real experience.
I can think of two explanations for these results:
1. People who have had near death experiences encountered an enhanced, perceptually more intense version of reality that actually exists independently of the person experiencing them.
2. Near death experiences trigger the brain to create experiences purely in the mind that have enhanced qualities of apparent reality, because they involve parts of the brain that create the psychological sense of reality, though the experiences are not in any independent sense real.
Can you think of any other explanations? How would you go about creating an experiment to distinguish between them?