Near-Death Experiences Versus Everyday Perceptual Experiences

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Many people are sceptical about the veridicality of near-death experiences.  They think that near-death experiences are not real!  Why does this scepticism exist?

Take a look at the following two examples.  First, a person is conscious of feeling peaceful, being in the body, walking through a dark tunnel, encountering a person, discussing previous experiences, walking out of the tunnel and into the light outside to admire the landscape around.  Does this experience sound suspicious?  No, not at all!  Most people would assume that somebody has just described a Sunday afternoon walk.

Compare this experience to the following.  A person is conscious of feeling peaceful, being out of the body, floating in darkness, encountering a presence, having a life review and entering a light and the world beyond.  Does this experience sound suspicious?  Most people pause at the end of this description.  This experience does not inspire confidence in most people.  But, why not?

The first experience offers confidence because people can relate to it.  It is an everyday perceptual experience most people can readily relate to.  It is natural and part of people’s lives.  However, the second example is not an experience most people can relate to.  It is not part of people’s everyday experiences.  That is the reason they pause and think when they hear this description.

The truth is that we heavily rely on our experiences because we take it for granted that our experiences are fairly reliable.  A person who had a near-death experience can rely on this experience to compare it to other experiences and tell how veridical (real) this near-death experience is.

Other people cannot do the same.  Since they never had a near-death experience, they have nothing to rely on for comparison.  Usually, what people do in this case is to turn to similar experiences they did have and try to lump this experience in with such alternate experiences.  For example, people have a tendency to compare near-death experiences to dreams or altered states under the influence of drugs.  Basically, in the absence of a near-death experience, they try to imagine that this experience is similar to other experiences they did have.  The problem is that they are relying on imagination and imagination is not the same as memory.

Conflict often arises between people who had near-death experiences and, for this reason, are relying on their memory and people who did not have these experiences and are relying on their imagination.  Since most people have never experienced anything that was as real as their usual everyday perceptual experiences, they have a hard time even imagining that such an experience can exist.  It is just easier to lump near-death experiences in with other types of experiences that they have intimate knowledge of, even if these other types are rated as less real as everyday perceptual experiences.

To demonstrate this problem, imagine that you have lived on a tropical island all your life, isolated from the world.  One day, a visitor arrives and tells you that she comes from a country where it is so cold that water turns into a solid material and you can walk on it.  Naturally, this story would make you pause!  You can walk on water in the cold?!  If you have never seen ice in your life, your lack of experience makes this scenario sound unbelievable.  Your doubt will assume that the person is either high on drugs or has experienced a crazy dream that she thinks is real.  In the absence of any experience with ice, your imagination takes over and tries to find an explanation that is believable for you in your situation.  This is the issue.  If you cannot rely on your memory, your imagination takes flight!

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So, are near-death experiences as veridical as everyday perceptual experiences?  It depends on who you ask.  If you ask a person who had a near-death experience, the answer is “yes”.  If you ask a person who did not have the experience, the answer ranges from “no”, through “maybe”, to “yes”, depending on the workings of their imagination.

M. J. Mandoki

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