Should near death experiences change your life?

Ryan, a loyal MR reader, asks for good reason:

Three days ago I rolled my car three times on a back country road at least 40 minutes away from the nearest ambulance.  The car was crushed to a considerable degree except for the part I occupied, but I walked away without a scratch.  My question is, what implications should this have for my life?  People around me expect me to act differently, and I do feel more reflective.  But aside from needing a new car, and knowing to drive more carefully on gravel roads in the future, nothing else has actually changed.  Is it reasonable for me to begin introspection, or should I hold to my previous plans and priorities absent new information?

I have no real data and only a few intuitions.  I say use the experience to rationalize a change you wanted to make anyway.  Most people have less than perfect courage or willpower, but a near-death experience can provide a pro-change focal point in a multiple-selves game.  Alternatively the trauma of the tragedy can disrupt the previous mindset and thus weaken the hold of status quo bias.  Or the vividness of a shorter time horizon moves the multiple selves to a "trembling hand" solution concept, in which life pursuits are more robust to the probability of an early death.

This account, based on interviews with survivors, suggests that near-death experiences are "beautiful" and make people unafraid of death and more giving and more caring.  Don’t forget the tunnel and the bright white light, etc. 

In part these people are responding to social expectations; would hunter-gatherers offer the same reports?  In part these people may have been fooled by the endorphins which accompany many near-death experiences.   

I suspect a very small minority of people use near-death experiences to become more selfish, backed of course by self-deception.  (Can we measure charitable contributions before and after?)  In these cases the talk about the beautiful white light is in reality a claim that the victim is beautiful (by affiliation?) and thus deserves to be treated better.  The reported change seems hard for others to criticize or deflect ("life is beautiful and hey, I almost DIED!"), but the actual demand is for more of the social surplus.  The victim need only report that the new selfish changes are part of one large intertwined bundle of life reevaluation…

The bottom line?: In predictive terms, I would expect that near-death experiences make good people better and bad people worse.

Addendum: See Ryan’s remarks in the comments.


There is a big difference between simply coming close to death, and the set of associated phenomena that has been labelled as the "Near-death experience". For example this prospective study of NDEs published in the Lancet shows some very substantial differences in cardiac arrest patients who reported NDE, versus those who did not:

Significant differences in answers to 13 of the 34 items in the life-change inventory between people with and without an NDE are shown in table 4. For instance, people who had NDE had a significant increase in belief in an afterlife and decrease in fear of death compared with people who had not had this experience. . .

Most patients who did not have NDE did not believe in a life after death at 2-year or 8-year follow-up (table 5). People with NDE had a much more complex coping process: they had become more emotionally vulnerable and empathic, and often there was evidence of increased intuitive feelings. Most of this group did not show any fear of death and strongly believed in an afterlife.

In part these people are responding to social expectations; would hunter-gatherers offer the same reports?

This is an area that deserves more study. Within our own culture, there appears to be no substantial differences between the NDEs reported 40 years ago (before the publishing of Raymond Moody's seminal book Life after Life which remarked the beginning of a widespread awareness of the NDE phenomena in the west) and NDEs reported today.

In part these people may have been fooled by the endorphins which accompany many near-death experiences.

Or perhaps they are not "fooled" at all, but are in fact describing reality, and it is the people engrossed in self-centeredness are the ones who are fooled about the nature of reality. NDE experiencers would agree with Albert Einstein, who wrote:

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

In predictive terms, I would expect that near-death experiences make good people better and bad people worse.

This story, and this one, suggest otherwise.

Hi - I'm Ryan, the questioner. It's been a little more than a week now since my accident, so I can talk a bit about how things have actually developed.

The biggest change I can see in myself is a kind of rescaling of how important I judge a thing to be. Assuming that being born is the most important thing that ever happens to you, dying has to be second. Since I've all but done that, ideas that used to terrify me don't bother me much. As jb suggested, I have considered blithely quitting my frustrating job because, my thinking goes, how comparatively bad could unemployment be? Before the accident I was a jittery Woody Allen type; now I'm much more laid back - at first I assumed this was a neurochemical aftereffect of the accident, but it's lasted this long.

I have noticed that I'm much more circumspect now in my dealings with people, especially in considering that I may be wrong. The possibility that I'd total my car in broad daylight with no traffic, on a road I'd driven many times, would never have occurred to me. I've started to reconsider key assumptions, such as that it's necessarily true that I'm a good person, something I think pretty much everyone assumes. I don't know what's to be done if I decide I'm not a good person, but I hadn't thought about it before now.

I still view the accident very differently from people who know about it secondhand or from photos. I knew I was fine from the moment the car stopped rolling, so I turned off the engine, braced myself against the roof (now floor) of the car, and unbuckled my seatbelt. Being a thin guy, I was able to crawl out the driver's side window, walk to the nearest house and call for a tow. I never did get the shakes or anything, which I assume is why the first responders kept asking me how long ago the accident had happened and seemed suspicious when I answered. In this respect I'm not sure you can generalize from my case - I have panic disorder, and there's anecdotal evidence that people who tremble at the thought of attending a graduation ceremony, say, suffer actual crises like stoics. I'm no one's Rambo in any other sense.

It doesn't bother me to look at photos of the accident or anything, and I have only recently begun to tamp down a terrible gallows humor, seeing that others are not so blithe about my survival. For example, I told a friend about the crash in an e-mail I began, "Dying in a car accident was something I was familiar with, of course, but it had always happened to someone else," and a few days later when my host asked if he were driving too fast for my comfort, I replied, "Oh no, drive as fast as you want, I'm impervious to crashes."Winces all around. I don't seem very outwardly grateful for having survived, probably, but I learned early in life to accept that we can't undo the bad things that happen to us, and it would seem profane to me to second-guess this good thing.

When brain cells are starved of oxygen, they do weird stuff.

I have no doubt that is the case. However it does not account for the NDE experience.

People sometimes have near death experiences when their brain and body are in perfect condition. For example, when they start falling off a mountain before a rope arrests their fall (and they are perfectly uninjured). These NDEs match the NDE experiences that occur when the body and brain are traumatized.

Also, studies of the "oxygen deprivation" theory show that the level of blood oxygen (and amount of mind-influencing medications) are not correlated with the likehood of NDE (see Irreducible Mind)

It's hard to change an adult. It does happen however. We often call those changes "wisdom". They are usually associated with significant suffering, misery, and stress.

Think Bonsai tree.

I doubt a stress-free near death experience has much significant impact on people. On the other hand the true death of a loved one is likely to have a significant impact.

So, no, flipping a car should lead to a reevaluation of one's driving skills, but it is not grounds for wisdom.

I recently wrote on my bog at InRepose of an out of body experience I had when I was young that may have been something very similar to a near death experience. I was quite ill and had a very high fever. The story is here:

This happened in 1973. I was twelve years old and had never heard of NDE or OBE's and knew very little about anything paranormal.

This event changed my life. It was proven to be beyond any doubt that my "self" could exist without my body.

Great topic!


The world is full of stories like that which, if accepted, effectively sink the entire philosophy of atheistic reductionistic materialism.

Hence, if one is predisposed by one's peers towards atheistic reductionistic materialism (for example, if one wishes to be thought well of in academia, materialism is de rigor) one is almost compelled to dismiss such stories, research like this, etc. in order to maintain one's belief system and fit into one's peer group.

I think this is a good description of the process of how we filter out evidence that doesn't fit into our mental models of the universe.

Of course, a truly scientific approach is to allow facts and observations to hone our beliefs, rather than allowing our beliefs to determine which facts and observations we accept.

I died from 2 brain attackes both happend at the same time and i left my bodey for over 30 minits When i came back i said things i had been told 30 minits later i could not remember saying them but when i work't everything out of the reason i came back i rememberd everything because i had started the process of doing what i had to do and learn from. and i have met my futer wife by it. Would i go thrue it again if god had to do it? YES. I am a better and carmer person from it. it has done me a lot of good it was the wake up corl i had to have for true happyness.

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