Researchers now believe one in 20 people will have a near-death experience. A professor who has spent the past 50 years studying the phenomenon says people typically describe similar experiences.
Joan Fowler, 63, says she had a near-death experience almost 35 years ago. She was cycling down the Pacific Coast Highway when she was hit by a truck. She remembers the California sun hitting her face as she biked to the beach, and then the crush of metal.
“I could see my body sort of like halfway under the truck and my bike over on the side. And then I noticed that people were starting to gather,” she said.
“I could see a light that was so enticing. It was so beautiful. It was like magnetizing me toward it,” she said. “As I started to go towards it, at the very end of it, I could see the ambulance going around Laguna Beach Canyon.”
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“I could see my body on the stretcher, and I could see a man over it just sweating. He was trying to get me back, and I could feel his anxiety. But as I started to go towards him, I could see that he made banana pancakes for his daughters that morning. I could see, actually, he was actually making them,” she said.
“And as I started to just take in the aroma of those banana pancakes, boom, I was back in my body. And then I was looking at him, and he said, ‘Oh my gosh, we almost lost you!’ And I was like, ‘Whoa, where am I?’
Fowler has never been able to confirm the details of what she saw, and for years she kept it a secret. But the experience was impossible to forget.
“As I started to recover out of that, that memory of that experience was overwhelming,” she said.
What a longtime researcher has found
Dr. Bruce Greyson is a professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia. He has spent the past 50 years of his career studying the phenomenon.
“When I first discovered near-death experiences, I found them hard to believe. So I started to collect cases and try to find patterns that were consistent across people, across cultures, across religions,” he said.
According to a new study, for people who go into cardiac arrest, near-death experiences are more common, with nearly 40% reporting vivid recollections of their brush with death.
“People typically describe their thinking being faster and clearer than ever before. They're overwhelmed by a sense of peace and well-being. They often have a sense of unusual things, like feeling like they’ve left their physical bodies,” he said. “They've reviewed their entire lives in a matter of seconds.”
'Everything's going to be OK'
For Holly Conlon, of Alexandria, a near-death experience as a child shaped her life as an adult. She was just 2-and-a-half.
“It was just very golden, and it felt wonderful to be there. It was kind of like immersed in this feeling of peace and well-being,” she said. “I think it's had a big impact on my life, because I was always kind of a spiritually aware person.”
Both Fowler and Conlon call what happened a transformative experience, offering insight and hope about the afterlife.
“This feeling of oneness and peace and of, everything's going to be OK,” Fowler said. “That is one of the most important takeaways from an experience like that.”
A network of thousands of people who have had near-death experiences have shared their stories online for future research.
Grayson said the most common thing he hears from people is that they’re no longer afraid of death after they’ve had a near-death experience. They report being more spiritual than they were before, and more connected to other people, the natural world and the divine.