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Skeptics often say that the near-death experience (NDE) is a type of hallucination, but those familiar with the literature will know that many NDErs describe the phenomenon as “realer than real”, rather than some sort of surreal, cloudy dream-like experience. Now, researchers from the University of Liège have backed up the accounts of those near-death experiencers, in a study which found that the NDEs seem to be “unique, unrivalled memories” that “have more characteristics than any kind of memory of real or imagined events”. That is, NDE memories seem more real than even memories of actual events.

The researchers compared phenomenological characteristics in reports of near-death experiences with memories of imagined and real events, using three groups: 8 coma survivors who had an NDE (as defined by the Greyson NDE scale), 6 coma survivors who didn’t have an NDE but did have memories of their coma, and 7 coma survivors with no memories, as well as an additional control group of 18 age-matched healthy volunteers. Five different types of memories were assessed using a standard memory questionnaire. The results were surprising, to say the least, showing that…

…NDE memories have more characteristics than memories of imagined and real events (p<0.02). NDE memories contain more self-referential and emotional information and have better clarity than memories of coma (all ps<0.02). The present study showed that NDE memories contained more characteristics than real event memories and coma memories. Thus, this suggests that they cannot be considered as imagined event memories. On the contrary, their physiological origins could lead them to be really perceived although not lived in the reality. Further work is needed to better understand this phenomenon.

It’s worth noting that by comparing the NDE memories with the memories of other (non-NDE) coma survivors, the researchers uncovered an interesting fact: NDE memories don’t seem to be strong simply because of the death component, as has often been surmised, but rather as a consequence of the content of the experience.

So what do we make of this finding that NDE memories seem to be ‘more real’ than real memories? That obviously depends on the paradigm you’re embedded within, as evidenced by press release covering the results and this subsequent LiveScience story about it:

The brain, in conditions conducive to such phenomena occurring, is prey to chaos. Physiological and pharmacological mechanisms are completely disturbed, exacerbated or, conversely, diminished. Certain studies have put forward a physiological explanation for certain components of NDE, such as Out-of-Body Experiences, which could be explained by dysfunctions of the temporo-parietal lobe. In this context the study published in PLOS ONE suggests that these same mechanisms could also could also ‘create’ a perception – which would thus be processed by the individual as coming from the exterior – of reality. In a kind of way their brain is lying to them, like in a hallucination. These events being particularly surprising and especially important from an emotional and personal perspective, the conditions are ripe for the memory of this event being extremely detailed, precise and durable.

Glad we’ve swept those pesky results under the carpet…

Read the original paper: “Characteristics of Near-Death Experiences Memories as Compared to Real and Imagined Events Memories