Near-Death Experiences and Ayahuasca-Induced Experiences - Two Unique Pathways to a Phenomenologically Similar State of Consciousness

By Liester, Mitchell B. | Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Near-Death Experiences and Ayahuasca-Induced Experiences - Two Unique Pathways to a Phenomenologically Similar State of Consciousness


Liester, Mitchell B., Journal of Transpersonal Psychology


ABSTRACT: Individuals who survive a close brush with death often experience a profound altered state of consciousness known as a "near-death experience.'' Individuals who drink a South American medicine, known as ''ayahuasca,'' experience an altered state of consciousness with numerous similarities to near-death experiences. These similarities, which occur on perceptual, emotional, cognitive, and transcendent levels, suggest near-death experiences and ayahuasca- induced experiences may involve a similar state of consciousness. This article compares and contrasts the phenomena of near-death experiences and ayahuasca-induced experiences. Common features of these experiences suggest ayahuasca may be useful as a research tool in the investigation of near-death experience phenomena. Further research is suggested to expand our understanding of human consciousness and near-death experiences.

KEYWORDS: near-death experience, ayahuasca, consciousness, transcendent experience.

NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES

Individuals who survive a close brush with death often experience a profound altered state of consciousness. This has been termed a "near-death experience'' or ''NDE.'' Dr. Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia defined a near- death experience as ''a profound subjective event with transcendental or mystical elements that many people experience on the threshold of death'' (Greyson, 1994, p. 460).

Dr. Raymond Moody first coined the term ''near-death experience'' in 1975 (Moody, 1975). After interviewing fifty people who had experienced a close brush with death, Moody identified fifteen recurrent ''elements'' he felt characterized their experiences. Later, he condensed these into nine elements (Moody, 1989). (These elements are discussed in the next section of this article.)

The first written account of a NDE predates Moody's description by more than two thousand years. The Republic, published around 380 B.C.E., tells the story of a soldier named Er who was killed in battle. Twelve days later, he awoke on a funeral pyre and recounted his experiences while in the ''otherworld'' (Rouse, 1956).

In the modern era, the earliest written account of a NDE came from the Swiss geologist Albert Heim. While climbing a mountain, Heim's hat was blown off by a strong gust of wind. As he reached for his hat, Heim lost his balance and fell more than 60 feet. He survived and later described his experience. He explained while falling, his thoughts were clear, time slowed down, and he saw images from his entire life. He saw a ''heavenly light,'' but felt no anxiety, grief, or pain (as cited in Noyes & Kletti, 1972, p. 50). Heim went on to gather accounts from others who had experienced close brushes with death. These included individuals who had fallen while climbing mountains, soldiers wounded in battle, workers who fell off scaffolds, and individuals who nearly died in accidents or near-drownings. His findings were published in the Yearbook of the Swiss Alpine Club in 1892. Eight years later, psychiatrists Russell Noyes, Jr. and Ray Kletti published a translation of Heim's research (Noyes & Kletti, 1972).

The next major advance in our understanding of NDEs occurred when an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia named Raymond Moody attended a talk given by the university's psychiatrist, Dr. George Ritchie. During this presentation, Ritchie described an experience that happened to him during World War II. In 1943, Ritchie developed severe pneumonia while undergoing army basic training at Camp Barkeley, Texas. His condition deteriorated rapidly and while awaiting a chest x-ray, he grew weak and collapsed. After regaining awareness, Ritchie flew through the air, ''traveling faster, in fact, than I had ever moved in my life'' (Ritchie, 2007, p. 46). He tried talking to others, but they ignored him, as if he were not there.

After returning to the hospital, Ritchie met a being of light that emanated unconditional love. …

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