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How does a close brush with death lead to a better life? It is known that nudging extinction can bring about dramatic life changes, and a Massey psychology student is researching the near-death experience phenomenon.
Kate Steadman is seeking 100 New Zealanders willing to share their experiences for her master's study, which will build on a body of work already done by staff in the School of Psychology.
Ms Steadman says near-death experiences (NDEs) that lead to profound, longlasting changes in people’s lives are well-documented yet little understood, particularly in New Zealand.
An NDE is defined as one in which a person undergoes intensely transcendental and mystical experiences when they are close to death, or in intense emotional or physical danger.
“It might be a situation where you were temporarily clinically dead or close to death but still felt as though something significant happened to you during this time, such as leaving your physical body, moving through a tunnel, being drawn to or seeing a bright light," she says. "It could involve thinking you are meeting someone you know who has died or some spiritual beings, an altered perception of time, travel to another realm or place of existence, overwhelmingly positive emotions such as love and joy, or any combination of these.
"And the recollection of the experience may have resulted in significant and fundamental life changes, and possibly a loss of the fear of death.”
Other changes include people becoming less materialistic, and more selfless, kind and loving, she says, and a changed perspective and behaviour that can have a major impact on those around them.
With increasing technological advances and rates of successful resuscitation, reports of near-death experiences are more common, with around 25 per cent of cardiac arrest patients and between four and nine per cent of the general population believed to have experienced them.
Ms Steadman hopes her study will contribute to knowledge and training for psychologists who encounter clients in clinical settings who have had a near-death experience. In addition, a better understanding of the aspects of near-death experiences that trigger positive changes could shed light on the nature of consiousness and how people find meaning in their lives – information of benefit to psychologists working to help people feel more positive, motivated and self-aware.
Research in this field is of educational value because such experiences may be dismissed by the medical profession as solely the result of chemical processes in the brain caused by a lack of oxygen. People tend to be wary of talking about their experience because they find it hard to describe and fear being misunderstood or ridiculed.
She says it is important to distinguish between NDEs and people who come close to death yet do not have one. “Although those who come close to death do and can experience important life changes, they appear to be not as dramatic or long-lasting. There must be something in the content of the NDE, rather than the brush with death itself, that ensures long-lasting after-effects and life changes."
People of diverse spiritual, religious and philosophical backgrounds are known to have reported near-death experiences, not just those who are religious.
Ms Steadman has a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Psychology from the University of Canterbury and is now studying at Massey's Manawatū campus. She was inspired to do research in this area by Massey psychology lecturer Dr Natasha Tassell-Matamua, who, with sociologist Dr Mary Murray, undertook the first major research on people’s accounts of near-death experiences in New Zealand.
Dr Tassell-Matamua is supervising Ms Steadman while continuing her own research in the area.
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Created: 21/07/2014 | Last updated: 21/07/2014
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