A new study of near-death experiences (NDEs) has given a scientific footing to the oft-reported effect of the experience feeling ‘more real than real’ (e.g. ‘‘My death experience is more real to me than life”; ‘‘It was more real than real: absolute reality”; ‘‘I have no doubt that this experience was real. It was vastly more real than anything we experience here”.)
Intrigued by such accounts, long-time NDE researcher Dr Bruce Greyson and co-author Lauren Moore set out to investigate the reliability of these strange memories of another world encountered during a brush with death:
[S]everal factors commonly associated with near-death experiences may cast doubt on the reliability of memories of the event: (1) NDEs often occur in the presence of cardiac arrest, which often produces some amnesia for the event; (2) they may occur under the influence of potentially psychoactive medications, which can alter memories; (3) they usually occur in traumatic situations, which are known to influence the accuracy of memory; (4) they are usually associated with strong positive emotion, which may influence memory; and (5) they are sometimes reported long after the event, a factor that has been shown to reduce the detail and vividness of memories.
All of these factors have raised questions about the reliability of memories of near-death experiences. In contrast to these reasons to question the reliability of NDE memories, near-death experiencers themselves usually harbor no doubts at all. In fact, it is the norm for near-death experiencers to describe the NDE as ‘‘realer than real” or ‘‘more real than anything else I’ve ever experienced”.
Greyson and Moore administered a test known as the Memory Characteristics Questionnaire to 122 survivors of a close brush with death who reported having a near-death experience. The test is based on findings that memories of real events tend to contain more perceptual information (e.g. color and sound), more contextual information (e.g. recall of the surrounding time and place), more meaningful supporting detail such as emotional information, and and fewer elements that are bizarre.
NDErs completed the questionnaire for three different memories – their near-death experience, a real event that occurred around the same time, and an event imagined around the same time – so a comparison could be made. The results were surprising: NDE memories were ranked ‘more real’ than the real events:
The data from this study suggest that memories of NDEs are not comparable to memories of imagined events. Memories of NDEs were rated higher on the MCQ than memories of real events, which in turn were rated higher than memories of imagined events.
Our observation that MCQ scores are higher for memories of a real event than memories of an imagined event are consistent with previous studies by Johnson et al. (1988) and with what would be expected in comparing memories of real and imagined events. The fact that MCQ scores were even higher for NDEs suggests that they are recalled as even ‘‘more real” than real events, which is in line with how NDErs describe them. Our findings are consistent with those of Thonnard et al. (2013) and Palmieri et al. (2014), both of whom concluded that recollections of NDEs were suggestive of memories of real experiences rather false memories of imagined experiences.