The Psychology of a Near-Death Experience

Fiction is fraught with peril. Chances are, at some point, one of your characters may have a near-death experience. How might that experience affect them? My guest today, Jessica Kane, has 10 ways a brush with death can alter the psychology of an individual.

On the scale of life changing events, the near-death experience is near the top. It’s a mysterious, mystical shared experience that crosses time and cultural boundaries, and challenges the assumptions of the purely bio-mechanistic perspective on the process of dying.

The process of near-death experiences is well documented, with 60% of documented cases reporting similar processes. What happens to the person after their near-death experience is a similarly interesting topic, with some common trends that are deserving of their own studies. Here are some of the repeatedly recorded personality changes of those who have experienced a near-death experience.

Change 1:

An increased ability to be mindful of the present

Most people are preoccupied in their day-to-day lives with the past and the future, always living in the two places that don’t have any real impact on what happens in the present moment. The present is all there really is, and is a major theme in eastern religions like Zen Buddhism. People who have had a brush with death find that they’re commonly more able to be mindful of the present, living more immediately in the here and now. Now is all we have, so why not enjoy it while we can?

Change 2:

An increased sense of confidence

Confidence can be hard to come by in the modern world. People who have had near-death experiences commonly gain a stronger sense of self afterwards, and with that comes a greater ability to project themselves and their desires into the world. This heightened confidence is often said to come from a mysterious sense that things are all right in the world, stemming from some deep intuition.

Change 3:

A decreased interest in accumulating material wealth

People who have had near-death experiences often make changes in their habits of consumption. They’ll give up the accumulation of knick-knacks and be more conscious and deliberate with what they buy. They often come to a realization that happiness and material wealth are two separate states of being that don’t necessarily impact one another. They begin to tie their happiness to their actions and interpersonal relations instead of their property.

Change 4:

Shifting perspectives on spirituality and religion

The near-death experience is a frequent companion to renewed faith in spiritual and religious cultures across the globe. Shifting perspectives of one’s place in the universe are common.

Change 5:

Increased compassion

Survivors of near-death experiences often become more kind, compassionate, and empathic. They’re more grateful for what they have and more sensitive to the needs of others in life.

Change 6:

A more developed sense of purpose

People often gain a renewed or strengthened sense of purpose in their life, and in life in general. This feeling isn’t necessarily something they can describe, but there’s a common intuition that life is headed somewhere and that it all matters in the end. This can impact the individual’s interactions at even the most trivial measure, and can result in an increased sense of personal responsibility and agency.

Change 7:

Increased awareness of the value of love and life

Self-centered thinking stops becoming so important, and the value of interconnected thinking and compassionate action in life becomes more prominent to the survivor of a near-death experience. Many describe an intensified love for life and a desire to preserve it.

Change 8:

An increased enjoyment of silence and solitude

When you’ve faced death, you become more appreciative of the little moments in time. The need to fill empty spaces with people and loud noises becomes reduced. People who have had near-death experiences don’t need to have music playing all the time, and they generally don’t like loud or aggressive music when they do listen to it. The often start to prefer more contemplative and focused music.

Change 9:

A greater appreciation for a more cooperative, community-focused lifestyle

This might seem contradictory to the previous change, but it isn’t. Those who have had a near-death experience can sit happily in silence, but still feel connected to others. They gain a sense that life is more about service-above-self than self-centered desires. Leaving the ego behind in order to strive for a goal that is greater than the self becomes more fulfilling for them. It’s not uncommon for those who have had a near-death experience to dedicate themselves to a humanitarian mission or a life of service to others.

Change 10:

An increased sense of wonder and gratitude

Those who survive a near-death experience often find themselves feeling grateful for reasons that they can’t quite articulate. They just describe a quiet confidence grounded in some deep intuition. Those who have had a brush with death come away with a renewed perspective on the fascinating state of the universe and the gift of life.

Personality changes after a near-death experience make a certain kind of sense. It’s rare indeed for someone to have a brush with death and walk away without even the slightest change in perspective. The amazing sense of calm and rightness with the world that is commonly described as a part of the near-death experience seems to have a profound impact on the way survivors move forward with their lives.

Psychologists, biologists, and anthropologists have dedicated a significant amount of research towards understanding the mechanisms behind the near-death experience at home and across cultures, and so far it remains a mystery. But whatever is inevitably discovered about the near-death experience, it is sure to reveal fascinating insights into the human experience.