Many cultures employ drugs as part of religious practice to induce feelings of transcendence that have similarities to near-death experiences. Of course, studying NDEs has significant technical hurdles.
Moreover, many of the drugs used to induce religious states are illicit, which would complicate any efforts to study their effects. In a fascinating new study , NDE stories were compared linguistically with anecdotes of drug experience in order to identify a drug that causes an experience most like a near-death experience.
What is remarkable is how precise a tool this turned out to be. Even though the stories were open-ended subjective accounts often given many years after the fact, the linguistic analysis focused down not only to a specific class of drugs, but also to a specific drug as causing experiences very similar to NDEs.
This new study compared the stories of individuals who reported NDEs with the stories of more than 15, individuals who had taken one of different psychoactive drugs. When those stories were linguistically analyzed, similarities were found between recollections of near-death and drug experiences for those who had taken a specific class of drug.
One drug in particular, ketamine, led to experiences very similar to NDE.
- Near-death experience.
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This may mean that the near-death experience may reflect changes in the same chemical system in the brain that is targeted by drugs like ketamine. The researchers drew on a large collection of NDE stories they had collected over many years. To compare NDEs with drug experiences, the researchers took advantage of a large collection of drug experience anecdotes found in the Erowid Experience Vaults, an open-source collection of accounts describing firsthand experiences with drugs and various substances.
In this study, the recollections of those who experienced NDEs and those who took drugs were compared linguistically.
Their stories were broken down into individual words, and the words were sorted according to their meaning and counted. In this way, researchers were able to compare the number of times words having the same meaning were used in each story. They used this numerical analysis of story content to compare the content of drug-related and near-death experiences.
Each of the drugs included in these comparisons could be categorized by their ability to interact with a specific neurochemical system in the brain, and each drug fell into a specific category antipsychotic, stimulant, psychedelic, depressant or sedative, deliriant, or hallucinogen. Few similarities were found when the accounts of one stimulant drug were compared with another within the same stimulant drug class, and few if any similarities were found between accounts of stimulant drug experience and NDEs.
The same was true for depressants. The stories associated with hallucinogens, however, were very similar to one another, as were stories linked to antipsychotics and deliriants. When recollections of drug effects were compared with NDEs, stories about hallucinogens and psychedelics had the greatest similarities to NDEs, and the drug that scored the highest similarity to NDEs was the hallucinogen ketamine. High among the list of words common to both experiences were those related to perception saw, color, voice, vision , the body face, arm, foot , emotion fear and transcendence universe, understand, consciousness.
The researchers then sorted words into five large principal groups according to their common meaning. Those principal components dealt with perception and consciousness, drug dependency, negative sensations, drug preparation, and also a group that included disease state, religion and ceremony.
NDEs reflected three of these components related to perception and consciousness, religion and ceremony, disease state, and drug preparation. Again, ketamine had the greatest overlap with NDEs in this type of analysis. The famous hallucinogen LSD was as similar as ketamine to NDEs when the near-death event was caused by cardiac arrest.
The meaning of survival: The early aftermath of a near‐death experience
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New Clues Found in Understanding Near-Death Experiences
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