Why Would People Remember Near-Death Experiences More Clearly Than Other Types of Memories?

Our PLOS ONE paper showed that near-death experiences cannot be considered as typical imagined event memories. We showed that NDE experiencers reported more characteristics for their NDE memories than for real memories (both old and recent) and their experiences are emotionally strong and closely linked to their own identity (in line with previous reports).

We believe that NDEs are remembered more clearly than other types of memories for a few reasons:

1) The high emotional value of NDE memories could explain the greater amount of remembered details in these memories—in line with previous studies showing that emotional value enhances the amount of sensory details in memories and that such strong emotional events are more likely to be repeatedly rehearsed (internally or in re-telling to others), thus enhancing their importance and promoting their availability. On the other hand, NDE memories could also be the product of a false memory or hallucination, in the sense that their origin does not come from a “real” event, thus leading to an illusory recollection. These kinds of reconstructed events can be very detailed, and it has been shown that emotional and survival contexts are linked to increased memory reconstruction including many specific details, which could be the case of some NDEs memories.

2) The greater overall amount of characteristics in NDE memories as compared with real or imagined memories could be explained by the fact that self-referential information can improve recalling performance by allowing better encoding, organization, and enrichment by extended knowledge, leading to a subjective and detailed episodic representation of the original event and associated thoughts and feelings. NDEs could have a stronger importance for personal identity and can be more closely linked to a person’s identity than other experiences (NDEs have already been reported as having short- and long-term positive consequences in an experiencer’s life). Thus, it is likely that self-referential content could have an effect on the overall characteristics of NDE memories.

3) Because of its emotionality, self-representativity, and consequentiality on the experiencers’ life, the NDE becomes a “self-defining memory.” That said, NDE memories could also be described as a “flashbulb memory.” This type of memory involves a highly emotional, personally important, and surprising event that will benefit from a preferential encoding making them more detailed and longer-lasting than everyday memories and also more prone to rehearsal.

We think it would be interesting to mention that, in general, the brain’s essential function is to organize the world we live in to promote adapted behavior. In fact, the brain organizes the chaos of information that a person constantly receives and interprets it according to the goals and knowledge of that individual. To perceive is to put meaning onto things and situations based on our experience with the world, with the use of specific schemas (general schemas or schemas related to our particular culture). The same is true for the act of remembering. In general, it is quite an optimal cognitive strategy since, most of the time, many elements will be remembered. But this strategy is not perfect as we can sometimes forget elements that are not congruent with the schema or, on the contrary, we may remember elements that did not happen but that are consistent with the schema. Moreover, we know that this kind of remembering bias is particularly likely to happen for highly emotional and survival aspects.

In conclusion, we propose that the physiological origins of NDEs could lead to a real perception although not lived in reality (i.e., being hallucination- or dream-like events), having as rich characteristics as memories of real events. We suggest that NDEs are flashbulb memories of really perceived hallucinations. Although the similarities of NDEs with hallucinations are striking, further research is needed to characterize the relationship between these phenomena more precisely, and additional neuroimaging studies are needed in order to better understand the neurophysiological signature of NDEs.

Vanessa Charland is a neuropsychologist in the Coma Science Group and Hedwige Dehon is a lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of Liege.

Category: Q&A


5 Responses

  1. Deb says:

    How do these compare with other recalled traumas which have equiv. emotional intensity?

  2. tim says:

    What a load of gobbleydegook. Also does it ever occur to you researchers that the experience might just be what ‘they’ (the experiencers) say it is..namely a real separation of mind and brain ?

    Is that within your powers of reasoning to consider ?

  3. WCG says:

    Re. Tim:

    When have you – or has anyone – seen a mind separate from a brain? We have no experience of that, and no evidence to indicate that it’s possible. Without evidence, why would you seriously consider it? Why would you think that it’s even possible?

    We already know that hallucinations exist. We already know about dreams, about delusions, about the fallibility of memory. We already know that we can get weird things from a human brain in many different ways. But we have absolutely no evidence that we can get a mind without a living brain.

    These researchers would be guaranteed a Nobel Prize if they could demonstrate that a mind CAN exist without a brain, or even if they could demonstrate, as you put it, “a real separation of mind and brain.” So they’d be eager to pursue such research, if there were any evidence at all that such a thing were real (rather than just religious mythology).

  4. Seeker says:


    You stated: “We have no experience of that, and no evidence to indicate that it’s possible.”

    That’s a pretty bold statement. I’d like to know on what evidence you base that statement. Many, if not most, of the top researchers on NDEs (e.g., Moody, van Lommel, Sabom, Morse and Rawlings) started by not believing in the mind being able to separate from the body, but came to that conclusion through the stubborn data of their research. Have you studied the primary researchers, or just read skeptic sites and accepted their conclusions uncritically, without reading the primary studies?

  5. tim says:

    WCG said “When have you – or has anyone – seen a mind separate from a brain? We have no experience of that, and no evidence to indicate that it’s possible. Without evidence, why would you seriously consider it? Why would you think that it’s even possible?”

    What research have you looked at. 5 prospective studies have all demonstrated that patients in cardiac arrest (dead) can have well structured thoughts with memory formation in a period when their brain wasn’t working.

    Apart from the researchers such as Parnia and Van Lommel,many cardiologists are aware of this, some speak out but most choose to remain silent.

    I have seen numerous pieces of evidence,but an easy one for you who is clearly blissfully unaware of this phenomena is below.


    And before you pre-judge it as “only an anecdote” (and they don’t count)….

    The account was seconded and verified recently by
    Dr Roberto Cattaneo who was Dr Rudy’s asssistant and witnessed the case first hand.

    “Dr. Rudy’s description of this event at the time of this patient’s surgery is absolutely correct. I was the other cardiac surgeon that he refers to in the video (7.27). The patient’s description of his experience is as Dr Rudy described it word by word. People should interpret this according to their own beliefs, these are the facts”

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