Diane Corcoran, R.N., Ph.D., is a retired army colonel and president of the board of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, an international resource and support organization for people who have had near-death experiences, or who want to understand and support friends or family members who have had them.
Corcoran became interested in near-death phenomena in 1969, as an army field nurse in Vietnam, when injured soldiers first started telling her about them. This was before Dr. Raymond Moody wrote his classic book, Life After Life. Corcoran commanded a hospital unit for a short time in the 1970s, one of the few female officers to do so prior to the 1990s. Promoted to the rank of captain in 1976, Corcoran was the chief nurse at the 86th Combat Support Hospital (CSH) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and was later appointed commander of the 86th CSH ahead of the traditional Medical Service Corps (MSC) officer. She left to pursue her doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin and to continue her interest in near-death phenomena—particularly as experienced by soldiers and by children.
Corcoran is a contributor to When Ego Dies: A Compilation of Near-Death and Mystical Conversion Experiences and the lead investigator in the Combat Veteran NDE Project. She consults and speaks widely on near-death experiences, appropriate hospital and hospice care support, and a variety of related topics. —Leslee Goodman
The MOON: What is a “near-death experience”?
Corcoran: A “near-death experience,” or NDE, is a term that came from the work of Dr. Raymond Moody, a psychiatrist, who, while in medical school, was struck by the similar experiences reported by patients who’d undergone cardiac arrest and seemed to have traveled out of their bodies. He called these phenomena “near-death experiences,” since the patients didn’t die; they “came back.”
Further research revealed that it wasn’t just cardiac arrest patients who had these experiences. Many others undergoing traumatic injury, an accident, near-drowning, illness, or even severe emotional stress, also reported many of the same profound psycho-spiritual experiences.
There are about fifteen characteristics associated with near-death experiences and not everyone who has an NDE has all of them. In fact, a person might only experience two or three of them. Nevertheless, an NDE is so profound that it irrevocably changes an experiencer’s life. The characteristics include a feeling of floating out of one’s body, looking down on their body and perhaps on resuscitation efforts, entering a tunnel, moving towards a bright light, experiencing intense colors and music, being met by others—who might be people they’ve known, or spiritual beings such as Jesus, or Buddha, or even someone unknown that the experiencer describes simply as “God” or “an angel.”
Another powerful characteristic is the sense of being unconditionally loved and at peace, even though they might also undergo a “life review” during which they realize the negative effect their actions have had on other people. For example, if you were a bully or hurt people, you would experience the pain you inflicted, yet without the sense of being judged. You would now just understand how it felt. Many people also report a “boundary” or “border,” which they know if they could cross they wouldn’t have to come back. There is often an unwillingness, or reluctance, to return to their bodies, but experiencers are frequently told they have to return because they’re not “done” yet. As a nurse, I would often wonder why people were angry at being resuscitated, but now I understand. Once you separate from the body, you feel no pain. I also understand that they “came back,” not so much as the result of our efforts, but because there was a higher power at work.
People also say that they were in a place where all knowledge exists. If you want to know anything, you just have to ask the question in your mind and receive the answer. Many people also describe a beautiful city of lights. The experience seems timeless. They have no idea whether it lasts moments or years.
There are also people who have near-death experiences—say, during a head injury—and do not remember any of the experience. They’ll experience the after-effects, however, so we’ll have to deduce afterwards that this is what happened to them.
The MOON: What do you mean, “after-effects”?
Corcoran: There are a variety of them. Some are physical—for example, many NDE experiencers have low body temperatures. The normal human body temperature is 98.6 degrees, but an NDE’rs might be two or three degrees cooler. They also frequently have changes to their electromagnetic fields which make them unable to wear battery-powered watches—the batteries die; the watches don’t work. They sometimes have trouble with computers—they shut down, or act buggy. One woman I know walks into a room and the lights flicker. Experiencers are often either acutely sensitive to chemicals and/or medications—or the opposite, standard doses of medication have little effect on them.
Experiencers often “come back” with skills or abilities they didn’t have before—a heightened sense of intuition is common, as are healing abilities, and an increased sensitivity to the world around them. Virtually all have experienced “the oneness,” the profound sense that we are all connected—to each other and the natural world. Some have the ability to hear colors, or see music. They also come back with information, a clarity about their life’s purpose. Many take up new interests, often in spiritual pursuits. They typically become more altruistic, more loving, less materialistic; they no longer want to hold on to grudges. Most of all, they want to tell you about the love. That life is about love. And most of them no longer fear death.
Although these after-effects might seem positive to us, they often create disruptions in the lives of experiencers themselves. Imagine you are a soldier who comes back from a near-death experience and now you can’t stand violence, bright lights, or loud noises. You get choked up just hearing a bird sing. Obviously, you are no longer suited to being in combat. This can become a real problem for their families, because now the experiencer has different values and goals.
One man drove four hundred miles to talk with me and he said, “There’s something wrong with me. I can’t watch television. I cry at commercials. I used to love boxing, but I can’t watch it anymore. There’s just so much violence and commercialism everywhere. There’s nowhere I can go to be at peace.”
As I mentioned, some people meet a superior being during their NDE. If they are Buddhist, they’re more likely to see Buddha than Christ, but even people who are atheist, or agnostic, will often report meeting someone they recognize as a superior spiritual being. They might call them “the Light that was God,” or “an angel,” or even say, “I spoke to God.” They may be told by this superior being that it is not “their time” yet; they must go back. They also may come back with a clearer idea of their purpose in this lifetime.
The MOON: You’re trained as a healthcare professional. I wonder how you respond to the controversy that has surrounded, for example, Dr. Eben Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven, which several reporters have “debunked.”