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Patients near death see visions of hell
By Robert Matthews, Science Correspondent


TERRIFYING accounts of gravely ill people who claim to have been dragged to the gates of hell by demons are to be studied scientifically for the first time by a British psychologist.

The existence of so-called Near Death Experiences (NDEs), in which dying people report having mystical sensations before being resuscitated, is now widely accepted by doctors and scientists. Their cause is unknown, but they typically involve a feeling of deep peace, followed by a sensation of floating up through a tunnel towards a bright light and into a beautiful kingdom.

But it is now becoming clear that for some people, NDEs are far from blissful. Instead of a feeling of floating upwards, they report being pulled downwards - towards a pit inhabited by demons.

The experiences of Evelyn Hazell, a London-based art historian, as she fought for life against meningitis, are typical. "I had reached a critical stage in the illness and was hovering between life and death - I was aware of being involved in an intense and very real struggle for my life," she told The Telegraph. "A three-legged being - rather like the Isle of Man symbol - was pulling both my legs down to infinite depths. I knew without doubt that if I relaxed and gave in I would be dead. I believe this struggle went on for some considerable time and I eventually managed to break away from whatever it was pulling me down."

Mrs Hazell went on to make a full recovery, but she has never forgotten her terrifying ordeal at the very threshold of death. "I do not believe it was a dream or hallucination. In every way I was lucid - I was just terribly ill. If nothing else, it did prove to me that in certain situations refusing to fight an illness will lead to death."

A similar experience continues to haunt Jane, a woman who fought for life after a miscarriage. "It was an awful feeling - like I was going down a big hole and I couldn't get up. I was going into this big pit. I was going further and further down, and trying to claw my way back up and kept slipping.".

Similar accounts are now being studied by a psychologist at Coventry University, who plans to use science to probe the nature of "negative NDEs". According to Tony Lawrence, lecturer in psychology at the university, research so far suggests that there are two basic types of negative NDEs.

"Some describe a kind of void - an absence of experience, a feeling that there really is nothing at all after life," said Mr Lawrence. "But there are also NDEs that are obviously very negative. They often involve a feeling of being dragged down into a pit, rather than a tunnel, and sometimes have demons involved. What little research has been done on them makes fairly clear that these 'hellish' experiences are very rare. What I am hoping to do is to find as many people as possible who have had negative NDEs and see if any consistent picture emerges which may explain their cause."

Over the years, various explanations have been put forward for the positive variety of NDEs, ranging from the effects of medication to the lack of oxygen reaching the brain in its final moments. Such explanations fail to explain, however, the consistency of the experience: hallucinations brought on by drugs or anoxia are typically completely random and senseless. Harder still to understand are reports of NDEs from hospital patients whose ECG traces became completely flat during resuscitation - showing that there was no activity in their brain.

The eerie parallels between the reports of NDEs and traditional views of heaven and hell also defy simple explanation, said Mr Lawrence. Attempts to dismiss the images as nothing more than cultural memories do not stand up. "In fact there seems to be a general lack of cultural factors determining the content of these experiences. People from many different cultures will describe meeting a figure of light. They don't meet Jesus or Vishnu or Buddha - although afterwards they may sometimes describe what they saw in that way. The cultural influences only seem to emerge in the interpretation of what was seen, not in the basic experience itself."

One comforting finding to emerge from the few cases Mr Lawrence has tracked down is a lack of any link between negative NDEs and a misspent life. He said: "There are no obvious reasons why these people have had their experiences - certainly they are not obvious sinners."

The outcome of the negative NDEs project is likely to generate considerable discussion in religious circles, however. "Our present state of knowledge about these experiences is too slight to decide whether they are objective or subjective," said Tom Horwood, spokesman for the Catholic Church in England and Wales. "But the Church would view any research done into them with considerable interest."

Readers who have had Near-Death Experiences - negative or positive - are invited to write in confidence to Tony Lawrence at the School of Health and Social Sciences, Coventry University, Priory Street, Coventry CV1 5FB.