Dr. Yvonne Kason is a retired family physician and was an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Toronto for 27 years. She is an internationally recognized expert on near-death experiences, and is the author of a recent book entitled Farther Shores: Exploring How Near-Death, Kundalini, and Mystical Experiences Can Transform Ordinary Lives. (Kundalini is a psycho-spiritual energy believed to reside in a sleeping body.)

The Varsity: What is a near-death experience?

Dr. Kason: A near-death experience is a mystical and/or out of body experience that frequently happens to people when they are near death. It can happen to people when they are both physically near death (i.e., clinically dead) and also when they are psychologically near-death. For instance, if a person is in a dangerous situation and thinks they are going to die, but in the last minute nothing happens to them, they can also still have a near-death experience.

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TV: What are some of the hallmarks of a near-death experience?

DK: Research has suggested that there are about 15 characteristic features of a near-death experience, but on average, a near-death experience will have around seven features.

The most frequent symptom is a feeling of peace and calm. For instance, even though a person is about to die and is afraid, with the beginning of the near-death experience, there is an immediate feeling of calmness. Another common feature is leaving the body, which can be experienced through either moving through a tunnel or simply finding yourself outside of your body, looking down and witnessing what is happening around you. People can also experience a life review, where one very rapidly recalls a peak event or key incidences in one’s life. There is also commonly an experience of being enveloped in a soft, white light. In this place, people report being filled with a feeling of unconditional love. Within this light, people also report seeing deceased loved ones, angelic beings, or religious figures, all of whom explain what has happened to them. Finally, there is usually a very abrupt return to the body and a very strong conviction of the reality of the experience.

TV: Are there any long-term effects of having a near-death experience?

DK: Unlike hallucinations or dreams, the impact of near-death experiences seem to be permanent, ongoing, and transformative. Firstly, it tends to make people lose their fear of death and convinces them they will exist in spirit following the death of their physical body. This is generally the case even if such beliefs are totally outside the individual’s belief system before the near-death experience. There is also usually a psychological maturation following a near-death experience. For instance, people can quit drinking and stop doing drugs. People’s spiritual lives are also significantly shifted as well, promoting a more spiritually focused lifestyle. For example, an atheist may become a pastor. If a person is religious before the experience, his or her religious views tend to become less dogmatic, shifting toward a belief in God.

The research literature has also suggested that the degree to which a near-death experience is transformative is dependent on whether the person experiences the loving light. Near-death experiences without the loving light do not necessarily lead to transformation.

TV: How did you become interested in this subject?

DK: I became interested in the subject based on my own personal experiences. When I was a resident here at the University of Toronto, I was assigned to Sioux Lookout [a small town in northern Ontario] as part of my medical training. I performed a medical evacuation of a native Indian by airplane, and the airplane crashed, and in that airplane crash I had a white light near-death experience. After I recovered, I wanted to discover what happened to me.

Also, once I started talking at both medical conferences and public events about near-death experiences and the fact that I had one, my medical practice became flooded with people coming from all over who wanted to see me as a doctor, to tell me about various types of experiences—not just near-death experiences, but also kundalini and mystical types of experiences. People were searching for a doctor who had some sort of understanding and could help them integrate what they were experiencing. This is what drove me to specialize in this area, and it became the focus of my medical career.

TV: What sort of research have you been involved with in relation to near-death experiences?

DK: I did a project with a clinic that I helped coordinate called the Spiritual Emergence Research and Referral Clinic, where we collected case histories of the patients that were coming to me and to a few other doctors who had advertised that we would counsel patients with any of these diverse experiences. It was very basic research because it was really a new foray into an emerging field. The second research project I worked on was with the Kundalini Research Network where I was the chair of the questionnaire project where we collected over 600 case histories from people around the world who had been experiencing kundalini and/or near-death experiences.

TV: How did the academic and medical community respond to you and your colleagues’ research?

DK: I have a two-pronged response. The first response is advice I got from a very senior person in the Faculty of Medicine, which was “do research.” He said as long as you are doing research, it does not matter the topic and that it was legitimate within the practice of medicine.

The second response from the medical community was fairly positive because I always tried to present a grounded perspective, based on clinical experience and the literature. During the ’90s there was no information about near-death experiences in the medical curriculum. When I started talking at conferences during this time, I had several doctors tell me after how grateful they were because they later ended up having patients who described near-death experiences, and because of my talk, felt qualified to diagnose them as such. The reception was lukewarm positive!

TV: Many contemporary theories suggest near-death experiences are hallucinations that are by-products of a malfunctioning or dying brain. Do these theories satisfactorily explain the near-death experience?

DK: No, it does not support the research. I say this because it is very clearly documented that people can have experiences very similar to a near-death experience, or even a full-blown near-death experience, when nothing has happened to their body—so their brain is not in the least bit dying.

I will give you a story a Vietnam veteran told me. He was a soldier, and in one particular battle, a grenade landed right in front of him and he was absolutely certain he was going to die. When he saw the grenade land, all of a sudden he went out of body, he expanded, he went into a life review, and he was seeing the tunnel with the light, and all of a sudden he was back in his body. The grenade malfunctioned and did not go off. I have had similar stories from other war veterans as well. Nothing is physically wrong with these people, yet they still have full-blown near-death experiences. It does not make sense that near-death experiences are due to chemical imbalances of a dying brain.

TV: Is there evidence to suggest individuals actually leave their body upon experiencing a near-death experience?

DK: Yes. There is good research evidence by Kenneth Ring. He had people who had near-death experiences write down what they had observed was happening in the room when they were out of body. For instance, one woman noticed a shoe hiding above a large lamp in an emergency room. The shoe was completely unobservable from the ground. When the lady was resuscitated and later asked by Ken Ring to describe what she had seen, she off-handedly mentioned the shoe and what it looked like. The shoe was found, just as she had said. That was one of the cases Ken presents to support as to whether we could get confirmation of what people observe while out of the body.

More information on near-death experiences and Dr. Kason’s research is available at farthershores.com and the International Association for Near-Death Studies at iands.org.