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Published: Jun.21.2016

Fight AND Flight: Toward a Psychodynamic Model of Near-death Experiences
Renaud Evrard*1 , Chloé Toutain2 , & Jacob W. Glazier3

1. University of Lorraine, Nancy, France
2. University of Strasbourg, Strasbourg, France
3. University of West Georgia, Carrollton, GA, USA

Historically, NDEs have been the subject of several psychological or psychoanalytic interpretations. However, they are now in competition with neuroscientific and medical approaches. Since Heim’s first observations, NDEs were discussed in the general framework of clinical practice and trauma by philosophers such as Victor Egger and by psychoanalysts such as Oskar Pfister and Sandor Ferenczi. Surprisingly, until the work of Russell Noyes and his collaborators in the 1970s, the findings focused on elements that were no longer phenomenologically in line with Moody’s work. OBE, panoramic memory, elation, and transcendental elements were in fact narrated by a portion of the experiments; yet, a majority claimed to have first felt a form of hyper-alertness and automatism and to have been capable of acrobatic and intellectual performances thereby facilitating their own life-saving rescue efforts. Heim’s own testimony describes such efforts. In an attempt to build a psychodynamic model to reconcile these different aspects without falling into a form of reductionism, we begin with a diachronic exploration of the literature regarding the rescue actions during NDE. This process indicates both the traditional description of passing into a disembodied consciousness while, simultaneously, encountering a new concept we call hyper-embodied consciousness. Noyes et al. interpreted this process as an almost universal reaction to life-threatening danger and a basic adaptive pattern of the nervous system akin to Cannon’s fightor-flight reactions. To integrate their ideas in a new psychodynamic model, the second part of this article discusses in a synchronic axis both old and new literature on NDEs, focusing on several conceptual issues: the psychological versus biological triggers of NDEs, the notion of “Fear-Death Experiences”; the description of the disjunction between a disembodied and a hyper-embodied consciousness; the complementarity of the processes of focalization (“fight”) and “distanciation” (“flight”) through the contribution of the Bergsonian theory of the body-mind relationship; and the psychodynamic functions and nature of the survival scenario experienced through the “distanciation”. We propose to reconsider the NDEs as part of a more general process: an adaptive psychosomatic response to the perception of imminent death, while discussing a case of drowning.