COVID-19, Near-Death Experiences, and Boris Johnson
Can a close brush with death really change a man?
Posted May 03, 2020
‘A tough old moment’ is how the British prime minister described it. He was desperately ill in hospital with COVID-19 and the medical staff were ready to put him on a ventilator, and even considering how to announce his death. He says he didn’t actually believe he was going to die but he got close, very close.
Would we expect this to change a man? Could he have been changed by this confrontation with death? Yes. Most near-death research concentrates on the classic ‘near-death experience’ (NDE), with tunnels, lights, out-of-body experiences, and very occasionally a ‘life review’ – as though your whole life is flashing before your eyes. People who survive such experiences often report profound changes in their personality, preferences and – above all – their motivations. Stories abound of people who lost interest in earning as much money as possible and changed direction. Here’s an example from Raymond Moody’s original ground-breaking 1975 book Life After Life.
It was a blessing in a way, because before that heart attack I was too busy planning for my children’s future, and worrying about yesterday, that I was losing the joys of the present. I have a much different attitude now. (Moody 1975 p 91)
Right from the start of NDE research, it was clear that people’s lives could be changed forever. In Transformed by the Light Melvin Morse (1992), best known for descriptions of NDEs in children, describes how those who return from the brink of death live healthier and happier lives, have stronger family ties, better relationships, give more money to charity and, above all, lose their fear of death. Other research has found that concern for others increases (Flynn 1982) and motivations, values and conduct change (Ring 1980). More recently, Dutch researcher Pim Van Lommel (2013) found similar changes, concluding that NDErs gain more interest in spirituality, greater acceptance of and love for themselves and others, and less interest in possessions and power.
But Boris did not have an NDE — as far as we know — or describe tunnels or out-of-body experiences, so would we still expect him to be changed after his traumatic brush with death? Yes again.
Back in the 1990s, when I was researching for my book Dying to Live (Blackmore 1993), I interviewed many patients from our local hospital in Bristol. One woman’s husband remembered nothing from a medical crisis following a burst artery. Yet both their lives were changed.
Certainly I did not have a NDE — the most life threatening thing I did was to drink hospital coffee. Yet both of us found that the experience had a profound and lasting effect … coming very close to dying also shakes the very foundation of your existence.
NDE researcher Kenneth Ring compared people who did, and did not, have an NDE when they came close to death, and found that both reported changes including enhanced sense of purpose, appreciation for life, and empathy for others. One woman who reported no NDE after nearly being killed in a car explosion said:
My priorities have definitely changed … it suddenly made me realize that nothing is important unless you have people around you that you love … I just feel that I have a greater appreciation of being here. (Ring 1980 p 142)
Ring had just collected cases; his was not a prospective study with matched groups, but later studies were. For example, Van Lommel and his colleagues (2001) used Ring’s (1984) inventory of life-change questions and found that people’s motivations changed and their interest in nature and involvement in family life increased whether they had had an NDE or not.
Such changes are often noticed by others too.
Following this experience, it almost seemed as if I were filled with a new spirit. Since then, many have remarked to me that I seem to have almost a calming effect on them, instantly, when they are troubled. And it seems that I am more in tune with people now (Moody 1975 p 92).
What causes these profound changes in people’s lives? There are two main possibilities. One is that it’s a natural psychological response to realising one’s own mortality. The other is that the brain has been physically changed by whatever caused the close brush with death. For example, in a heart attack, when blood oxygen levels in the brain fall quickly, neurons may be damaged or destroyed. With the novel coronavirus we would not expect such sudden falls in oxygen. Yet the damage to the lungs and the consequent inability to breathe properly will certainly reduce oxygen levels in the brain and this might have longer lasting consequences. We simply do not know the answer to this question.
So, has anyone noticed a change in Boris? They have. David Wooding, political editor of the Sun newspaper, wrote
Over the years, I’ve met or interviewed Boris Johnson many times — but this meeting was like no other. Not only were we forced to sit far apart for social distancing, but it’s clear his brush with death has left him a changed man. His trademark bounce and optimism are still much in evidence. But he has emerged from the life-changing events of the past few weeks as a much more complex figure. … Boris 2.0 is a man who no longer feels the need to play to the crowd.
In a radio interview, Wooding added that “I saw for the first time in this interview a glimmer of real emotion.” Apparently, Boris stressed his sympathy for those with the virus, “if you ask me, ‘Am I driven by a desire to stop other people suffering?’ Yes, I absolutely am.” Though he did go on to stress his concern for the economy as well.
Maybe these changes will be ephemeral but maybe not. Van Lommel and his colleagues (2001) interviewed their near-death survivors two and eight years after their brush with death and found the changes were long-lasting. All of us are being changed by the new virus and our changed rules for living in lockdown, but maybe those who have been so ill and survived may experience even more profound changes. And from what the research tells us, I would say they are changes for the better.
Blackmore, S. 1993 Dying to Live: Science and the near-death experience, London, Grafton.
Blackmore, S. 2017 Seeing Myself: The new science of out-of-body experiences, London, Robinson
Flynn, C. P. 1982 Meanings and implications of NDEr transformations: some preliminary findings and implications. Anabiosis: The Journal of Near-Death Studies, 2, 3-13
Moody, R.A. 1975 Life after Life Atlanta, Ga, Mockingbird.
Morse, M. 1990 Closer to the Light London, Souvenir
Ring, K. 1980 Life at Death: A scientific investigation of the Near-Death Experience New York, Coward, McCann and Geoghegan
Ring, K. 1984 Heading toward Omega : In Search of the Meaning of the Near-Death Experience, New York, Quill
van Lommel, P. 2013. Non-local Consciousness A Concept Based on Scientific Research on Near-Death Experiences During Cardiac Arrest. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 20(1-2), 7-48
Van Lommel, P., van Wees, R., Meyers, V., & Elfferich, I. 2001. Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. The Lancet, 358(9298), 2039-2045
Wooding, D. 2020 Boris’ Covid Hell, The Sun, 3 May 2020