Near Death Experience Handbook (8):THe sceptic's view of the NDE

PureInsight | January 5, 2001

While many people who have had NDEs are totally convinced about what has happened to them and the transformations that have occurred in their lives, many sceptics are convinced that the whole experience has nothing to do with life after death, or God, or infinity, but is explicable in simple mechanistic, that is, neurological terms.
Thus Dr Robert Buckman views the sense of peace and tranquility in an NDE as being caused by substances produced in the brain called endorphins, which are somewhat like painkillers. The nineteenth century explorer, David Livingstone, felt calm, peaceful and painless whilst being crushed across the chest in a lion's jaws. It led him to believe that 'death agonies' may appear so to the onlooker, but may be experienced differently by the patient, protected by a bodily defence mechanism switched on at the approach of death.

Dr Susan Blackmore, a Bristol University psychologist, explains the common NDE vision of a long tunnel with a bright light at the end, as the retina at the back of the eye becoming starved of oxygen, with nerve cells beginning to fire at random. There are more nerve cells in the most sensitive part, the fovea, so a bright spot that looks like the end of a tunnel is seen.

Her explanation is linked to the most common physiological explanation for NDEs, which is that the brain is in receipt of insufficient oxygen (cerebral anoxia). Or that NDEs are the result of temporal lobe seizure. This can produce similar effects to those of some NDEs, without necessarily accounting for the complete range of near-death phenomena. Whereas temporal lobe seizure causes distorted perceptions of the immediate environment, this is not always the case with NDEs.

Whatever the truth of the matter, to know that nature has evolved a way of allowing dying humans to feel blissful can only be reasssuring, even for the sceptic who dismisses the visions and feelings as delusionary. It is also reassuring to know that the term 'Near-Death Experience' is in some cases a misnomer - as we have seen, the same, or a seemingly almost identical, experience is accessed by people during 'peak' experiences, by mystics and by others who have not as yet suffered physical harm - such as those falling from a mountain or bridge, who have their NDE before even hitting the ground, when they have been no more damaged than a free-fall parachutist. The difference between the person falling from the mountain and the parachutist is one of expectation of harm and thus degree of shock; and this seems the essence of many experiences of heightened consciousness. The trigger is any severe jolt to our normal consciousness, whether or not physically damaging, which brings about a complete change of perspective and releases us into a world of rich and strange magic.

In the end it comes down to a choice. Do you see consciousness as being contained and confined to the brain? For William James, Ferdinand Schiller and Henri Bergson, for instance, the brain was merely the transmitter of consciousness, necessary for our personal experiencing of consciousness but not its source, just as a radio set is necessary for the reception of programmes but is not their origin:

The brain a transmitter of consciousness not its source
James asked his audience what type of function the brain performed. Does it produce thought, or transmit it? Most, if not all, the major organs of the body are transmitters. The lung takes in air and transmits its nutrients to the rest of the body. There is, therefore, nothing unusual about organs that absorb and transmit; the difficulty would rather be to find an organ which, in any perfect sense, produces. The body neither manufactures the air it breathes nor the food it eats. If we do not manufacture what we eat or what we breathe, why assume that we manufacture, rather than regulate, what we think?
This transmission theory of the brain has the advantage that it solves problems, rather than creating them. The problem of the inrushes experienced in some mental illness, the problem of psychic phenomena and the problem of pure randomness in neo-Darwinism are real difficulties for the scientific world view.

This theory proposes a natural force of intelligence, which is perhaps received and transmitted by the brain, and also influences evolution in the direction of survival. That would restore purpose to nature, but it would also make possible, as James argued, the concept of human survival after death.

From an article by William Rees-Mogg in The Independent (July 29th 1991).

Of all the NDEs in this chapter, the one that most convincingly goes beyond a simply and solely neurological explanation is Professor Wren-Lewis's story of eating a poisoned sweet in Thailand. Among the more unusual elements in his NDE are that it is still continuing - he can switch back into it by mentally re-focusing on it at any time; that he used a dream-remembering technique - one that seems to help in recapturing the fullness of the NDE on first regaining consciousness; and lastly, that he experienced not the usual white light but rather a black darkness, albeit a radiant one. Here is his eloquent testimony:

The reluctant mystic - an NDE that didn't go away
I had spiritual consciousness thrust upon me in my sixtieth year without working for it, desiring it or even believing in it. The crucial event was a shattering, out-of-the-blue mystical experience in 1983 which, to the astonishment of everyone who knew me, and most of all myself, left me with a permanently changed consciousness, describable only in the kind of spiritual terms I had hitherto vehemently discounted as neurotic fantasy-language.
What happened in 1983 would nowadays be called a 'Near Death Experience', or NDE, though it differed in several notable ways from most of those I'd read about in the rapidly-growing literature on this topic (which I had, incidentally, dismissed as yet another manifestation of the mind's capacity for fantasy). In the first place, I had none of the dramatic visions which have hit the headlines in popular journalism and occupy a prominent place even in serious scholarly studies. As I lay in the hospital bed in Thailand after eating a poisoned sweet given me by a would-be-thief, I had no 'out-of-body' awareness of the doctors wondering if I was beyond saving, no review of my life, no passage down a dark tunnel to emerge into a heavenly light or landscape, and no encounter with angelic beings or deceased relatives telling me to go back because my work on earth wasn't yet finished.

I simply entered - or, rather, was - a timeless, spaceless void which in some indescribable way was total aliveness - an almost palpable blackness that was yet somehow radiant. Trying to find words for it afterwards, I recalled the mysterious line of Henry Vaughan's poem 'The Night':

'There is in God (some say) a deep but dazzling darkness.'

An even more marked difference from the general run of NDEs, however, was that I had absolutely no sense of regret or loss at the return into physical life. I lay on the bed, relaxed, and began to take myself back in imagination, in a series of steps, right to the point of coming round. 'Here I am, lying on this bed, with someone asking if I want supper; here I am, just before that, becoming aware of someone shaking my arm; here I am, before that again, with my eyes closed, and ...' Often this process brings back the dream one has forgotten, but what came back this time was nothing like a remembered dream. What came flooding back was an experience that in some extraordinary way had been with me ever since I came around without my realising it. It was if I'd come out of the deepest darkness I had ever known, which was somehow still right there behind my eyes.

What manifested was simply not the same 'me-experiencing-the-world' that I'd known before: it was 'Everything-that-is, experiencing itself through the bodymind called John lying in a hospital bed'. And the experience was indescribably wonderful. I now know exactly why the Book of Genesis says that God looked upon all that He had made - not just beautiful sunsets, but dreary hospital rooms and traumatised sixty-year-old bodies - and saw that it was very good.

What I am trying to describe is no vague feeling of 'good to be alive'. On the contrary, I no longer cared if John lived or ceased to be altogether, and the change of consciousness was so palpable that to begin with I repeatedly put my hand up to the back of my head, feeling exactly as if the doctors had removed the skull and exposed my brain somehow to the infinite blackness of space. Occasionally I still do so, for the new consciousness has remained with me ever since which is the third and most significant difference from what happens in the general run of NDEs, and also from the 'altered states' experienced with psychedelics.

There is in no sense a high from which I can come down. The sense of awe-ful wonder has at the same time a feeling of utter obviousness and ordinariness, as if the marvel of 'everything-coming-into-being-continuously-from-the-Great-Dark' were no more and no less than 'just the way things are'. From this perspective, the term altered state of consciousness would be a complete misnomer, for the state is one of simple normality. It seems, rather, as if my earlier state, so-called 'ordinary' human consciousness, represents the real alteration - a deviation from the plain norm, a kind of artificially blinkered or clouded condition wherein the bodymind has the absurd illusion that it is somehow a separate individual entity over against everything else.

In fact I now understand why mystics of all religions have likened the enlightenment-process to waking up from a dream.

As I was walking in the hot sun to the police station to report the poisoned sweet crime I was struck by the sense of loss that the Dark was missing, and my first thought then was: 'Ah, well, you've had the Vision - I suppose now you'll have to join the ranks of all those Seekers who spend their lives trying to attain Higher Consciousness.' And then, to my amazement, I suddenly saw it was all still there, just waiting, as it were, to be noticed the Dark behind my eyes and behind everything else, bringing again the perception that of course everything exists by emerging fresh-minted from the Dark now! and now! and now!, with a shout of joy yet also in absolute calm.

The NDE had evidently jerked me out of the so-called normal human state of chronic illusion-of-separateness, into a basic 'wakefulness', interrupted by spells of 'dozing off' - simply forgetting the Dark until the sense of something missing from life brings about instant re-awakening with no effort at all.

The key feature of God-consciousness as I know it from my own firsthand experience, is its quintessential ordinariness and obviousness - a feature actually emphasized by many mystics. I know from my own firsthand experience that God-consciousness doesn't abolish human appetites. When I'm in it I don't lose my taste for meat or wine or good company or humour or detective fiction - I actually enjoy them more than ever before. I don't cease to enjoy sexual feelings, nor do I see anything inherently dirty about money.

What the consciousness does bring is the cheerful equanimity of knowing that satisfaction doesn't depend on any of these special preferences of John's bodymind being met; it is inherent simply in being, in the Great Dark which is (in G.K. Chesterton's marvellous phrase) 'joy without a cause'.

Prof. John Wren-Lewis, 1/22 Cliffbrook Parade, Clovelly, NSW 2031, Australia. From a four page text in Social Inventions No. 23 - £3 from ISI, 20 Heber Road, London NW2 6AA.

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