Did she see the light?


Near-death experiences, phenomena that cross national, gender, age and religious lines, are a subject of great fascination to many here and around the world. The Amazon.com website has 15,908 possible links for books, starting with the “Big Book of Near-Death Experiences.” Little wonder if, as the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) says on its website, studies in the United States, Australia and Germany appear to suggest four to fifteen percent of the general population has had an NDE.

In the webpages on “key facts” about NDE’s an IANDS writer comments:

Whether happening “truly near death’ or under benign circumstances, the near-death experience contains powerful images and emotions, usually of peace and love though sometimes terror, despair, guilt. An NDE may include an out-of-body experience and vivid perceptions of movement, light, darkness; encounters with deceased loved ones, unfamiliar entities and/or spiritual presences; sometimes a life review, a landscape, a sense of overpowering knowledge and purpose. The aftereffects of an NDE or related experience are enduring, often powerful, and may be life-altering.

The NDE belongs to a larger family of experiences that go beyond the usual limits of space and time and can transform a person’s life and beliefs. They may be called spiritually transformative, conversion, mystical, religious, or transpersonal experiences.

(Italics mine)

As hard as scientists are working to reduce them to a series of logical phenomena, those reporting on near-death experiences seem to have a responsibility to allow for voices that provide religious explanations. What else can one ask of a spiritual experience than that it include spiritual beings, some kind of judgement about one’s life, divine/spiritual beings, and perhaps meeting loved ones who have gone?

But one of the logical fallacies of our day is scientism — the belief that a scientific explanation trumps all other ones. And reporters, given that they depend so heavily on “facts,” are prone to rely on the scientific hypotheses, without providing readers alternate view. In a phenomena which clearly has psychological and spiritual facets, that kind of journalism seems inadequate at best and biased at worst.

One example: a recent story submitted by a reader from the CNN.com website. “Doctor says near-death experiences are in the mind” the headline tells readers. But instead of providing alternative perspectives, the story, by CNN Senior Medical Producer Saundra Young, focuses on the medical and scientific angles, with only the voices of the survivor and a lone doctor providing contrast.

Young leads off with the story of NDE-survivor Laura Geraghty, a school bus driver in suburban Boston. So what exactly happened to her? Dr. Kevin Nelson, a neurologist, has an explanation: it’s all in Geraghty’s head.

“These are real experiences. And they’re experiences that happen at a time of medical crisis and danger,” Nelson said.

Humans have a lot of reflexes that help keep us alive, part of the “fight or flight” response that arises when we’re confronted with danger.

Nelson thinks that near-death experiences are part of the dream mechanism and that the person having the experience is in a REM, or “rapid eye movement,” state.

“Part of our ‘fight or flight’ reflexes to keep us alive includes the switch into the REM state of consciousness,” he said.

During REM sleep, there is increased brain activity and visual stimulation. Intense dreaming occurs as a result.

And the bright light so many people claim to see?

“The activation of the visual system caused by REM is causing the bright lights,” Nelson said.

And really, that’s the only explanation offered. What can Geraghty say to refute what is so clearly obvious? Clearly, the only one who can dispute another doctor is a doctor — and happpily Saunders quotes Dr. Bill O’Callahan, the ER doctor who helped bring Geraghty back to life.

This is tricky territory. Since NDE’s don’t appear to happen to particular faith groups, it’s hard for spiritual leaders to either claim or dispute them. Because we don’t know what they mean, do we? And yet there are probably many theologians, and certainly many New Age practitioners, who could add another facet to the dialogue.

Given the writer’s perspective, the ending of this article really doesn’t surprise me.

Geraghty says she became depressed once she left the hospital because her perspective on her entire life changed. She still gets depressed, she says, and is on medication.

“I actually went to my doctor and said to her, ‘I think I’m losing my mind. This can’t be really happening,’ you know, and she said it’s OK, it’s very hard to understand when you’ve been through an experience like that.”

Geraghty has joined the cardiac arrest group, hoping that connecting with others who understand what she’s been through will allow her to come to terms with what happened to her that cool spring day six months ago. And allow her to heal and move on.

Of course she needs to “heal and move on” — because, after all, there is no other alternative. Or if there is, we don’t hear about it. In an age in which everything will eventually be explained, science rules.

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  • Martha

    Oookay – so can anyone explain to me how, when in a life-threatening situation where the choice is between running for your life or fighting for it, *falling asleep* helps?

    I presume that there is some difference between REM consciousness and REM sleep, otherwise that is a very silly thing to say, doctor.

    And if what the doctor is saying boils down to “When we’re in a ticklish spot, we perk up and start looking around us for any means of escape” – well, this is more of “research tells us grass is green” newspaper science, isn’t it?

  • Julia

    Sometimes the fight or flight response puts a person into hightened alertness but a sense of withdrawing from the body just to get through the crisis. It’s called “de-personalization” and is often reported by people in horrible accidents or experiencing some kind of assault that they can’t prevent or witness some such event.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the afteraffects of a Near Death Experience is something like Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. What the doctor describes as “falling asleep” may be related to “de-personalization”. Perhaps they both involve REM activity in the brain.

    Perhaps a compassionate God is behind this process. It would be interesting to hear a religious take on these processes.

  • Barbara

    It should come as no surprise that as physical beings our experiences, physical OR spiritual, have some sort of physical component. How else would we experience themEven if there were an ironclad “biological” explanation–and this doesn’t look like one to me–so what? The good doc makes the mistake of mistaking correlation for explanantion….

  • Jerry

    There are some scientists that are approaching NDEs and OBEs with some objectivity. For example there was this recent story: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1057506/Scientists-uncover-truth-body-experiences.html

    During the three-year investigation, doctors will place pictures on shelves high up in hospital rooms so that they can be seen only from above. If any patients recall the images, it would be the first hard proof that out-of-body experiences are real

  • Ingemar

    I’ve always detected a hint of subtle antireligious bias in these explanations of near death experiences. In fact, the attitude of many non religious people is to dismiss the experiential and subjective completely out of hand.

    So what if there is a physical explanation for the NDE, as Barabara mentioned? Just because such an explanation exists doesn’t mean that the spiritual doesn’t exist.

  • Dave

    studies [...] suggest four to fifteen of the general population has had an NDE.

    I assume that was meant to be four to fifteen percent of the population? ;-)

    This is never going to be resolved. It’s like the studies that religious experience is a natural product of the healthy human brain; do they prove the existence of God, or that religion is “all in your head?”

    • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

      Right you are, Dave. I’ll make that correction.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    As a doc, the “medical” explanations may not be scientific.

    NDE can occur in hypoxic brains (which lack oxygen) or in times of danger (e.g. the recent report on that plane that landed in the Hudson, many people had NDE’s or “life review” experiences).

    Physiologically these things don’t match. In one, you have a brain with drugs and lack of oxygen. In the other, merely stress hormones, which are probably at the same level as any other stressful incident.

    And then there are recent reports that the brain “lights up” with activity at the time of death. Is the report true? And if so, why?

  • Endoplasmic Messenger

    > If any patients recall the images, it would be the first
    > hard proof that out-of-body experiences are real

    First hard proof?

    I recall an incident where a woman was subject to a rare procedure which involved draining her body of blood, causing her brain activity to cease. (This is covered in “The Spiritual Brain” among other places.) Amazingly, even though her brain was not active at the time, she had consciousness (NDE) during the procedure and remembered many details of the equipment and the procedure.

    Since her brain was not active, I doubt she was having any possible variation of REM or Fight or Flight response.

    On thing that materialist scientists are sure to do: ignore any evidence which challenges their world view.

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