NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES
GRASPING AT STRAWS TO SURVIVE –
Religion continues to search for solace in the 'gaps' of human
(Investigator 114, 2007 July)
A problem associated with "being human" is our
preference for "beliefs"
that confirm instinctive wishes. Unlike the lemming, species tend to
choose 'life' rather than 'death'; many individuals prefer to seize
upon any conceivable 'evidence' supporting belief in 'personal
survival' following death, rather than accept the 'grim'(?)
A 'comforting thought' for such people, as Harry Edwards suggests, is
"anything that appears to be evidence (of post-mortem survival)
is…welcomed and accepted by believers without question" ('Life after
death – fact or fiction?', Investigator 111, p 14).
The concept of a 'spirit', contained within the 'body', is found in the
cultures of almost all societies. Given that death and bodily
decomposition were universal everyday experiences in ancient
communities – only in today's Western world is human mortality
'obscured' in day-to-day life – it was hardly surprising the existence
of a 'non-material human essence' was hypothesized, probably the first
perceived 'evidence' of this being 'dream' experiences.
On waking, the dreamer was convinced of having temporarily 'left' his
sleeping body and entered 'another' realm. The dream provided the
hypothesized 'gateway' through which imagined 'angels' and/or 'demons'
came – appearing, communicating, even provoking 'inspired' writings
destined to become Holy Scripture.
The work of Sigmund Freud and his associates was the culmination
(rather than the 'origin'!) of later psychological interpretation,
replacing mystical explanations of 'dream meanings'. Subsequent
laboratory investigations by William Dement provided a more
physiological base and offered the phenomena a more scientific
explanation. The more laboratory-based explanations, although varying
in detail from one another, succeeded in destroying, for most people,
the earlier, more primitive 'mystical' basis of understanding. In
today's world the "dream" has ceased to be a 'gap' area in human
Other 'gaps' were eagerly sought. More recently a favourite
'unexplained' vacuum area has been the Out of Body Experience(OBE).
Some 10% of the population claim, at least once, to have had this
experience. Typically subjects report viewing the world from a location
'outside' their physical body; their "mind", "spirit", "centre of
consciousness" temporally moves elsewhere – usually "above" their
OBEs frequently take place at times of stress, sensory deprivation,
deep relaxation, or when the subject is allegedly 'close to death'.
Usually, recipients of the OBE assert being deeply affected, causing
them to change fundamental beliefs and attitudes. Experiences are
usually very brief; consistently, the world is vividly perceived,
everything appears "very real" – often there is awareness of 'distant'
events about which they could not possibly have known. All the
characteristics of a 'religious' experience! One is reminded of Abraham
Maslow's "peak experiences".
Research into apparitions 'at the moment of death', mediumistic
communication and other forms of 'evidence' supporting personal
survival continues, but not to the extent it did in the early days of
para-psychological research. However, Near Death Experiences (NDE)
reported by those close to death who none-the-less survive, remain an
area of 'hope' for those in search of evidence of post-mortem
NDErs typically feel peaceful, even joyful, often seeming to float or
rush quickly down a dark tunnel with a bright light at the end – a
light described as 'warm and friendly'; subjects often report feeling
"greeted" and encouraged to evaluate their life and its meaning. NDE
often accompanies an OBE.
So why are these such encouraging reports less vigorously pursued than
they were just a few years ago?
Firstly, significantly, it has been found a number of subjects of OBEs
seem readily able to learn to 'induce' these experiences at
Secondly, more-recent research has found that NDEs, first described in
detail by American physician Raymond Moody (1975), led to the discovery
of isolated cases confirming the experiences take a consistent form and
are independent of the cause of the close brush with death or the drugs
taken at the time. Numerous cases of identical 'symptoms' have been
reported by people who think they are about to die but, in fact, are
not, thus pointing to a 'psychological' explanation being more
Some researchers aspiring to make OBEs and NDEs 'evidence' for
"after-life", postulate a 'double' able to leave the body while
continuing with 'thinking' and 'acting' as an independent entity. The
'logic' of such a 'possibility' is in no way implied by the occurrence
of the experience itself. Even if, "under stress", the physical body
remains alive, often quite well, there is no reason to suppose it is no
longer responsible for the organized thought and consciousness
involved. The logic of the evidence is increasingly to seek the "other
body" as a psychological response to abnormal conditions. This
latest "mystical gap" is following its predecessors and fast 'leaving
the scene' as research continues!
Religious mystics determined not to accept the bitter reality of their
own eventual demise, continue to search for 'new straws' to clutch at.
Like Sisyphus of old theirs is a non-ending, frustrating and insoluble
endeavour. If they must cling to their superstitious 'after-life'
expectations, perhaps they could choose the "gaps" conjectured in
attempts to 'explain' "quantum physics" – an area where scientific
explanations are far less likely to be forthcoming in the immediate