Seeing Is (Not Necessarily) Believing
An essay by Joshua T. Calkins-Treworgy
Author of “The Big Tour”
A commonplace near-death experience that seems to share almost universal ties to people who have been on the brink of death, or by those who have been clinically dead and revived, goes pretty much as follows: they felt themselves become weightless, saw may events from their lives replay in snapshot format before their mind’s eye, and/or saw a piercing white light radiating a sense of peace or warmth, sometimes both.
Author Mark Swaine of the “Legend of the Red Sun Village” might offer that this is just the heat of Purgatory rising up to lull the soul into a false sense of security. Terry Pratchett, when alive, might have quipped that one should check for U-turn signs back to the host body, because Discworld’s great creator just had a sense of humor like that, and God loves him for it. Regardless of how many people have shared this phenomenon, it is easily dismissed by neuro-chemists and neurobiologists as a chemical/electrical signal sent off by the brain to relax the body when it sees that current physiological realities are unwinnable and uncontestable.
Dr. Jacob Green of Saint Francis Hospital in Shakopee, Minnesota, once explained to me that this is how half the tranquilizers used in emergency psychiatric situations work; one half is an actual chemical ‘chill pill’, if you will, while the other half of the equation relies on the recipient believing that it will work. “It’s 50% medicine, 50% placebo”, he said to me. Now, that’s not the doc’s real name, and I won’t give out his real name because he did me a solid in even answering my question, which was, “How will this work?” Without getting into too many details, I was being treated for a psychotic break, and was having a solid lucid moment, and felt it best to be curious rather than combative at the moment.
But that evening has led me, since then, to wonder about the ‘Near-Death Hallucination’, as it has been dubbed in neurobiology. Literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of people in the last couple of centuries have documented these moments through journals, diaries, interviews and the like, people who didn’t know each other, never heard one another’s accounts. Given the amount of separation there, how can the phenomenon share so many consistent aspects from one telling to the next without some grain of truth buried deep within it?
A neurobiological explanation seems like it would be the most universal and accessible explanation, though for obvious reasons, we can’t very well recreate the conditions of a near-death experience in order to test and measure these things; we aren’t CIA operatives questioning detainees, so nobody’s going to just give us the ol’ green light on pushing people to the brink of death just to get some observations recorded for later use. What we can clearly identify is that the experience has been reported by people from a wide range of faiths, heritages, and walks of life.
So where do we go when someone has such an experience and attributes their survival to divine intervention? I imagine several of my fellow Howard Bloom Institute contributors would want to quickly discourage any such immediate leap of faith. I, however, being a man of some moderate faith on a personal level, would take a tempered approach by posing a set of gentle but investigative questions, which I’ll get into just a little bit now.
Question 1) Were you a person of faith prior to the near-death experience? In the event the person was already inclined or fully involved in a life of religious attitudes and behaviors prior to the incident, such a ‘saving grace’ moment is likely to further cement their belief structure. They may look on their life experience and either say to themselves, ‘Oh my, I haven’t been a very good person of Faith X, but God has given me another chance to mend my ways, so I must adhere more stringently to those expectations’, or they’ll say, ‘Oh my, I’ve been rewarded for living a righteous/pious life as laid out by Faith X, I must never stray from this path in order to thank Deity X for giving me this glorious and miraculous reprieve!’ Reader, if you are a person of faith, do not take this as any kind of personal jab at you or your religion; as I indicated before, I have a certain queer relationship with pantheism myself, and was raised Irish Catholic, so I’m banging on my own worldview here just as much as yours.
If the subject wasn’t a person of faith, I would then move on to Question 2.
Question 2) How familiar are you with faith-based ideas of the afterlife? Cultural familiarity and enforcement of such belief systems, especially if one lives in an area of dense spiritual attenuation and adherence within the greater community, can easily affect the near-death victim, since they are already surrounded by these concepts in their day-to-day lives. It’s sort of like picking up slang when you don’t initially use the terms yourself; you just sort of come to understand the terms by virtue of hearing them used repeatedly, and end up using context clues to give them significance and definition.
Question 3) Do you know of Jung’s ‘Collective Subconscious’?
Now, this is where I get into some foggy terrain, but I’ve got a lantern to help you follow me through. Don’t worry, I’m no great expert myself, so I’ll be sticking to well-trod paths. At its core, Jung’s theory of the collective subconscious posits that there is a vast database of knowledge, experiences and images that all humankind has, as a species, ‘deposited’ into, and which we as individuals from time to time involuntarily or unconsciously ‘withdraw’ from. It is this pooled experience with which the famed psychoanalyst tried to explain the phenomena of ‘déjà vu’ and ‘synchronicity’.
Through the balance of most known human history, we have adhered to various religious faiths, folklores, and superstitious practices. The sheer volume of rites and rituals or beliefs that have been largely forgotten to the ravages of time likely far outstrips the current known volume of present-day religions, and I suspect that I can safely assume that those forgotten systems, though they are long gone, nevertheless left some minor mark on our world as it moved forward. Likewise, if Jung was correct, then we have legends and myths about the Hereafter and what getting close to it are like for all of known and unknown human history, to include those forgotten systems of belief. If the ‘deposits’ were made into the collective subconscious, they don’t just go away permanently; they wait far off in the unseen stretches of that pool of experience, just waiting to be inadvertently ‘withdrawn’.
We know full well that neuroelectric activity sparks off during physiological stress and the dying process. Who among us can say with absolute certainty that the human mind doesn’t tap into that collective database during the near-death state? We have about as much empirical evidence for that as we do for genuine ascension to Heaven or descent into Hell, or the odd side stepping into Purgatory. Yet without being able to prove a negative, how can we say with absolute certainty? It’s fun to wonder and prod, regardless, is it not?
As I said before, we can’t yet design an ethical experiment wherein we willingly and knowingly put someone in a near-death state in order to map and study brainwave activity. The closest we can come is working a volunteer into a hypnagogic state, and from there, to probe as close to the area as possible before the survival instinct, as it always does, overrides the hypnotic carrying out of orders and suggestions. Given the ample body of accounts we have to date, one thing is rendered clear, however; the near-death experience is one that transcends language, ethnicity, heritage, and historical period. The only true shortcoming we suffer for now is the ‘how’ of the data’s reporting.
Perhaps some day, with the advancement of technology, we will learn more about this shared, universal experience. With any grace, nobody will have to go beyond “near”-death to find out.