Thanks to RabbitDawg for initiating this post. See his comment under “Swedenborg’s hell” for a full explanation of his question. In brief, having just read Chris Carter’s Science and Near Death Experience, RabbitDawg notes, “[I]t seems like Chris Carter is saying that Bruce Greyson, Ken Ring and you conducted a study and concluded that your NDE was a fairly common ‘type’ of NDE that can be brought on by nitrous oxide, when given to women undergoing a difficult childbirth. In other words, the specifics of what is experienced during this type of NDE is governed by the anesthesia. It also seems to imply that this type of NDE is not a ‘true’ Near Death Experience, and is little more than ‘a bad trip.'”
Here’s my response:
First, I’m pleased to see that Chris Carter, in Science and Near Death Experience, lists three types of disturbing NDEs, as they are those that Bruce Greyson and I identified in 1992 in what is, so far as I am aware, the only actual attempt at a descriptive study specifically about these types of experience. We had numbered them differently, in order of their frequency in our study: 1) Inverted (Ken Ring’s term); 2) Meaningless Void; and 3) Hellish.
Bruce and I did the study, the collection of data for which took ten years; Ken Ring commented on it after its publication in the journal Psychiatry. In today’s terms, it can hardly be termed a “research” study, because of our minimal attention to statistical and even systematic demographic information. The enormous pressures of shame, fear, cultural prejudice, and psychological trauma kept most individuals with frightening experiences tightly closeted at that time (as many are still); they tended to disappear immediately and permanently after sharing an experience account, leaving data collection in considerable disarray (so many unreturned questionnaires and phone calls!) However, the study provides the only first-generation (after Moody) description and initial analysis of fifty disturbing NDEs.
The original article included four accounts related directly or indirectly to childbirth under anesthesia, assumedly nitrous oxide. One is a Type #1, inverted account, the others are Type #2, the Void; another Type #2 account quoted in the article occurred with no known drug involvement during an auto accident. From the original study’s sample and accounts gathered in the years since, it is safe to say that childbirth—especially childbirth under nitrous oxide—seems productive of NDEs. It is by no means the only precipitant.
Further, anesthesia is not the only factor, by any means, associated with experiences of the Void. As Ring himself first said, being close to death is a reliable trigger for NDEs; it does not constitute not the sole meaning or determinant. Ditto, I believe, for both childbirth and anesthesia.
Now, about the reductionist argument that “it’s only” the anesthesia and therefore not a “real NDE,” there are several points to be made.
- Most centrally, is our interest in the experience or in its trigger? My interest, both personally and investigatively, continues to be in the experience and its effects on people’s lives, how they explain it and its meaning to themselves, how they learn to live with its residue in their lives. Whether it was precipitated by a particular drug, a smack upside the head, or being half devoured by a tiger is irrelevant; any near-death or similar experience and its meaning in an individual life are what that person has to live with. Anything else, whether exotic or commonplace, is storytelling background. (As is my mention of the tiger.)
- We need to keep reminding ourselves that in terms of experience, we are like television sets: just as programs can’t reach our living rooms without coming through the hardware, every human experience has to come through our physiological system. For a neuroscientist or electrician, it may be the wiring that fascinates. For most of the rest of us, we don’t say about “American Idol,” oh, it’s only wires; it’s the program that matters, not how it gets to us. An experience, like a program, has its own existence independent of the transmitting components. My focus is on that independent existence.
- There has been a strong and consistent general reluctance (material for any number of future posts) even to look at, much less accept as genuine, the distressing near-death experiences. In 1994, it was Ken Ring who put forward the argument about NDEs involving the Void that “such experiences—though highly real—are not true NDEs as such but are essentially emergence reactions to inadequate anesthesia…further intensified by initial resistance and fear.” However, he did not make a similar claim about blissful NDEs that occurred under identical circumstances. Childbirth itself has been associated with a great many pleasant, even blissful NDEs, as well as some that are deeply distressing. The question remains: If blissful NDEs under anesthesia are not doubted, why the other?
- People tend not to make these same trivializing claims when the precipitating cause of an NDE “is only” a cardiac arrest or traumatic accident; the fact that anesthesia is involved with some NDEs does not preclude their being NDEs. In the early 1980s, when claims were floating around that “negative” NDEs weren’t “real NDEs,” I surreptitiously analyzed my own experience against Ring’s Weighted Core Experience Index, for which a score of 11 indicated a genuine NDE. Out-of-body experience, movement through darkness, intense emotion, light/darkness, encounter with entities, messages and sense of knowingness, I added it all up, not padding anything. My score, obtained conservatively, was 17. So, yes, I consider these experiences of the Void to be true NDEs, just as papillons and Irish wolfhounds are both dogs.
Wow, I don’t think you will find anything like the last four paragraphs of this post anywhere else in print or on the web. This post was enlightening, and it’s the kind of information that I’m looking for when I go online, or read a new book about NDE’s.
When it comes to NDE’s, Reincarnation and Psi, new, open and honest dialog is rare. So often it is tainted by bias and various agenda’s.
That’s why I have always respected the work that you (Nancy), Dr. Bruce Greyson and Sam Parnia do. There are a lot of other committed and credible researchers and speakers, but to me, you folks are to NDE’s what Dr. Dean Radin is to Psi, and Dr. Jim Tucker is to Reincarnation. You instinctively inspire trust.
Reading and listening to your work, I get the impression that if a valid, verifiable Reductionist explanation for NDE’s were ever discovered, you kids would readily concede the point.
But then, NDE’s can’t be explained by reductionist models, and after over 30 years, there’s not much left to verify. IMHO, the time has come for science and society to accept NDE’s at face value, and turn NDE research into more productive, previously neglected areas.
Treating distressing NDE’s as a “Real Experience”, instead of the Red-headed stepchild that everybody knows about, but no one talks about (in polite company) would be a good start.
Dave Woods says
I agree with Rabbit Dawg about acceptance of all forms of the NDE. Speaking for myself, in my brief experiences I was not “freaked out” by them. When I was read the riot act by a guardian spirit during my heart attack, I accepted it, and thought WOW!! they ARE real. She was for damn sure right about my lazy ass.
My brief post op experience allowed me to experience an alternate reality, and I’m now convinced that there are many. During my life, in spite of my failings and mistakes, I’ve always cared for and tried to help others. The spiritual returns have been great. One gets taken advantage of doing this, but I regard this as “paying my tuition” to the life school.
To digress a little further, since my experiences I’ve been having a life review in the here and now. I keep vividly remembering every dumb, inconsiderate, egotistical, thoughtless, angry, destructive act I’ve ever committed during my life. Man!……………what can I say. Wait till’ the real one starts.
People driven by fear hang on to what ever beliefs give them security. In doing this they also mask to themselves how scared they really are. Therefore, they righteously reject and try to eradicate anything that challenges those beliefs by any means necessary. I think these folks are ripe candidates for distressing NDE’s.
No offense, but I also think that some researchers who continually try SO hard to validate NDEs are actually trying to convince themselves. To me, this is could also also be based on fear. Live out your life trying to do the best for yourself, others, and the world around you. This is what counts, and there are a many paths as there are people. As the old song says “further along we’ll know all about it.
Dave, I couldn’t agree with you more. Especially about that “life review” business–every little thing! Thanks.
I’m interested in the variety of “religious” interpretations in NDEs, and I wonder whether some people are inadvertently (or even deliberately) mixing personal beliefs with the experiences they report, or whether some are even inventing NDEs to promote a particular religious worldview. Also the passing of time since the NDE and the subsequent searching or changed worldview may lead the person into a particular religious avenue that overlays its beliefs onto the NDE experience itself and then reinterprets it in that (potentially purely manmade) framework. Is there any study on this?
I am not a researcher – merely someone with an informal interest.
Nan Bush says
It seems to me you may be feeling overly dubious about people’s motivations for the way they explain their NDE. For the most part, people who have an NDE use their available understandings to explain it, which is altogether normal. So, a Christian gives it a Christian understanding and a Buddhist, Buddhist, and so on. It is not an attempt to deceive or distort, merely using the tools they have in their mental set.
Fake NDEs are relatively easy to spot. I know of no evidence of attempts to construct false NDEs in order to promote a particular religious stance.
Similarly, any religion will try to harmonize its views with their understanding of NDEs. That’s just the way it works. For the most part, NDE experiencers overlay their previous religious training with the views inherent in their NDEs, not the other way around. An exception would be with the strongly fundamentalist perspectives which admit no deviation from their teachings, and in that case it would be up to the experiencer to protest or to leave the group. I know of no such study.
Brian McLaughlin says
All the scrutiny and research aside… Can’t we find some way to distinguish between real NDEs and “near misses” or “close calls” ? It’s hard enough to explain a real NDE without first having to weed out the periphery. In my book “A Flight Without Wings” I have all but ceased efforts to convince anyone of my experience and focus on just telling what I saw and felt.
No real need to prove it… and nearly impossible anyway.
Nan Bush says
I think that’s all any of us can do, focus on what we saw and felt. Thanks!