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.