A Tricky Threshold and a New Paradigm: Where Next for Near-Death Studies ?

 

by Mark Fox

 

Once in a while you get shown the light

In the strangest of places if you look at it right

-        Robert Hunter[1]

 

 

Questions Without Answers

On its first appearance back in 1975, Raymond Moody’s book Life After Life claimed to provide “Actual case histories that reveal there is life after death” and ushered the term ‘Near-Death Experience’ into the world.[2] It also marked the beginning of what quickly became known as the field of ‘Near-Death Studies’: an increasingly multi-disciplinary academic endeavour that has now entered its fifth decade and which has sought in ever more sophisticated ways to determine what Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) essentially are and what they might be telling us about the nature of human consciousness and the possibility of its surviving bodily death.

    A brief look back over the history of Near-Death Studies reveals that progress has been made on a number of fronts since 1975. We now know, for example, that significant numbers of people at or near the point of bodily death report a series of roughly consistent experiences involving feelings of bliss and peace, out-of-body episodes, some kind of transition through darkness into light, apparent encounters with deceased persons (and sometimes religious figures) and entry into what are often perceived to be heavenly realms. We also know that such experiences are reported cross-culturally and frequently change lives: often in profound ways.

    But even a cursory glance at what we now know forty-plus years since the beginning of serious research into NDEs reveals an unsettlingly large number of questions which remain unanswered: even as the term ‘Near-Death Experience’ approaches its fiftieth anniversary. Taken together, these still-unanswered questions constitute what might be called a ‘tricky threshold’; representing, as they do, component parts of a wider border to the understanding of NDEs that research has yet to cross. This article will propose that a completely new approach to the understanding of NDEs will enable us to cross this border in ways that the old approaches have failed to do and it will concern itself with four, fundamental, as-yet unanswered questions:

 

(i) Why is it that not all clinically dead and resuscitated persons report Near-Death Experiences?

The best prospective studies have suggested that approximately 18% of resuscitated persons report some recollection of NDEs of varying degrees of complexity, although some very recent studies have reported a far lower incidence. Whatever percentage of persons reports recollection of NDE features, however, we have yet to understand what makes these cases different from the majority of cases in which resuscitated persons report no memory of anything at all. Could it be because these persons had some kind of experience but simply failed to remember it? This is initially appealing until the fragility of memory in such contexts is considered. Neuroscientists who have studied NDEs intensively have alleged that, given this fact, no recollection by anybody should be possible. But some persons in the prospective studies have reported such recollections. Thus the puzzle remains unresolved.

 

(ii) Who or what is the ‘being of light’?

The encounter with the so-called ‘being of light’ – often after an episode of transition through darkness - is a typically vivid aspect of many Near Death Experiencers’ (NDErs) testimonies and a significant number of NDE studies over the last four decades have sought to examine it and this has led, inevitably, to the question: who or what is the light? Could it be that everybody encounters the same light – some sort of ‘ultimate’ or ‘Divine’ light, perhaps - in some sort of ‘transcendent realm’ but interprets it differently and in accordance with their own cultural and/or linguistic expectations? This is superficially appealing but remains problematic, particularly given the existence of potential and plausible alternatives. Perhaps, for example, persons from within different traditions encounter beings from within their own traditions; all somehow ‘clothed’ in light. This, again, is at least potentially appealing, until it is recognised that not all light-encounters described in testimonies suggest that the light embodies any kind of identity. Perhaps, then, the whole experience is constructed by the dying brain, and the light is simply an aspect of this? This is an explanation frequently advanced from within neuroscience but it is one that presupposes that the phenomenon is purely a construct of brain processes – albeit highly unusual ones manifesting in extreme circumstances – and here again there is considerable dispute about the precise nature of the mechanisms and processes involved. And whilst commonly-encountered, the ‘being of light’ – however reported or explained - is by no means a universal feature within NDEs; a fact which presents problems for every one of the above possibilities. There is nothing even approaching an academic consensus within Near-Death Studies concerning the issue of what the light actually is. Perhaps it is time for a wholly new approach.

 

(iii) Why have ‘visions of the future’ reported by some Near-Death Experiencers turned out to contain marked inaccuracies?

By the mid-1980s a number of NDE researchers including Kenneth Ring and Margot Grey had uncovered a significant number of NDE testimonies in which experiencers claimed as part of their experiences to have undergone visions of their own futures and the future of humanity at large: a future in which the whole human race was convulsed by earthquakes, volcanoes, food shortages, social unrest, disease, climate change and nuclear war, all followed by “a Golden Age in which people would live in love and harmony with each other and all of nature.”[3] Nuclear war was widely predicted by the end of the 1980s and when this did not occur sceptics quickly seized on these clearly wrong predictions as evidence that the whole phenomenon was simply hallucinatory or, worse, that fraudulent claims were being made: either by the NDErs themselves or by those who collected, purportedly analysed, and then published their testimonies. Whilst the sceptics’ dismissive approach to these unusual claims is readily understandable, we might well wonder if this was really all there was to it. Perhaps, mistaken as they obviously turned out to be, they were and are telling us something important after all: something that has been entirely overlooked by NDE researchers and sceptics alike. If so, perhaps it is time to revisit these ‘failed prediction’ aspects of NDEs for fresh clues as to what they might be telling us about the phenomenon as a whole.

 

(iv) Why have we been unable to determine beyond reasonable doubt whether anything leaves the body during a Near-Death Experience?

This is arguably the biggest unanswered question of all within the history of Near-Death Studies and for this reason will be the one that merits most attention in what follows. Whilst there have been numerous attempts over the last forty years or so to elicit veridical proof that at or near the point of death something leaves the body during a NDE such proof remains elusive.

    Initially, however, it seemed only a matter of time until such proof was forthcoming. Just five years after the publication of Moody’s initial 1975 study Life After Life cardiologist Michael Sabom recognised the importance of attempting to check the details reported by NDErs during the out-of-body ‘phases’ of their Near-Death Experiences and he first presented his findings in his 1982 study Recollections of Death.[4] Here, he described and analysed a small but potentially highly significant number of cases in which observations made by NDErs whilst apparently apart from their bodies were checked with actual recorded surgical procedures that were carried out upon them. He found impressive correlations, such as when one patient’s description of how ‘my head was covered and the rest of my body was draped with more than one sheet, separate sheets laid in layers’ was compared with the surgeon’s description that the body was ‘draped in the customary sterile fashion.’ Such correlations became even more impressive when he asked a control group of patients who had not had NDEs during their operations to imagine what their operations might have looked like. According to Sabom, these invariably contained mistakes such as the incorrect supposition that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation would be applied to patients to clear airways and incorrect estimates of how far their bodies ‘jumped’ from their beds during CPR. By contrast, claimed Sabom, NDErs’ descriptions of their procedures, allegedly garnered from out-of-body observations, contained no such errors.

    Several years later in a second major study of NDEs it was Sabom again who provided details of a case which continues to provoke much discussion and debate. The subject, a thirty-five- year-old musician named Pam Reynolds, was undergoing a then new surgical technique nicknamed ‘standstill’ in which her body temperature was lowered to 60 degrees, her heartbeat and respiration deliberately stopped, and all blood drained from her head. Thus rendered apparently clinically dead, she was then to have a life-threatening basilar artery aneurism removed from her brain. Following the successful procedure, Reynolds claimed that during her operation, at a point subsequently confirmed to be when the surgeon was about to drill through her head with a Midas Rex bone saw, she suddenly heard a sound:

    “It was a natural D. As I listened to the sound, I felt it was pulling me out of the top of my head. The further out of my body I got, the more clear the tone became. I had the impression it was like a road, a frequency that you go on...I remember seeing several things in the operating room when I was looking down. It was the most aware that I think that I have ever been in my entire life...I was metaphorically sitting on [the lead surgeon’s] shoulder. It was not like normal vision. It was brighter and more focussed than normal vision...There was so much in the operating room that I didn’t recognize, and so many people…”

    What was particularly striking about this case was the description of the actual saw that the surgeon used to cut into her skull, a device that Reynolds claimed to have had no knowledge of before she identified it during her NDE:

    “The saw thing that I hated the sound of looked like an electric toothbrush and it had a dent in it, a groove at the top where the saw appeared to go into the handle, but it didn’t...And the saw had interchangeable blades, too, but these blades were in what looked like a socket wrench case...I heard the saw crank up. I didn’t see them use it on my head, but I think I heard it being used on something. It was humming at a relatively high pitch and then all of a sudden it went Brrrrrrr! like that.”

    At first Sabom was baffled by this account and particularly by the description of the surgical implement described in such detail by Reynolds. By his own admission he had to send away for a picture of the saw that was used during the procedure to check if it matched the description given. To his surprise, it did. But how to account for the accuracy of the description provided by a person apparently clinically dead when she claimed to have made her observations? The debate surrounding this case rumbles on, but it is clear that it stands amongst the most remarkable pieces of evidence suggestive of post-mortem survival that the last 40 years or so have produced.[5]

    Even more remarkable was a book published by researchers Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper at around the same time as Michael Sabom was presenting details of the Pam Reynolds case. Called Mindsight, it contained the even more striking claims that during the out-of-body phase of their Near-Death Experiences blind and congenitally blind persons temporarily gained the ability to see, an ability which left them again when they ‘re-entered’ their bodies at the end of their NDEs.

    As with the Pam Reynolds case, the cases presented in Mindsight sparked debate which is still ongoing. Some critics drew attention, for example, to the problems involved in supposing that congenitally blind persons suddenly given sight could identify what they were seeing. Studies of persons given their sight through conventional operative means have revealed post-operative difficulties that persisted for several years, with subjects simply unable to process the newly-restored impressions that they were suddenly receiving via their eyes. For Ring and Cooper, ‘new theories and a new kind of science’ are needed to explain their findings as regards temporary restoration of sight to the blind, but not all critics have been so convinced.[6]

 

‘Hidden Object’ Studies

What might convince critics of such claims? And what might settle the issue once and for all as to whether or not something actually leaves the body during a NDE? One possible avenue of research that has promised to counter the claims of critics of NDE research in the blind and sighted alike has recently taken place in various hospitals and is ongoing. This has involved the locating of objects inside Intensive Care Units visible only from certain vantage points and especially if persons were apart from their bodies and looking down. Located as part of prospective studies – which means, in effect, that everyone admitted to the ICU is interviewed to ascertain if anything happened to them, and not simply those subsequently claiming NDEs – these research endeavours have attracted widespread attention in recent years, although comparable studies go back to the 1980s.

    In essence, an experiment is performed. Permission is granted from a hospital, distinctive signs or symbols are prepared, rigorous steps are taken to ensure that only the experimenter knows what and where they are and they are then located in ICUs in places likely to be seen by anybody ‘hovering’ above their beds and bodies. Everybody treated in the Unit is subsequently interviewed, where part of the questioning involves enquiries into what, if anything, was seen during an episode of apparent clinical death, should one have occurred. As a result of such studies, even if one respondent correctly identifies the sign or symbol, we are moved beyond reliance on mere anecdote and given, instead, firmer grounds upon which to draw the conclusion that at the point of death – or in a situation of life-threatening illness or trauma – something leaves the body with concomitant awareness and subsequent memory of the event.

 

International Studies

Between 1998 and 2002 a large-scale prospective study of Near-Death Experiences was conducted at ten Dutch hospitals by a team of researchers led by cardiologist Pim van Lommel. At one hospital – in Arnhem – the top cover of the surgical lamp in the ICU was decorated with a hidden sign, invisible from ground level but clearly visible to anybody hovering near the ceiling. The sign – a cross, circle or square on a red, yellow, or blue background – was known by none of the attendant doctors or nurses. Despite the four-year study producing some very startling NDEs, including one that provided strong anecdotal evidence of a veridical observation on a par with that of Pam Reynolds discussed above, not one patient correctly identified a hidden symbol. Van Lommel was forced to admit:

    “Unfortunately, no patients who were resuscitated in this room ever reported an out-of-body experience with perception. Because people are resuscitated everywhere – on the street, in the ambulance, in a CCU room, on the ward – we had estimated the chances of a hit to be relatively low. Still, one verified out-of-body experience would have been sufficient.”[7]

    A few years after Van Lommel’s attempt, a British ICU nurse, Penny Sartori, received permission to undertake a five-year project to investigate the incidence and detail of NDEs in the unit where she worked. Like Van Lommel, Sartori wanted to determine if any component of any claimed NDE reported during the research was veridical, and she attempted to do this by mounting symbols on to Day-Glo paper which were then laminated and placed on top of the cardiac monitor at each patient’s bedside. As with Van Lommel, however, no patient correctly identified a symbol.[8]

    The recent studies of Sartori and Van Lommel take their place alongside other, similar, studies, in which experimental attempts to derive veridical NDE observations have similarly failed to provide the evidence that would settle the matter of whether anything leaves the body during an NDE once and for all. These have failed, it has been claimed, either because nobody during the study was able to correctly identify the hidden symbols, or because nobody within the course of the study reported a NDE with the out-of-body component. A very recent prospective NDE study assessing the experiences of 2060 cardiac arrest patients conducted over several years within 15 US, UK and Austrian hospitals failed to produce a single ‘hit’ as regards observations of objects hidden on shelves, both because of the very low incidence of reported NDEs including observation of surroundings and because of the location of the shelves relative to the subjects’ resuscitations.[9] As things currently stand, therefore, not a single correct observation of a hidden sign or symbol has been reported by anybody during a NDE within any experiment conducted as part of any prospective study.  

 

Hits and Misses

In the absence of corroborative evidence from hidden object studies, what should be made of the anecdotal evidence such as that of Pam Reynolds, considered above? One remark made by Penny Sartori is of particular note at this point. Writing of her experiment to find veridical evidence of out-of-body perceptions during NDEs, she notes that one patient who reported a NDE in which she accurately described events that occurred in the operating theatre – but not any of the symbols – made incorrect observations also: specifically, of a piece of jewellery pinned to her hospital gown. This was simply incorrect, Sartori asserts, as no jewellery is allowed into any operating room and strict checks are undertaken to ensure that this instruction is complied with. She suggests that the drugs given to this patient might have led to this misperception, which might therefore have simply been hallucinated by the patient. Readers generally unfamiliar with the literature on NDEs might be forgiven for not realising that this incorrect description of events given within NDErs’ testimonies is actually rather common. In focussing on what they get right, discussion often omits to include what they get wrong.

    In research that has drawn much discussion and debate – not least in the pages of the Journal of Near-Death Studies - Keith Augustine has made much of these incorrect observations in NDE testimony. One case he has cited was collected during the ‘Evergreen Study’ conducted at Evergreen State College in Washington and concerned a woman who had a ruptured Fallopian tube. Describing her observations whilst apparently apart from her physical body she described how: “I saw this little table over the operating table. You know, those little round trays like in a dental office where they have their instruments and all? I saw a little tray like that with a letter on it addressed (from a relative by marriage she had not met).” [10]

    Remarking that there was, in fact, neither a letter nor such a round table in the operating room, Augustine concludes that this is further evidence that the experience was hallucinated and that audible ‘cues’ in the operating theatre provided the input from which the hallucinated scenario was constructed. Another case that Augustine cites is taken from the research of Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick and involved a NDE that occurred during World War Two when a soldier was attacked by aerial bombers. In this instance, despite seeing himself on the ground from a clear vantage point apparently above his physical body he completely failed to observe two Sudanese persons who were plainly lying beside him in what should have been full view to anyone ‘hovering’ above. Only when back in his normal physical surroundings did he see them and it was at this point that he also realised that a Bren gunner who had been beside him had disappeared: something else that he had failed to register whilst apparently out-of-body. Augustine has made much of these and other cases he has collected in which persons make observations whilst outside of themselves which later turn out to be wrong, and this has, for him, helped to build a case for seeing NDEs as essentially hallucinatory.

    Augustine’s sceptical view is understandable. Yet it fails to explain what the anecdotal evidence examined above at least implies: that for all the things they may get wrong NDErs also make at least some observations that appear to be remarkably correct. How, then, might we account for this curious combination of ‘hits’ and ‘misses’?

    Important to note at this point is that this ‘mix’ is very reminiscent of what is frequently reported in parapsychological literature generally. Mediums, for example, often deliver readings in which apparently – and at times startlingly – correct information about sitters is mixed with rather basic errors. Whilst sceptics simply explain this away in terms of simple fraud or by ‘cold readings’ of individuals by the mediums it is hard to invoke this explanation in the case of NDEs. It seems that any attempt to solve this as-yet unexplained puzzle within NDE testimony must take the form of some kind of new paradigm which at the very least makes sense of this curious mix of both ‘hits’ and ‘misses’: both within NDEs and elsewhere. Perhaps, in turn, such a paradigm might also enable other hitherto-unanswered questions within Near-Death Studies to receive answers at last. What form, then, might such a new paradigm take?

 

Hermetic Voyaging

Whatever else NDEs might be, they are quintessentially liminal phenomena. They are ‘betwixt and between’ experiences; occurring, as they do, at the boundary of life and death. This at least suggests that there might be some usefulness in exploring whether any existing explorations of liminality might themselves shed some light on NDEs. In fact, one of these - Karl Kerenyi’s notion of ‘Hermetic Voyaging’ - is particularly useful. For Kerenyi, whereas ordinary travelling is a matter of travelling physically in space and time from one point to another, a Hermetic Voyager has entered a boundary zone; a liminal space between other states including – but not confined to - states of experience. Carrying over Kerenyi’s notion, then, we might usefully re-cast the Near-Death Experiencer as a ‘Hermetic Voyager’. To be clear: this is not physical movement. The NDEr is not going ‘up’ or ‘away’ as s/he travels. S/he is not going to some other ‘vantage point’ in space and/or time. The NDEr is entering a boundary zone of a different kind.[11]

    Seen in this way, the NDEr might be seen to be in a situation analogous to that of a shamanic initiate or somebody embarking on a vision quest, and whilst there is nothing new in making this particular link, unpacking the etymology of the term ‘Hermetic Voyager’ itself yields some interesting results. As is well-known, a herm was a boundary-marker – typically a stone marker of various degrees of elaboration – and herms from antiquity are well-represented in archaeological finds. Etymologically, ‘herm’ is close to Hermes, and for obvious reasons, for Hermes was the boundary-crossing god of Greek mythology. So NDErs are boundary-crossers, and so, mythologically at least, is Hermes. In fact, the association is a doubly useful one because traditionally Hermes has also been known for his function as a psychopomp: the one who escorts the souls of the newly-dead to the next life. To pull him out of mythology and to ‘concretize’ him for a moment, we would expect them to ‘journey’ together: Hermes and the NDEr-seen-as-Hermetic Voyager. In fact, for Lewis Hyde, who has written extensively on this character as he is found both within mythology and elsewhere, Hermes does more than typically cross boundaries: he creates them also. Hyde writes: “[T]he boundary is where he will be found – sometimes drawing the line, sometimes crossing it, sometimes erasing or moving it, but always there, the god of the threshold in all its forms.”[12] For sure, the liminal ‘space’ between life and death is not the only such space that Hermes occupies and we therefore find him at borders of various kinds: at religious borders, at linguistic ‘borders’ – hence the term ‘hermeneutics’ – and at the border between the ‘clean’ and the ‘unclean’, the sacred and the profane, and the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’.

    To seek to view the NDE in this way feels akin to throwing a pebble into the water – itself an exercise in boundary breaking and transition triggering – in order to see where the ripples go. As they spread outwards, what else do they touch, and what do they allow us to touch? The question is not easy to answer, because Hermes is a slippery figure to grasp. Hynes calls him “messy and metaphysically ambiguous”[13]; precisely because he subverts the existing order so much. But as the ripples move out they touch other characteristics of Hermes also: for this slippery, subversive, border-crossing, messy, paradoxical and ambiguous psychopomp is also traditionally – and, perhaps, unsurprisingly – seen as a trickster.

    Trickster figures are found globally and cross-culturally. So, for example, Wakdjunkaga is the trickster of the Winnebago, Eshu-Elegba is the trickster god of the West African Yoruba, and Mercurius is another example of the ‘type’, frequently found in association with alchemy. Hermes, however, is the trickster par excellence, and the Homeric Hymn to Hermes provides a brilliant description of his characteristics. Devious, glib, cunning, subverting, lying and thieving almost from the moment he was born, he invents the lyre and steals his brother, Apollo’s, cattle, cleverly disguising both his own tracks and those of the animals. Tracked down by a furious Apollo, a confrontation ensues. Hermes, obviously guilty, nonetheless denies the crime – “I declare that I myself am not guilty, nor did I see anyone else stealing your cows, whatever cows are” – whilst his eyes twinkle and he wriggles his eyebrows up and down. Apollo calls him a rogue and a trickster and picks him up, whereupon Hermes “let[s] off an omen, an insolent servant of the belly” and, in addition, sneezes in his face. Finally reconciled with his brother by their father Zeus, things nonetheless turn out well for Hermes, who receives, from Apollo, a shining whip, cattle herds, a golden staff and a gift of prophecy. Comparing trickster motifs across cultures, George Hansen summarises them as including a propensity to engage in deceit, a concern to disrupt and violate taboos, uninhibited sexuality, possession of magical properties allowing contact with supernatural beings, and the tendency for trickster figures to appear in marginal and liminal places where they cross boundaries and help others to do so: reminding us once again that Hermes has traditionally fulfilled the role of psychopomp.[14]

 

Psi Hides

Keith Augustine’s paper, already alluded to, in which he provided detail of incorrect observations by NDErs, provoked a flurry of discussions and counter-claims in the Journal of Near-Death Studies several years ago. Responding to his piece, NDE researcher Bruce Greyson tentatively suggested that the ongoing failure by researchers to uncover veridical proof that during NDEs something actually leaves the physical body was itself suggestive of the fact that NDEs have “an inherent ‘trickster’ quality…that teases us with anecdotal evidence but hides from the light of controlled scientific research.” This might have prompted research along a potentially fruitful path but Greyson pulled back from fully embarking on it, asserting instead that “as intriguing as the trickster hypothesis may be to anthropologists, it is a dead-end for neuroscientists” and leaving it at that.[15] And here the situation remains. Might we, then, re-open the investigation into the NDE’s ‘trickster’ qualities in ways that have yet to be fully and properly explored? And might this, in turn, enable us to answer some of the questions regarding NDEs with which we began and to which we have yet to receive answers?

    One possibility might be to acknowledge that the elusive, ‘trickster’ aspect of NDEs is mirrored elsewhere in the study of paranormal claims generally and to try and draw some conclusions from this. Where Greyson, above, speaks of the elusive, ‘hiding’ aspects of the NDE, many other researchers have concurred in writing of their own experiences of potentially related phenomena. So, for example, failure to elicit reliable, replicable, experimental confirmation that at the point of death something leaves the body would be of little or no surprise to a large number of researchers who have similarly failed to elicit reliable, replicable, experimental confirmation of a range of paranormal claims, including such things as ESP, telekinesis, precognition, and the ability to ‘remote view’ objects at a distance (itself very akin to what some NDErs have claimed to be able to do whilst in the ‘out-of-body’ phase of their experiences). These phenomena – and many others – fit under the well-known heading of ‘psi’, and, according to many researchers who have conducted research in these fields, psi has what James McClenon calls an “elusive quality.” Indeed, McClenon has been joined by a host of other researchers in making this claim, prompting him to make the interesting assertion that “Almost all of the American, British, Chinese and Japanese psychical researchers I interviewed between 1978 and 1986 noted various elusive features.”[16]

    This is by no means to suggest that there have been no studies or research programmes that have been successful in detecting phenomena such as ESP. It is widely acknowledged, however, that successful results are at best sporadic, forcing George Hansen – who worked in parapsychology laboratories for eight years, including three years at the J.B Rhine Institute for Parapsychology in Durham, North Carolina - to conclude that “psi doesn’t happen all the time” and is, in fact, “rather rare.” McClenon draws additional attention to the fact that such phenomena seem inhibited by experimental attempts to ‘capture’ them, writing that they “have an elusive quality [which] cannot withstand close scrutiny”, and that as a result they “elicit scepticism as well as faith.”[17] Like Hansen, he bases this assertion on both laboratory and field experiments and gives some detailed information on his own participation in the latter as justification for this. More recently, this recognition of the elusive and ambiguous nature of certain types of psi and psi-related phenomena has been made by Jeffrey Kripal.[18]

    One response to all of this might be to say that those claiming psi-related abilities are simply frauds unable to reproduce the phenomena under controlled conditions. After all, as we have already had cause to note, most researchers are in agreement that analytical sophistication and tight protocols within things like ESP experiments tend to reduce the positive results that might otherwise be expected. McClenon remarks that such sophistication seems to reduce paranormal results whilst ‘loose’ demonstrations elicit psi more frequently: such as when laboratory equipment breaks down or where procedural mistakes are made.

    However, we cannot easily apply these criticisms to NDEs, where no actual powers or abilities are being claimed per se, and where experimental confirmation of NDErs’ out-of-body observations has yet to be forthcoming from any researcher. Of course, within this context, other explanations might be given for why, say, van Lommel’s and Sartori’s experiments yielded no veridical proof of out-of-body observations. We have already seen how audible ‘cues’ within intensive care units have been invoked as explanations of both correct and incorrect observations on the part of NDErs. Fallibility of their recall of what happened during their life-threatening episodes has also been invoked. But in the light of what we have so far been examining, another possibility presents itself. This is that NDEs share the same elusive and ‘tricksterish’ qualities that psi phenomena display as regards their failure to embody or provide absolute ‘proof’ of non-physical reality or realities. We might even go further and say that the same ‘mechanism’ that provides ‘tantalising’ evidence but – somehow - precludes the finding of absolute proof within psi contexts might be at work within the NDE context also. This is yet to be fully explored.   

    But as we have already had cause to note, it is clear that psi ‘hides’; and also, it would seem, does that one, single, experimentally verified case that would provide proof that during NDEs something leaves the physical body. Had they been aware of the elusive nature of proof within psi-related contexts – and the closeness of their own endeavours to these –  van Lommel, Sartori and others engaged in ‘hidden object’ experiments with NDErs might not have found it quite so noteworthy that their own research failed to yield the results that they were presumably seeking. In fact, it may even be speculated that the very sophistication of the experiments they devised precluded the production of the results they were looking for. For this, too, is strongly indicated from within experimental research designed to detect the existence of psi. To this point has our ‘new paradigm’ led. Where might it take us from here?

 

The God with Many Faces

As we have already noted, the lack of proof that at or near the point of death something leaves the body is not the only area where progress in the understanding of NDEs has been lacking. One other area concerns the identity of the so-called ‘being of light’ that many NDErs encounter at a pivotal part of their experiences. It has long been acknowledged that not everybody identifies the light in the same way. As far back as 1975, in Life After Life, Raymond Moody wrote that:

    “[W]hile the…description of the being of light is utterly invariable, the identification of the being varies from individual to individual and seems to be largely a function of the religious background, training, or beliefs of the person involved. Thus, most of those who are Christians in training or belief identify the light as Christ and sometimes draw Biblical parallels in support of their interpretation. A Jewish man and woman identified the light as an ‘angel’. It was clear, though, in both cases that the subjects did not mean to imply that the being had wings, played a harp, or even had a human shape or appearance. There was only the light.”[19]

    This is an odd and rather loose set of assertions. How, for example, can any description be said to be “utterly invariable” when the identification of the being varies so widely? Is not identification part and parcel of what is being described? Later, Moody would return to bring a little more clarity to his position, stating that although the description of the being of light is invariable, the identity ascribed to it changes depending on the religious background of the individual experiencing the ‘encounter’. Implied, here, is that some sort of ‘common core’ to the light-encounter exists but one which is, somehow, interpretatively ‘clothed’ in accordance with the individual's religious background. But is this the only way of accounting for the diversity of identifications of the light?

    In his study of tricksters Lewis Hyde deploys the word polytropic to describe a chief trickster characteristic. This word can lend itself to many aspects of such characters. It may, for example, be translated as ‘wily’ or ‘much travelled’. But there is another sense in which it serves as a useful descriptor for tricksters generally, and this is well summed-up by Hyde, again, when he writes that the trickster can “encrypt his own image, distort it, cover it up”, and that the trickster is, essentially, a shape-shifter.[20] In similar vein, William J. Hynes writes that “The trickster is the master of metamorphosis” and that “As shape-shifter, the trickster can alter his shape or bodily appearance in order to facilitate deception...Relatively major shape-shifting may involve the alteration of the physical form of the trickster’s body.”[21] Hyde and Hynes make these assertions on the basis of a detailed and comprehensive overview of trickster characteristics within a range of cultures and contexts. Hynes, for example, cites ‘Shape Shifter’ as one of a number of trickster ‘features’ within what he calls a ‘heuristic guide’ to them. As examples he cites Hermes’ changing his form to that of mist in order to slip through a keyhole to protest his innocence to Apollo, the Navaho Coyote who shifts his form to that of a dish and a tree in order to capture food and birds respectively, and the Winnebago trickster who shape shifts between numerous animal shapes and changes from human male to female in order to deceive a chief’s son into marriage. For Hyde, the shape shifting nature of tricksters raises the intriguing question of whether behind his[22] many ‘masks’ there is an actual ‘original’ face at all. He poses the question thus: “If the Norse trickster, Loki, can appear as a bird, a flea, a horse, and a fire, then who is the real Loki? If Raven can shed his raven cloak and become a cedar leaf, who is the real Raven? It is our habit to imagine a true self behind the shifting images, but it is sometimes difficult to know if that self is really there, or just the product of our imaginings.” Later, he asserts that even attempts to discern the trickster’s ends or purposes is of no help in establishing his ‘real’ face.[23]

    Recognising the shape-shifting nature of the trickster feeds usefully into any ‘new paradigm’ attempt to explore NDEs as trickster phenomena. Firstly, it suggests a genuine alternative to the ‘cloaked core’ hypothesis much favoured by many NDE researchers such as Moody by asserting that the multiple identification of the light by NDErs is a result of the inherently shape-shifting nature of this aspect of their experience. It should be noted at this point that the argument being advanced here is not simply that the ‘being of light’ is the trickster ‘part’ of the experience. Instead, what is being proposed is that the whole phenomenon, including out-of-body ‘observations’ and the encounter with the being of light – together with other elements of the NDE, as we shall see – is some sort of trickster episode. We will return to this shortly.

    We are also returned at this point to something that we have already had cause to note: NDEs have a deceiving, tricksterish quality to them. All is not as it seems. Attempts to explore them objectively as scientists may wish to study them may once again fail because of their slippery, shifting, amorphous nature. The NDE is akin to psi phenomena in this respect. Something very odd is occurring: something, perhaps, that is best characterised in terms of the actions of a being or the activation of an archetype, as problematic as these options may be to express or to comprehend.

 

Defective Divination

That the NDE can be usefully interpreted as a liminal, trickster, phenomenon may shed light on another unanswered question already raised: the problem of the number of failed and incorrect prophecies made by NDErs and collected by researchers such as Kenneth Ring and Margot Grey during their research in the 1980s. As already noted, Ring and Grey presented at around this time a number of experiences in which NDErs claimed to have been given visions of the future during their experiences which subsequently turned out to be false. What should be noted at this point, however – and this may come as no surprise, given what we have been uncovering – is that some NDErs claimed prophecies of future events received during their NDEs that later turned out to be true. To be sure, these did not concern global events. They did, however, involve ‘visions’ of NDErs future personal circumstances which later turned out to be uncannily accurate. For example: one NDEr whose experience took place during childbirth claimed to have been shown by ‘beings’ a vision in which she correctly saw how her family would look twenty-two years later together with the town in which she would later live. Another respondent whose experience took place when he was a ten-year old boy was ‘shown’ in another vision a correct prediction of what age he would be when he married, the number of children he would have, and a kind of forced air heater that did not exist in England at the time of his NDE but which he later turned out to own in his house. We are returned yet again to the odd combination of hits and misses which we have already discussed, which becomes all the more interesting when it is noted that some of the visions of personal future circumstances themselves contained inaccuracies. The ten year-old boy’s vision, for example, whilst correctly revealing the number of children he would later have, included the detail that he would have a boy and a girl, when in reality both of his children turned out to be girls.[24]

    Does the ‘trickster hypothesis’ help to shed any light on this by-now familiar combination of things both right and wrong? It is interesting to note that at the end of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes Apollo gives to Hermes, amongst other things, a kind of minor ‘oracle’: the ‘Bee Maidens’. What is particularly striking about this divinatory gift is its defective and sometimes deceiving nature. As Apollo says to Hermes in one of the Hymn’s climactic passages: “From their home [the Bee Maidens] fly, now here, now there, feeding on honeycomb and bringing all things to pass. And when they have eaten of the golden honey they are inspired and want to speak the truth graciously. But if they are deprived of the sweet food of the gods they tell you lies, swarming to and fro among one another. These, then, I give you. Inquire of them sincerely and delight your heart.”

    This passage is fascinating on a number of levels. For one thing, it suggests that the writer was aware of the combination of hits and misses in the information given by this oracle: and, perhaps, by oracles generally. For another, it underscores an important observation: the association of bees with oracles. However, might this have come about? Any attempt to answer this question would take us well beyond the scope of what we are considering but one thing is of note, here, and that is the well-established – but little known – association of buzzing with oracles, altered states, and Near-Death Experiences. As is well known, for example, NDEs often commence with a buzzing sound. Moody himself isolated this characteristic early on and included it in his earliest NDE model in Life After Life, writing: “In many cases, various unusual auditory sensations are reported to occur at or near death. Sometimes these are extremely unpleasant. A man who “died” for twenty minutes during an abdominal operation describes “a really bad buzzing noise coming from inside my head. It made me very uncomfortable…I’ll never forget that noise.” Another woman tells how as she lost consciousness she heard ‘a loud ringing. It could be described as a buzzing. And I was in a sort of whirling state.’ ”[25]

 

    That a buzzing is not the only noise that Near-Death Experiencers hear is clear from the literature. But a specifically buzzing noise is very frequently reported, and at this point it is once again worth recalling Pam Reynolds’ celebrated NDE case. It seems clear from her testimony that she associated the “humming at a relatively high pitch” with the Midas Rex bone saw that was used on her as part of her operation. Elsewhere in her testimony, however, the association is less clear. For example, she also states that “I felt it was pulling me out of the top of my head. The further out of my body I got, the more clear the tone became. I had the impression it was like a road, a frequency that you go on….”[26] That the sound marked the commencement of her experience overall seems clear from her testimony. But what if it was not the bone saw that was the source of the noise but something else? It would certainly link her account with those of many other NDErs as well as a large number of other – perhaps related – boundary phenomena in which buzzing is heard. Terence and Dennis McKenna have reported it as occurring at the onset of a ‘magic mushroom’ trip, Rick Strassman has reported it as one of a series of ‘entrance sounds’ marking the onset of an altered state of consciousness triggered by dimethyltryptamine, anthropologist Michael Harner has reported it at the onset of a shamanic journey made with the help of ayahuasca, and a buzzing noise is also frequently reported as part of a range of other experiences, including kundalini ‘awakenings’, UFO encounters and Marian apparitions.

    In this latter regard, a testimony extract relating to a series of Marian apparitions includes the claim that “We would follow [the visionaries] and kneel in the middle of the field. Lucia would raise her hands and say, “You bade me come here, what do you wish of me?” And then could be heard a buzzing that seemed to be that of a bee.” Of the ‘sleeping’ kundalini it is written that “her sweet murmur is like an indistinct hum of swarms of love-mad bees.”[27] At the very least this cluster of observations reminds us again that the NDE is best studied not as an isolated phenomenon but within the context of other oracular, ‘boundary’, experiences generally. And seen in this way, it is once again seen to have many features in common with them.

    Occurring in a liminal space and thus sharing a fundamental characteristic with tricksters and trickster-events generally, the NDE-viewed-as-a-trickster-phenomenon, in turn, raises profound questions to do with the nature of the reality encountered in these zones, and, by extension, the nature of reality encountered in all zones: liminal and non-liminal alike. In particular, it invites reflection on the question of what, exactly, the trickster, is. Is it possible, for example, that a character well-known to folklore and anthropology can ‘step off’ a page or out of an oral tradition and into actual experienced reality, in order to shape – even, perhaps, to create – the experiences of persons at or near the point of death?

 

‘Unmasking’ the Trickster

Comprehending who or what tricksters actually are has bedevilled trickster research in recent years, compounding any attempt to account for or to explain the precise nature of the relationship between the trickster on the one hand and psi and the NDE on the other. Mac Linscott Ricketts, for example, has described comprehension of the trickster figure as “one of [our] most perplexing problems.”[28] George Hansen has suggested that the trickster can best be seen as an archetypal “personification of a constellation of abstract qualities that can appear in a variety of circumstances”, particularly those characterised by liminality and anti-structure. He notes, further, that the “trickster archetype” is usually personified, and that individuals, small groups, larger social movements and even entire cultures can embody this constellation; noting, too, that the more of the properties that come together, the more the “archetype strengthens” [29] Seen in this way, the NDEr might be viewed as one in whom the trickster archetype has been ‘activated’, or one for whom the archetype’s effects are experienced particularly strongly and vividly. But, unfortunately, Hansen provides little elaboration on how he is using ‘archetype’ in his definition, which muddies it considerably, making it difficult to grasp what, exactly, he is asserting. In addition, his is by no means the only definition of ‘trickster’.

    Elsewhere, for example, the trickster is confined to the realm of anthropology, mythology and folklore and treated accordingly: as, for example, a ‘tension-releasing’ mechanism reinforcing the need for order (and/or showing the fragility of social and/or cultural order) or a mythological manifestation of something like a ‘culture hero’. In addition, we also have at least to reckon with the possibility - bizarre as it might be - that the trickster is an actual being, whose activities are particularly marked within just those liminal zones as are ‘traversed’ by the NDEr in his or her ‘Hermetic Voyage’ between life and death. The question of the trickster’s identity (and motive) might be one for future research to explore, but it will inevitably be one that is compounded and made difficult by the trickster’s own elusive, paradoxical, ambiguous and shape-shifting nature.

    There is also the additional question of the relationship of the trickster to the NDE itself. To take just one aspect of this question: is the NDE, somehow, shaped or created by some sort of trickster ‘mechanism’ or being, or is the NDE itself the trickster; whether as an ‘activated archetype’ or as something else? Complicating the quest for an answer to this question is the fact that the so-called ‘being of light’ is not the only aspect of the NDE to shift its shape. As is well-known in the literature, for example, the passage of darkness through which NDErs often travel en route to the light is also polytropic, being variously described as ‘space’, ‘outer space’, a ‘tunnel’, a ‘cave’, a ‘well’, a ‘valley’ and a ‘cylinder’, amongst many other descriptors.

 

On Forgetfulness

We have yet to consider one, final, hitherto-unanswered question with which we started. This is the question of why only a relatively small percentage of NDErs – 18% or less according to current ‘best’ research – recall their NDEs. If the NDE is some kind of ‘activated’ brain process, measurable – or, at least, comprehendible – by neuroscience, then presumably everybody at or near the point of death should undergo such an experience. However, as we have seen, this is not the case. Further, such an ‘explanation’ fails to take into account the fact that very many persons report NDEs and NDE-like episodes involving tunnels, lights, out-of-body experiences and so on when they are nowhere near death at all but in other states of transition, such the negotiating of life crises.[30] This, in turn, raises questions as to whether the NDE is providing proof that the onset of death marks the ‘release’ of the soul, given that experiences involving alleged ‘soul journeyings’ occur when the onset of the dying process has not occurred. So we are left with the inadequacy of both explanations – that of neuroscience, and that of the ‘soul escaping’ hypothesis – to account for yet another set of key NDE features.

    This suggests, as the rest of this paper has, that a whole new paradigm for the understanding of NDEs might be called for. And at this point it is interesting to note that Hynes makes clear in his heuristic guide to tricksters that the ability to make others forget is another trickster characteristic. In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, for example, Hermes puts the dogs that guard Apollo’s cattle to sleep in order to enable him to steal them. Hynes notes that the Greek for ‘stupor’ is lethargon, a combination of lethe (‘forgetfulness’) and argon (‘lazy’, or ‘slow’), asserting that “When Hermes is ordering the world on his own terms, he takes the watchdogs of the mind – acute, open-eyed, up all night – and numbs them with forgetfulness.”[31] Perhaps this observation helps explain why not all NDErs remember their experiences; returning us, as it does, to a recognition of the number of other trickster characteristics that are embedded in NDE claims. At the very least it adds to an expanding picture: one which Part II of this paper has sought to uncover.

    But an even bigger picture may yet be uncovered. So many of the research endeavours carried out since Raymond Moody coined the term ‘Near-Death Experience’ in 1975 have fallen into one of two camps: either that which has sought to demonstrate that NDEs might be yet another puzzle that neuroscience is well-placed to solve or that NDEs might be ‘proving’ some sort of body-soul dualism. Whilst the voices of those advancing these ‘rival’ contentions have not exclusively dominated the discourse, they have spoken loudly and have been very frequently heard. The contention being made here is that this decades-old conversation might usefully and productively be joined by another voice; one worthy of being admitted to the debate and one which in turn might contribute answers to the questions which several decades of research into Near-Death Experiences have thus far been unable to answer.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] From the song ‘Scarlet Begonias’, reproduced from Dodd et al, The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, New York, Free Press, 2005, pp 229-231.

[2] Raymond Moody, Life After Life. Atlanta, Mockingbird Press, 1975.

[3] Margot Grey, Return from Death. London, Arkana, 1985, p. 133.

[4] Michael Sabom, Recollections of Death. London, Corgi, 1982.

[5] Michael Sabom, Light and Death. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1998. p.41.

[6] Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper, Mindsight: Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind. New York, William James Center for Consciousness Studies, 1999.

[7] Pim Van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life. New York, HarperCollins, p. 139.

[8] Penny Sartori, The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences. London, Watkins Publishing, 2014.

[9] On this, see Awareness during Resuscitation – A prospective study. Resuscitation (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.resuscitation.2014.09.004.

[10] On this, see Keith Augustine, ‘Hallucinatory Near-Death Experiences’. http://infidels.org/modern/keith_augustine/HNDEs.html.

[11] A. Combs and M. Holland, Synchronicity: Science, Myth, and the Trickster. New York, Marlowe and Company. 1996. p. 83.

[12] Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World. New York, North Point Press, 2008. p.8.

[13] William Hynes and William Doty, Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts and Criticisms. Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1993. p. 21.

[14] George Hansen, The Trickster and the Paranormal. Xlibris Press, New York, 2001, p. 40-2.

[15] ‘Comments on ‘Does Paranormal Perception Occur in Near-Death Experiences?’’ by Bruce Greyson, Journal of Near-Death Studies, 25 (4), Summer 2007, pp. 242-3.

[16] James McClenon, Wondrous Events: Foundations of Religious Belief. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994, p. 203.

[17] Ibid. p. 10

[18] On this, see Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Krippal, The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained. New York, Tarcher/Penguin, 2016.

[19] Moody, op. cit. p. 59

[20] Hyde, op. cit. p. 51.

[21] Hynes and Doty, op. cit. p. 36-7

[22] I write ‘his’ because tricksters are almost invariably male.

[23] Hyde, op. cit. p. 54

[24] Kenneth Ring, Heading Toward Omega. New York, William Morrow, pp. 184-7

[25] Moody, op. cit. p. 24.

[26] Sabom, op. cit.

[27] On this, see Taylor, G. 2007, Her Sweet Murmur, from which these examples were taken. http://www.dailygrail.com/Essays/2010/4/Her-Sweet-Murmur.

[28] Hynes and Doty, op. cit. p. 13.

[29] Hansen, op. cit. p. 36.

[30] On this, see Mark Fox, Lightforms: Spiritual Encounters With Unusual Light Phenomena. Kidderminster, Spirit and Sage Ltd, 2016.

[31] Hynes and Doty, op. cit. p. 78.