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Near-Death Experiences of the Blind; How Does That Work?

Near-Death-Experiences, depending on which researcher you listen to, are nearly universal across the globe.  People in every country, from every culture, with every belief system and background report having these highly profound and life-altering experiences.  The landscapes and images they see, the people that greet them, the sensations they feel, in almost every case they are the same (or nearly the same).  In that way, Near-Death-Experience iconography is archetypical among almost everyone who experiences it.

Where does that iconography come from though?  First, let’s define that iconography.

In 1504, Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (born Jheronimus van Aken), finished the second panel in his series of paintings titled Visions of the Hereafter.  The series consists of four oil-on-panel paintings – Terrestrial Paradise, Ascent of the Blessed, Fall of the Damned, and Hell.  That second panel, Ascent of the Blessed, which remains one of Bosch’s most recognised works, depicts the journey of the saved into Heaven.  The painting offers typical Christian iconography, such as angels, departed souls, and a tunnel of light apparently leading to paradise.

Visions of the Hereafter - Ascent of the Blessed. Hieronymus Bosch. c.1504 Oil on panel

Visions of the Hereafter – Ascent of the Blessed. Hieronymus Bosch. c.1504 Oil on panel

Most art historians are of the opinion that this series is a simple, albeit beautiful, homage to traditional Christian values, as is common among Netherlandish paintings, but some historians make the claim that Ascent of the Blessed is the earliest known depiction of a Near-Death-Experience.[1]  The use of the tunnel of light, and the ascent of the departed souls accompanied by angels, is in fact the very same iconography that is almost universally reported by NDE’ers.  Often the angelic characters are replaced by deities or spiritual characters from another belief system, or they’re just seen as the souls of other people, but the overall scene is usually the same.

The typical Near-Death-Experience has the person who has died, or is in a near-death state, leaving their body and travelling through a tunnel or corridor of light.  They report being ushered or beckoned by beings of light, beings often referred to as angels, to travel through the tunnel.  Once through the tunnel or corridor, the person is greeted by people they knew in life but whom had already passed on, and often they are accompanied by specific religious figures, such as Jesus, or Buddha, etc.  Almost without fail, the experience is characterised as utopic and surreal, but extremely vivid and almost hyper-real at the same time.

And this is the strangest part; the above, with some small variation, is the sequence and imagery reported by almost all people who experience a near-death scenario, no matter where they live, what language they speak, or to what religion (if any) they adhere.  How is that possible?

near-death-experience

The common answer is that the experience is real, that the person’s soul really did leave their body, which brought on the state known as death.  That the soul travelled, in some incorporeal way, to another realm, perhaps heaven, and interacted with the souls of the actual people they claimed to see, and in some cases, perhaps, even consorted with Jesus.

As common as that answer may be, it remains inadequate to a great many people, both in sincerity and in its ability to explain what’s really happening during an NDE.

Those who subscribe to a deterministic world view, that is, those who hold to the idea that everything in nature has a root physical cause (i.e. consciousness is the product of neurochemistry and neural activity, and is not an emergent property of the duality of the mind-body), often claim that Near-Death-Experiences, and by extension Out-of-Body-Experiences, or astral travel, are nothing more than delusional states brought about through complex processes related to how our brains work.  There is some weight to this idea, too, whether you agree with it or not.

The deterministic claim, often called the skeptical claim as it relates to NDE’s, essentially says that the experiences being reported are nothing more than dreams or hallucinations.  There are several proposed ways that these vivid dreams could come about, such as medicinal side-effects, neurological strain from illness or injury, oxygen deprivation, or just a product of the sudden decay of synapses at the time of death.  And these are all reasonable hypotheses, but there’s an aspect of NDE’s that defies each of those explanations.

When you dream, where do the images, people, and landscapes come from?  Does your mind create them from scratch?  Are they pure imagination?  No, by all current understanding, they are not.  All of the imagery of your dreams come directly from your memories.  What you experience in your dreams is your sub-conscious mind sorting through memories and experiences from your waking life.

0221_blind_630x420

Did you know that blind people don’t experience a visual aspect in their dreams?  Well, that’s not entirely accurate.  People who became blind at some point after birth, whether through injury or illness, occasionally have some rudimentary visual aspect in their dreams, though it’s usually commensurate with the length of time that they have lived with sight.  The reason for this, if it’s not already obvious, is because blind people, generally speaking, have no visual memories.  It’s just not part of their experience, so they can’t dream of such.  They do experience sounds, smells, and other sensory stimulus, and…wouldn’t you know it, they also experience NDE’s just like everyone else does.

Dr. Kenneth Ring, Emeritus professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut, one of the world’s leading Near-Death researchers, has chronicled, through his research, the Near-Death-Experiences of several blind subjects in his book Mindsight: Near-Death and Out-of-Body-Experiences in the Blind (1999).  One of his research subjects, Vicki Umipeg, a 45 year old woman born blind, remarked about her experience:

“This was the only time I could ever relate to seeing and to what light was, because I experienced it.”[2]

According to Dr. Ring, Vicki’s experience is typical of blind NDE’ers, which seems to suggest that NDE’s are something far more complicated than dreams or simple hallucinations.  Not only did Vicki, and presumably others, experience sight for the first time during her NDE, but that experience was carried back into her consciousness once she was revived, giving her the only visual memory she ever had.

Does this mean that her Near-Death-Experience, and that of others, was real?  It would be nice to say yes, but it still isn’t clear; far from it.

The Divine Comedy - The Empyrean. Gustave Dore. c.19th Century

The Divine Comedy – The Empyrean. Gustave Dore. c.19th Century

In addition to the argument that NDE’s and OOBE’s are dreams or hallucinations, is the suggestion that NDE’s are the result of cultural assimilation sparking false memories.  It’s said that the people who report these experiences are prone to fanciful, mystical beliefs, and that the archetypal nature of the NDE iconography is explained by understanding the prevalence of the religious ideology involved.  The vast majority of our population is intimately familiar with the doctrines of the Abrahamic religions, and the associated afterlife stories are nearly ubiquitous, even among those who don’t subscribe to the underlying ideas.  This universal familiarity with that iconography is often blamed for the surprising consistency between NDE reports, after all, who doesn’t know all about Heaven and angels and everything that goes along with that?  But there’s a point that seems to be overlooked each time this is given as an explanation.

Why does no one ever report a Near-Death-Experience that included a trip to Hell?

Edit: To assuage the misunderstanding of my apparently poorly chosen words, I will clarify that yes, there are people who report having NDE’s that include hell or hell type iconography.  That is not what I meant.

In the context of the false memory explanation, if popular religious ideology in our culture were responsible for creating false memories of NDE’s, then it would stand to reason that we would see nearly equal incidence of heaven vs. hell iconography, as the idea of hell is arguably more popular in many cultures than that of heaven, or at the very least equal.  And as Cris Putnam points out in the comments below, the fact that children share in the typical near-death experience, presumably with little or no exposure to such cultural ideas, is a strong barrier to this often used explanation.

 

[1] That claim is contested, though not by the art world (since almost nothing is known about Bosch or the meaning behind his great works of art), but by Near-Death researchers.  Many claim that the first depictions of NDE’s come from the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thodol (Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State).

[2] Williams, Kevin. People Born Blind Can See During A NDE – Dr. Kenneth Ring’s NDE Research of the Blind: http://web.archive.org/web/20080117054508/http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence03.html

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  • Cris D Putnam

    People certainly do report visions of hell, they just aren’t as popular. Cardiologist Dr. Maurice Rawlings has written a book “To Hell and Back” about Near Hell Experiences; Bill Weiss wrote a book “23 Minutes in Hell” a few years back. Google Howard Storm’s NDE and read about an atheist who became a pastor after seeing hell in an NDE. The final question in this article suggests that they go under reported and are quietly swept under the rug.

  • Cris, thanks for doing the work 🙂 I was just going to look up that same info. Incidentally, I just listened to you on Extraordinary Intelligence. Great episode, man.

  • derp

    “quietly swept under the rug” get outa here brah

  • Kjvyn Koldt

    Why is it so hard to believe NDEs are real? Are we so intoxicated on science (itself a religion) in the modern day that we need to be hit over the head bluntly many many times before we believe the “unbelievable”? We have truly become little more than robots…

  • Indeed. Here’s an interview Alex Tsakiris did with Nancy Evan Bush, author of Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near Death Experiences:

    http://www.skeptiko.com/nancy-evans-bush-encountering-near-death-experience-hell/

  • OK, apparently I worded that poorly. I am aware that there are reports of people claiming to have visited Hell during an NDE. I’ll try to explain.

    Among those who claim that NDE’s are the result of false memories populated by universal religious iconography, seldom do they question the dichotomy between NDE’s that include trips to Hell, vs. NDE’s that include trips to Heaven.

    If false memories are responsible for the universality of NDE imagery, then we should see a nearly equal incidence of Heaven vs. Hell.

  • azzwright

    We discussed her theories and reports here:

    http://mysteriousuniverse.org/2012/04/episode-514-mysterious-universe-plus/

    🙂

  • It’s not about whether they actually go there, in the context in which I made those remarks, it’s about which ideology is more prevalent, and therefore more prone to fuel false memories.

  • You guys should try to get her on the show 😉

  • I’m curious: do we have negative NDE’s reported by children?

  • 2ndsOut

    Check out NDEs in Hell on Amazon.

  • Brett Bentley

    Perhaps the reason for fewer Hell type experiences is because, according to several religions, you visit Heaven to be judged before full acceptance in Heaven or punishment of Hell. Most NDEs are brief and may not have been sufficient time to go through the process.

  • guest

    ~ Thirty years ago I had a patient (I was an active hospital nurse working in a step-down unit) who consistently claimed untoward experiences with perceived evil beings in his hospital room (initially beginning in the ICU) . He gave very precise descriptions of the beings — which never varied (although their ‘thoughts’ toward him did somewhat). I was very disappointed that the hospital chaplains refused to enter his room during his stay on step-down (one [or more] had while he was in ICU). I was heavily pregnant (can’t remember how far along) and working nights at the time … and would … albeit with trepidation … have to force myself to enter his room to offer reassurance (and of course to check up on him, etc.) — always trying hard to ‘see into the air’ to discover these beings (one of which he claimed even sat on his bed). I remember trying to correlate his experiences with the meds that he had been on both on my unit and ICU — but could not. His fear was literally palpable. Prior to being discharged, he revealed to me that he was returning to a geographical region in the USA where he lived during his younger years … he had committed some crimes there and was determined to go back and “make things as right as possible.” I am not being more specific about certain things because I am always on the ‘lookout’ to read of this incident being reported again by this man … or his SOs/others.

  • kayton leslie

    the blind experience NDEs because these experiences are based mostly off culture and imagination, while dreams are based off visual memory formation. So while a blind person may not have ever seen a picture of an angel, i am sure they have been told what an angel looks like and in their own way they are able to draw up a visual formation. So researchers need to be very careful when they interrogate blind people who have NDEs, and make sure they were not just influenced by what they were told by others.

  • neyney

    Why does no one ever report a Near-Death-Experience that included a trip to Hell?

    Edit: To assuage the misunderstanding of my apparently poorly chosen words, I will clarify that yes, there are people who report having NDE’s that include hell or hell type iconography. That is not what I meant.

    Well then what do you mean? Explain?

    There are numerous accounts of people going to hell in NDE’s. In the case of one man it was such a profound experience that he became a Christian minister after it.

    So explain

  • MikeofAges

    My estimation is, only those who reject the Law are condemned. The Law and the rules are two different things. The rules are what we live under. The Law is eternal and transcendent.

    Individuals may be uniformed about the Law. They may be so damaged that they cannot follow it. They may have to fight for their existence day in and not day out and therefore are not able to give the Law much consideration. But only those few who overtly reject the law are denied. Perhaps, in their nature, where they go is to them a kind of paradise.

    People do have negative NDE’s. These, perhaps, are warning. Maybe to that person. Maybe to all.

  • Did you stop reading after what you quoted?

  • Owl

    I have read a lot about this subject over the past several years, and my understanding is that while there are “heavenly” realms and “hellish” realms, most people either don’t go to the “hellish” ones at all, or don’t stay there long. The reason is simple: When you die, you more or less go where you expect to go, or have been conditioned to believe you will go (there are rare exceptions and I cannot explain them, but that’s a whole other discussion). And the truth is that relatively few people actually believe they are deserving of hell.

    My gut feling is that the people most likely to initially go to a “hellish” realm are the people who have tried the hardest to avoid it and are (in some cases) the most sure they will avoid it, and by that I mean fundamentalist Christians. The reason is that many of them, though they will never admit it to other Christians, are constantly worried that they won’t “measure up” at the end. When you sit under largely negative preaching for a good part of your life, there is a real chance you will come to believe that all the church people around you are “saved”, but you’re just a pretender that is destined for hell unless some true miracle happens. Alternately, when such people go through their end-of-life review (which only Christianity seems to portray with negative connotations, by using the word “judgement” to describe it, as if you are already guilty of something and being sentenced), they may look back at all the times they were unloving and feel they deserve to be condemned to hell. In effect, they hold themselves to a higher standard that’s probably unobtainable for most mere mortals (sort of like the average looking person who thinks they are ugly simply because they don’t have the looks to become a fashion model).

    But where religion in general and Christianity in particular really goes off the rails is in propagating the idea that once you are in a hellish realm you must stay there for all eternity. What point would that even serve? It would be more humane and loving to simply end someone’s existence then to subject them to eternal torment. What this ignore is a couple of things, and that are the reports of people who say they visited a hellish realm briefly during an NDE, but then were either pulled out of it (sometimes after calling out to a religious personage) or simply made a conscious decision to leave. And it also ignores all the evidence of reincarnation that is becoming more abundant. One cannot both be committed to an eternal hell after one lifetime and also come back to experience additional lives here, and it makes much more sense that you would be given the opportunity to burn off any “bad karma” in future lives, perhaps by experiencing the same misery you inflicted on others. Reincarnation, at least, gives everyone a path back to the universal all, whereas fundamentalist Christianity says you get one life to make it, and if you blow that chance, a “loving” God condems you to be tormented for all eternity. That doesn’t make a bit of sense no matter how Christian apologists try to twist it, because where would the justice be in basically TORTURING someone forever as punishment for mistakes made during a short, finite lifetime?

    Most of the imagery we have about hell is a result of the churches’ attempts to control people, by threatening them with the worst possible punishment if they failed to obey the teachings of the church. And, sadly, the people that are so fearful that they refuse to dare to question that narrative will be the ones that try the hardest to discredit NDE’s. In a way, it’s personal for them. To admit that what the Bible says, or how it is interpreted by the church, might not be entirely accurate would shake the very core of their belief system, and possibly cause the to realize how much effort, time and money they have put into serving mad-made religion.

  • Harold

    “Buddha?”

    Really? Then I have a serious problem with the so-called NDE!!!!

  • Mark

    I met a drug dealer with a story.He was recuperating and having reconstructive surgery on his throat and inside his oral area so he could swallow properly.

    This man had died after a gun fight. He had been shot and basically bled out when he reached the emergency room and then on the operating table. He remembered leaving his body recalling the exact conversations being said by staff and his family. He traveled with a very tall angel and was in chains being dragged to a dark area where he could make out other people screaming in torment. The angel shone bright and was the only source of light at the bottom. He was able to pull free from the chain and managed to just crest the hill to look over and in awe he could see a beautiful light that he new was heaven.He kept sliding back and would lose sight and then scramble back up. He said he could make out a city in the light and small figures walking about and singing. The chain was pulled and down he traveled back to the bottom…he could hear his mom weeping and praying for him and in an instant he returned to being above his body and then he was inside. He was sincere and scared as he told me his story I asked if he had changed any of the things he was doing…his head dropped and his shoulders shrank.He stated that he knew what was coming if he did not change but as of so far he was choosing not to do so….

    I believed the story he told me 100% and it was a very personal story one that I could see was troubling him in a terrible way. If it was only his conscious then so be it but you have to wonder did he go to where we all wonder about?

  • Robin A. Walter

    I have known a lot of people with NDE’s, as I worked in a medical setting as a Paramedic for a long time, and this also included people iwith NDE’a after horrific accidents. Of the many discussions, four were with blind people and three were from birth. All of them experienced the tunnel of light, which I can surmise is more a view of light reflecting over a distant space, and the light is refracted like dust or a cloud. Only one very religious older lady had the proverbial expected experience of angels and St. Peter and meeting Jesus, but on later talked it appeared that these were added, as expectations, but the root memories were of a light in the distance and traveling by design or drawn by an impulse.

  • Ray Tort

    The difference between science and religion – one is faith based, the other is reason based. Study the definitions in a philosophy course.

  • Stefan Grundlingh

    Several NDE’ including a trip to hell has been reported and documented

  • MikeofAges

    Old Testament law. God’s law. if you want to call it that. Note that “Law” is capitalized and the “rules” are not. The “rules” are man’s law. Even in the theocratic communities described in the Old Testament, the rules are man-made. So are the rules of Shariah law, for example. All man made. That is why I called the Law, God’s Law, eternal and transcendent. Because it not made by men and does not change. Perceived by men. But not made by men.

  • Frank Winkler

    Contrary to the author’s assertion, there have been those who experienced NDE and who did go to “Hell,” or some lower astrophysical plane where they were confronted by demons and beasts and were immediately set upon and attacked. Even though in spiritual form, they still described painful episodes and incredible terror, as well as an overwhelming sense of despair, sadness and abandonment. These people had led admittedly bad lives of crime and violence. When they did recover, they made a concerted effort to turn themselves around and do “good,” to include regular church attendance and active participation, community service, etc.

  • Melissa Bhargo

    This is a very awesome concept. Thanks owl:D

  • MexicanMobsta13

    wich ones are gods Laws?