I was browsing through the DVD section at the local library, looking for a light movie, perhaps a comedy, for the upcoming weekend. I did find a comedy, but in perusing the racks also found something that caught my eye. "The Near Death Experience" by Raymond Moody, M.D., Ph.D. I had read about NDE's years ago, and thought it was a fascinating phenomenon that was difficult to explain and replicate, and then promptly forgot about them. So I had to borrow this DVD and watch.
The DVD was extremely interesting. The first section involves five people describe their NDE. I'm not sure what to think about NDE's. Part of me feels like they probably are very real experiences to the people that experience them, and we, as humans, probably all have the capacity to experience NDE's. But there's also part of me that wonders, of the people who experienced NDE's, how many of them were on the more sensitive, more "magical thinking" side (as the DSM IV - the text psychiatrists use to diagnose psychiatric disorders - puts it) and how much of what one's NDE experience depends on cultural experiences. For example, a fair number seem to see a white light at the end of a tunnel, and feel the "presence" of God, but that's a pretty archetypal scene of heaven that is tied into popular American culture. What of a Buddhist or Muslim or someone who grew up as a bushman in Africa - do they also see the same thing, or does their version correspond to what their culture believes about the end of life? Also, it would have been nice to have a person recounting a bad NDE experience. Apparently, a smaller number of people have NDE's where they see images of biblical hell similar to Dante's inferno. The question this raises is how much does the content of a NDE correlate to who that person was in their life? Is a murderer more likely to have a bad NDE?
The second part of the DVD was more interesting. Apparently Dr. Moody is a philosopher who went to medical school, became a psychiatrist, and has spent his career studying NDE, death, and dying. The DVD talks about some of his research on NDE's which is truly fascinating. Dr. Moody draws from his philosophical background and he talks about an underground place in ancient Greece where people used to be able to go to "talk" with deceased loved ones. The ruins have actually been found, and Moody was able to piece together that the setting for the "talk" involved a pool of water the person would stare into from which the deceased would rise and interact with the living. He also brought up examples of this looking into water or a mirror in popular culture (Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, and most recently Lord of the Rings.) In addition, there were "medical reports showing that at least half of all persons whose spouse dies report a spontaneous contact from that person after death." Based on this, he built a "psychomanteum" and used it as his research laboratory. The psychomanteum was basically a big mirror in a dark room with a chair the subject could sit in. Prior to entry into the room, Moody would prepare the subject by asking them in depth questions about who the deceased was, what they were like, etc. Basically have them really revisit all their memories of the deceased. Then the subject would go into the room and sit there for a half hour or so. Apparently a good number of them came out with experiences that they had seen the deceased in the mirror or interacted with them. There were also olfactory and physical experiences as well.
Again, am not sure what to make of this. I think there was a lot of priming going on and this just goes to show that the human mind is a fascinating thing. I'm hestitant to say that these were "hallucinations" as some critics have claimed, because the fact that we have no way of explaining the experiences that happened to these people does not mean that they were not "real" or that these people were "crazy." I don't doubt that to the people who had experiences in the psychomanteum, their experiences were "real." At the same time, I don't know how to explain how they had those experiences.
We, as a society, tend to try to label things and file them in a system that we understand. Understandable why we do so, but the fact that we do means we are limiting what's possible in our world. For example, a patient with chronic pain with normal medical tests used to be disbelieved by many physicians, but now may be given the label of "fibromyalgia." The patient reports an inordinate amount of pain and in her own reality, likely experiences that much pain. The fact that we cannot understand how or why she has that much pain does not detract from the validity of her experience in "her world." Similarly, a schizophrenic who hears voices in his head telling him he is evil truly lives in that reality. The fact that most people do not share that reality leads to a labelling of that person as "crazy," but that does not alter the fact that schizophrenia is a possible experience for all human beings and a true reality for that person. Anyway, all this is just a lot of rambling to say that just because the medical establishment cannot explain something does not mean that we should regard those that believe in it as "heretics." To do so would mean we're stuck in the box we've created - holding on to our version of reality as the only possible version of reality.