One of the major surprises during the writing of my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife was how neglected the topic of end-of-life phenomena was, especially compared to its more famous sibling, the near-death experience. In the end, I was so fascinated that I wrote an entire chapter about end-of-life experiences, ranging from 18th century accounts through to recent research on the subject.
For those who haven't read my book, the recent TEDx talk by Martha Atkins embedded below will give you a great overview, as she touches on a number of the elements I discuss in my book, not least how the question of whether these experiences are 'real' may be secondary to the impact they have on the dying and those they are leaving behind. Fantastic presentation...but please, nobody tell certain whiny atheist bloggers about it lest they have TED remove it.
You might also like:
In my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife, I devoted an entire chapter to the fascinating topic of 'end-of-life experiences' (ELEs), which incorporate a number of phenomena that occur in the final days and hours of someone's life. These include experiences of the dying such as deathbed visions, but also a number of perplexing cases that involve quite healthy people close to or caring for the dying person. One such ELE is the 'dying light', where those caring for the dying have described seeing a bright light surrounding the person as they pass away, exuding what they relate as “a raw feeling of love”.
Surprisingly, reports of the 'dying light' are not rare. As I pointed out in Stop Worrying..., neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick was amazed to find in a survey of palliative carers that one in every three reported accounts of “a radiant light that envelops the dying person, and may spread throughout the room and involve the carer”. In a similar Dutch study, the numbers were even more staggering: more than half of all carers reported observations of this light!
After my book was published, I came across another, high-profile example of the 'dying light'. Olivia Harrison, wife of former Beatles guitarist George Harrison, gave this account of his passing for the Martin Scorcese-directed documentary about his life, George Harrison: Living in the Material World (0:26 mark):
There was a profound experience that happened when he left his body. It was visible. Let’s just say, you wouldn’t need to light the room, if you were trying to film it. He just…lit the room.
Olivia Harrison's testimony sounds very similar to Peter Fenwick's description, “a radiant light that envelops the dying person, and may spread throughout the room", and seems befitting of the passing of a man who was very interested in mysticism, consciousness, and being personally prepared for our own death. As Harrison himself put it on one of the songs on his 1970 solo album All Things Must Pass, "nothing in this life that I've been trying, could equal or surpass the art of dying".
You might also like:
Researcher Daniel Bourke looks into the mystery of why near-death experiencers often report that their communication with the deceased was via 'telepathy'.
The near-death experience remains one of the great mysteries of the modern era. And within that mystery lies another - why do so many NDE accounts feature communication via 'telepathy' between NDErs and the deceased people they meet during the experience? It's a question that has long fascinated me, and I was excited to see that a young researcher by the name of Daniel Bourke has addressed this aspect of the NDE at length. Daniel has been kind enough to allow me to reproduce his essay here - I'm sure you'll enjoy it!
On Non-Verbal Communications During the Near-Death Experience: Documenting the Fact and Establishing its Importance
by Daniel Bourke (2013)
There are a great many features to the classical near-death experience (NDE). Many critics have seen this as somehow detrimental to the reality of the experience. That such variety in reports is in some way supportive of its unreality. Such critics are both completely unfamiliar with the breadth of the literature and indeed of the fallacy of such thinking in and of itself. In just the same way that any given individual would explain his unique experience of the "waking world", the NDE is home to a variety of features, and yet is strikingly consistent and familiar no matter who is relaying the message or indeed where and when that message is relayed. Fundamentally, there is a set of experiences which can be had within the confines of the near-death experience and while all of these will not be experienced all of the time; some will reliably be experienced every time. But even this is a vast oversimplification as the similarities between near-death accounts are far more consistent and specific than any two relevantly separated accounts of Earthly life. Many authors have attempted to account for these similarities using various models but it is enough here for us to know this is the case.
One of these features and the topic of this particular paper is the fascinating persistence of telepathy as a means of communication in the land of the dead. By telepathy we mean some form of thought or idea transfer which is specifically cited by a great many of those who return as the primary means of communication. Although those familiar with the term may consider telepathy to be in some way a more" indirect" or "etheric" form of communication, we will soon see that it has been described by those who have ventured beyond the veil of death as far more instantaneous, efficient and less prone to misinterpretation than the spoken word could ever hope to achieve. We will then briefly ponder the implications of such consistencies in reports. The main idea here is documentation of the fact itself, the results of which may be considered however the reader sees fit. It is however hoped to be established beyond doubt that during the time of the near-death experience, non-verbal communication is completely ubiquitous as the primary means of communication.
It is important to remember, that insofar as we are here concerned, the word "telepathy" is being used as a descriptor for an experienced phenomenon. It is perhaps the only word in our language, or at least one of just a few, which can aptly describe the type of non-verbal communication which is experienced by those near death and should be treated as such. In other words, the use of the word should be viewed in this context.
Perhaps most important to be noted is how easily an analysis of this kind may not have come to pass. How easily it could have come to be the case that during reports of near-death experiences, people simply spoke as they had on Earth, and had not reported an altogether different method of communication than they are used to. And yet it is not so.
On The Primacy of Non Verbal Communication in the Land of the Dead
Many authors have noted the primacy of thought as a means of communication in the world beyond our own. When we look across the literature it becomes extremely clear that non-verbal communication is the rule rather than the exception. Speaking to this, Dr. Raymond Moody created an often cited but certainly still relevant "composite" or archetypical near-death experience based on the cases he collected. This is a model near-death experience which captures the general attributes of the "core" near-death experience, Moody shows us that he himself considers the telepathic aspect of the experience as being recurring enough to warrant a place in his model NDE; he writes that, "...Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving, warm spirit of a kind he never encountered before-a being of light-appears before him. His being asks him a question, nonverbally...". 1
Let us now hear from some more of these authors and their related thoughts in order to set the stage for our accounts with words from those who have so tirelessly sifted through so many accounts, interviewed many hundreds of subjects, indeed thousands between them and have more authority than most to make such general statements. ... Read More »
One of the biggest selling books in recent years on the topic of near-death experiences has been Heaven is for Real, which tells the story of (then) 3-year-old Colton Burpo's NDE during emergency surgery in 2003. The success of the book, which puts a rather heavy Christian slant on the near-death experience, has led to it being adapted into a movie, which will be released at Easter (yup). Here's the trailer:
Veteran near-death experience researcher Nancy Evans Bush has posted a short blog entry with more information, and some of her own thoughts about the upcoming movie release:
You may have read Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, if only because it is likely to wind up rivaling Agatha Christie for longevity on best-seller lists. In its simplest element, it is a sweet story. The little boy was three at the time of his NDE, four when he began mentioning it to his parents. He said angels sang to him, and he sat on Jesus’ lap.
If the resulting book dealt only with that part of his story, all might have been well. But the child’s father is a conservative Protestant pastor, a biblical literalist. By the time the sincere but hardly impartial father stopped asking questions, and the boy stopped adding details in response to those questions, seven years had passed and the entire project was in the hands of Lynn Vincent, the ghost writer behind Sarah Palin’s memoir, Going Rogue. Further, the relative simplicity of the few original details had grown as the boy grew, into an elaborated account of Christian exclusivity and holy warfare that puts Revelation imagery into the hands of human warriors resembling Marvel comic book heroes.
The book was published in November, 2010. Today, the end of January, 2014, its front cover announces sales of more than eight million copies; of 6,249 Amazon reviews, 84% (5,345) boast four or five stars. The writer of my email message is certainly right about the story’s hitting the stratosphere.
Over the past week the Daily Mail has been serializing articles on aspects of 'afterlife research', taken from intensive care nurse Penny Sartori’s new book The Wisdom Of Near-Death Experiences (pre-order from Amazon US and Amazon UK. Here's a list of links to the stories they've posted:
- Is this proof near-death experiences ARE real? Extraordinary new book by intensive care nurse reveals dramatic evidence she says should banish our fear of dying.
- Can you foresee the death of a loved one... and choose the exact moment you die? These accounts from an intensive care nurse will astonish you
- The children who have near-death experiences - then lead charmed lives: Study reveals youngsters as young as six months can have lucid visions
- Our astonishing near-death stories... by some of the thousands of you touched by our thought-provoking series by an intensive care nurse
Penny Sartori is certainly not a new-comer to this area - she has been actively researching near-death experiences for more than a decade now, and I mentioned some of that work in my own recent book on NDEs, death-bed visions and mediumship, Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife - so it's great to see her work getting such mainstream coverage. Here's the trailer for her soon-to-be-released book:
You can keep up-to-date with Penny Sartori's research and writings at her official blog.
It's been almost seven years since the death of Dr. Ian Stevenson, well-known for his extensive and detailed research into apparent cases of reincarnation. Stevenson was very much the 'public face' of this research strand, but one of his proteges at the University of Virginia, Dr. Jim Tucker, has also spent many years investigating the same topic, and has recently released a new book on his own research titled Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives. Tucker was recently on NPR discussing his work, for those interested in taking a listen (transcript here):
As might be expected, Tucker's seven-minute appearance on NPR has engendered a comments thread with more than 230 entries, with no shortage of bickering between people horrified that NPR would cover such an 'unscientific' topic and others defending the discussion - reminiscent of last year's blow-up after the University of Virginia's own magazine printed a piece on his reincarnation research.
Famous movie pundit Roger Ebert was often claimed by others as an atheist, although his own opinion was that he disliked his convictions being reduced to one word or label. Ebert's real 'religion', I think, was summed up by his admission that he had "spent hours and hours in churches all over the world...not to pray, but to gently nudge my thoughts toward wonder and awe" - a position many readers here would probably feel aligned with.
It did not surprise me then when I read, in a recent Esquire article ("Oral Histories of 2013"), a first-hand account of Ebert's passing from his wife Chaz that suggests he had a profound experience in his final days:
On April 4, he was strong enough again for me to take him back home. My daughter and I went to pick him up. When we got there, the nurses were helping him get dressed. He was sitting on his bed, and he looked really happy to be going home. He was smiling. He was sitting almost like Buddha, and then he just put his head down. We thought he was meditating, maybe reflecting on his experiences, grateful to be going home. I don't remember who noticed first, who checked his pulse… In the beginning, of course, I was totally freaked out. There was some kind of code thing, and they brought machines in. I was stunned. But as we realized he was transitioning out of this world and into the next, everything, all of us, just went calm. They turned off the machines, and that room was so peaceful. I put on his music that he liked, Dave Brubeck. We just sat there on the bed together, and I whispered in his ear. I didn't want to leave him. I sat there with him for hours, just holding his hand.
Roger looked beautiful. He looked really beautiful. I don't know how to describe it, but he looked peaceful, and he looked young.
The one thing people might be surprised about — Roger said that he didn't know if he could believe in God. He had his doubts. But toward the end, something really interesting happened. That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: "This is all an elaborate hoax." I asked him, "What's a hoax?" And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was just confused. But he was not confused. He wasn't visiting heaven, not the way we think of heaven. He described it as a vastness that you can't even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.
As I noted in my recent book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife, the fascinating phenomena associated with end-of-life experiences (ELEs), such as deathbed visions, aren't restricted to occurring in the minutes or seconds before passing...they can occur, days, weeks and sometimes even months before. I'd love to hear more from Chaz Ebert about what Roger experienced and described, because it certainly does sound like he had visions of a some kind of 'other' place that his consciousness was transiting to.
(h/t Nathan Deitcher/Michael Hughes)
You might also like:
In the modern age, the debate over the possibility that our consciousness might survive the physical death of our body is often reduced to a false dichotomy of science vs religion. As such, scientists sadly often ignore and ridicule reports of strange phenomena from those who have approached, and in some cases gone beyond, the threshold of death, even though such experiences have a profound effect upon those who undergo them. Do these phenomena offer evidence that we might live on in some way past the demise of our physical selves? Here’s a list of five areas, taken from the book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife (Kindle/Paperback), which suggest that it might just be so:
1. Veridical NDEs
The near-death experience first shot into the limelight in the 1970s after the publication of Raymond Moody’s best-selling book Life After Life, to the extent that nearly everyone today knows what an ‘NDE’ is. But while many people took the near-death experience itself as proof of a life beyond death, orthodox science has judged (rightly or wrongly) the heavenly visions of the NDE to be simply hallucinations brought on by the various physical and psychological burdens put on the brain by its imminent demise.
One area that has the potential to change that opinion, however, is research into what are termed ‘veridical NDEs’. This is where, during the ‘out-of-body experience’ stage of the NDE, the experiencer sees things – and later reports back on them – that they should not have been able to perceive. There are many anecdotes of veridical NDEs, such as the case of ‘Dentures Man’, which was mentioned in the respected journal The Lancet. In this case from 1979, a 44-year-old man (‘Mr. B’) was brought into the emergency department at Canisius Hospital in the Netherlands by ambulance, after being discovered comatose, hypothermic and without a pulse in a cold, damp meadow in the middle of the night. Hospital staff, including the senior nurse (‘T.G.’), were beginning resuscitation on the patient when T.G. noticed that Mr. B was wearing dentures, so removed them and placed them on the ‘crash cart’ so that he could put a ventilation mask on the unconscious man. After Mr. B was successfully ‘brought back’, he was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit, and so T.G. did not see the man again until a week later while doing rounds distributing medication. T.G. was astonished when, as he walked into the room, the patient he had brought back to life suddenly exclaimed ‘‘Oh, that nurse knows where my dentures are!’’. Seeing the look of surprise on T.G.’s face, Mr. B explained himself: since coming back to consciousness, Mr. B. had been looking for his dentures. ‘‘You were there when I was brought into hospital and you took my dentures out of my mouth and put them onto that cart,” he said. “It had all these bottles on it and there was this sliding drawer underneath and there you put my teeth”. T.G. was confused by this, as he remembered that he had done this when the patient was unconscious and undergoing CPR to bring him back to life:
When I asked further, it appeared the man had seen himself lying in bed, that he had perceived from above how nurses and doctors had been busy with CPR. He was also able to describe correctly and in detail the small room in which he had been resuscitated as well as the appearance of those present like myself. At the time that he observed the situation he had been very much afraid that we would stop CPR and that he would die. And it is true that we had been very negative about the patient’s prognosis due to his very poor medical condition when admitted. The patient tells me that he desperately and unsuccessfully tried to make it clear to us that he was still alive and that we should continue CPR. He is deeply impressed by his experience and says he is no longer afraid of death. Four weeks later he left hospital as a healthy man.
How did Mr. B ‘see’ the resuscitation room, and in particular the head nurse’s face, when his brain was apparently shut down? While this account alone is puzzling, it is just one of a long list of ‘veridical NDE’ reports through the years. Another patient, Al Sullivan, was undergoing emergency heart surgery when
A new study co-authored by (among others) Dean Radin and Julie Beischel has found that electrocortical activity during mediumistic 'communication' is distinctly different than during other contemplative moments such as thinking about living or imaginary people. The research was done to explore two questions: possible correlations between the accuracy of mediums’ statements and the electrical activity in their brain; and the differences in mediums’ brain activity when they intentionally evoked four different subjective states.
To do so, the researchers collected psychometric and brain electrophysiology data from "six individuals who had previously reported accurate information about deceased individuals under double-blind conditions" (ie. mediums - or more accurately, mediums previously accredited by Julie Beischel's Windbridge Institute). Each experimental participant performed two tasks with eyes closed. In the first task, the medium was given the first name of a deceased person and asked 25 questions, after which they were asked to silently perceive information relevant to the question for 20 seconds and then respond. These responses were then scored for accuracy by individuals who knew the deceased persons. Researchers found that of the four mediums whose accuracy could be evaluated, three scored significantly above chance (p < 0.03). One of the mediums also showed a highly significant correlation between accuracy and brain activity in frontal theta.
In the second task, participants were asked to experience four mental states for 1 min each, a process that was repeated three times: (1) thinking about a known living person, (2) listening to a biography, (3) thinking about an imaginary person, and (4) interacting mentally with a known deceased person. Interestingly, statistically significant differences in electrocortical activity among the four mental states were found in all six participants, leading the researchers to conclude that the differences in electrocortical activity "suggest that the impression of communicating with the deceased may be a distinct mental state distinct from ordinary thinking or imagination".
Here's the conclusion of the paper, in the authors' words:
To conclude, we believe the results for Medium 1, correlating accuracy with electrocortical activity, qualify as a robust finding. The results regarding differences in gamma power bands between different mental states remains puzzling as the gamma difference we observed seems to arise, at least in part, from eye or muscular activity. The characterization of the exact nature of this difference in the gamma frequency band, and assessing whether any of this activity originates from the brain, calls for additional research. Taken together, the study’s findings suggest that the experience of communicating with the deceased may be a distinct mental state that is not consistent with brain activity during ordinary thinking or imagination.
For more information on scientific research into mediumship, check out my recent book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife and also Julie Beischel's memoir on her work, Among Mediums: A Scientist's Quest for Answers.
In my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife (Amazon US/Amazon UK) I devote a chapter to the subject of mediumship, and how science should best approach investigation of this controversial area. One of the elements that I talk about is the so-called 'dazzle shot', where a medium hits on a single, idiosyncratic piece of information that is so specific that the sitter is convinced the reading is coming from a loved one, even if sometimes the rest of the sitting is non-evidential in tone. I feel that previous research which did not take these dazzle shots into account (by scoring readings on the total number of pieces of information that were correct) may have resulted in unnecessarily negative assessments of some mediums, and that future experiments should concentrate on comparing sittings on the overall reading, rather than tallying the number of accurate hits.
The above video of a 'non-believer' (Chad) receiving a reading has an excellent example of a dazzle shot, when medium Chris Stillar (at 10:45) seems a little confused by the "bizarre" and "cryptic" communication coming from the 'deceased personality', asking Chad quite simply "what's pickles?" As you'll see on the video, the sitter at this point is quite overwhelmed emotionally, and it turns out that his deceased friend was obsessed with pickles, to the point where Chad would buy him a jar every week. I'm unfamiliar with this particular experiment, and the researcher doing the work, so I can't vouch that everything was truly anonymous and the medium was definitely 'blind' to the sitter - but it does make you sit up and take notice, and it certainly grabbed Chad's attention.
Skeptics would see other things in the video that might portray things in a more negative light, such as the medium noting at another point that the sitter's eyes seemed to be saying "yes" in response to his question - perhaps evidence that he was at least subconsciously reading and reacting to Chad's body language and subtle cues. The two debrief videos below - the first with Chad, the other with Chris Stillar - also show that some of the information in the first video wasn't as accurate as it seemed (such as the mode of death of Chad's friend). But overall, I think it's a nice group of videos to get a feel for how mediumistic sessions can be so convincing to sitters, and also for a more personal 'chat' with a medium, rather than the usual sensationalised presentation of celebrity mediums that is the norm on television these days.
Here's Chad's debrief:
And here's the post-sitting interview with medium Chris Stillar:
Fascinating material, and well worth viewing if you're at all interested in this topic. And of course, for more on mediumship and other areas of 'afterlife' research, such as NDEs and death-bed visions, make sure you grab a copy of Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife.