In October 2015 I attended the regular meeting of the Nottingham Empyrean Pagan Interest Group at the Theosophical Hall on Maid Marian Way. This particular presentation, professionally executed using POWERPOINT was given by Mr Tim Hewitt; a local man, a Mental Health Nurse and a Trauma Counsellor.
It was clear that Near Death Experience is a subject of personal interest to Mr Hewitt, an obvious statement. Why else would anyone research and write a presentation on any subject? The important factor at play however, was that this presentation was to be less fanciful than some of the material available, being a combination of qualitative and qualitative research.
The presentation was introduced as being divided in a number of sections; Death and the Near Death Experience, a look at the sceptical theories balanced with medical research, before finally drawing some tentative conclusions.
In beginning his presentation with a subject that is the perceived end of life, Tim Hewitt poignantly reminded each of us of our personal mortality. Death is unavoidable, unlike corporation tax and will affect us even before our own. Death is as Tim Hewitt observed, a taboo subject here in the UK but an ever present one, there are 1400 deaths per day in the UK and 1600 births. So our population is continually increasing and is proportionally unbalanced.
The Near Death Experience that may involve the symptoms of cardiac arrest, is based upon decreased brain activity and obvious loss of consciousness. It is suggested that only six and one half seconds after the heart has stopped there will be a loss of consciousness. In another fifteen seconds a flat-line EEG is observed, the cerebral cortex and the brain stem have ceased activity. The actual moment however, between an unconscious state, an unresponsive state and death, still remains liminal, perhaps even beyond true measurement.
The historical references to the Near Death Experience, which is both a human and a descriptive one, proved to be most enlightening. The earliest example was documented by Plato in his famous Republic of 380 BCE. Here Plato spoke of a warrior called Er, wounded in battle; who himself described a white light, a rainbow, two judges and the crossing of meadow before coming back. All of these factors were to become enduring and reoccurring motifs of the Near Death Experience in the following millennia.
In the eighth century the Venerable Bede of all people, wrote of a man called Cunningham undergoing a very similar experience, describing a meadow on his return to consciousness. This continued reference to a meadow reminds this writer of the Hellenic Elysium Fields.
Mr Hewitt brought the subject nearer to our own time, with references to the Victorian era. It is naturally unsurprising that a time rich with romanticism and a fascination for the supernatural, should take an interest in death bed visions and other descriptive phenomena. However, it was not until the twentieth century that what can now be called the first academic studies took place and Mr Hewitt provided several references at this point (see below).
More recent studies, in particular those post the year 2000 have thrown up a wealth of statistics, showing that a higher than expected proportion of the adult population have undergone the Near Death Experience, an even larger number of children and perhaps unsurprisingly, one quarter of all suicide attempts. It was noted by the presenter that the subject matter was so broad and indeed so complex, that it included multiple elements both social and cultural, in the developed world and the developing, made many of those elements fell outside his present study.
It was noted at this point that there are differences within the overall experience and the lasting effects, when comparing a childhood Near Death Experience with those of adulthood. Children not only recover from the psychological trauma with a greater success but experience subtle differences, this includes the meeting of animals and in some cases an unknown child. It has been postulated by some, that this may have been a deceased or unborn twin.
The Near Death Experience is quite obviously and as emphasised by Mr Hewitt, a truly life changing phenomenon that can have a deeply spiritual effect upon the individual. There are many anomalies, challenges and perhaps contradictions. The blind experience sight, people may lose a fear of death, develop what may be called psychic abilities, some become deeply and emotionally sensitive, whilst others become less materialistic. Some of these changes may be judged positive but equally, the deep psychological trauma can have many longstanding negative effects. These include depression, divorce and other life changing situations.
In closing Mr Hewitt presented two opposing explanations regarding the phenomenon that is the Near Death Experience. Taking the approach of accepting that those describing such an experience, as having had a genuine spiritual journey, with the necessarily skeptical counter approach. In doing this we were presented with the statements of those who on return; have described conversations, objects (such as the famous Maria’s shoe) and actual physical landmarks that they would in theory, have had no prior knowledge off. Thus balanced by the proposed medical explanations centered on oxygen deprivation (leading to hallucinations) and the effects of ketamine, a common anesthetic drug. Wisely Mr Hewitt ended his paper there, allowing the engrossed audience the opportunity to take away the evidence presented and make up their own minds.
Relevant references and bibliography
Fisher, Joe; (1998); Coming Back Alive – the case for reincarnation
Moody, Raymond; (2010), Glimpses of Eternity – an investigation into Shared Death Experiences
Peake, Anthony; (2009); Is There Life After Death
Roland, Paul; (2009); Reincarnation
Morse, Melvin; (1990); Closer to the Light – learning from the near-death experiences of children
Sartori, Penny; (2014); The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences
Lommel, Pin van; (2007); Consciousness Beyond Life – the science of the NDE
Chopra, Deepak; (2006); Life After Death
Laszio, Ervin; (2014); The Immortal Mind – science and the continuity of consciousness beyond the brain
Carter, Christopher; (2010); Science and the Near-Death Experience
Atwater, Pamela; (2007); The Big Book of Near Death Experiences
Rinpoche, Sogyal; (1993); The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying