Do you ever wonder if life is more than the mundane, and human beings are more than just physical flesh and blood? There seems to be evidence to support this feeling.
Some people have deep experiences that feel like they have connected to the essence of the universe. Some seem to experience life after death, but then are returned to this life. Some see visions or receive healing from God.
Are all these accounts just urban myths? Do they all have some neurological or psychological explanation? Or are they insights into a deeper reality? You be the judge.
Barbara was 17 and on a skiing trip when she had an unusual and powerful experience.
“I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life. There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of. It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.”
To someone else, that might have been a religious experience, but Barbara was a “hard core” atheist. So she put it all down to some sort of temporary “mental breakdown”. She went on to study immunology and become a writer and activist.
On her own admission, she took “an inexcusably long time” to realise many people, both religious and irreligious, have had experiences like hers. Eventually she came to see her experience as a genuine insight. Perhaps the universe might contain some other forms of consciousness or life, not gods, but not people either?
Science vs experience?
But could that be possible? Doesn’t science show us that these sorts of experiences are all in the mind? Hallucinations maybe, or some part of the brain working too hard?
It seems it isn’t that simple. Studies show that these “peak” or “mystical” experiences are not uncommon, and they generally happen to emotionally and mentally healthy people. Neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili write: “we do not believe that genuine mystical experiences can be explained away as the results of epileptic hallucinations or …. triggered by drugs, illness, physical exhaustion, emotional stress or sensory deprivation. … Instead, they may be produced by sound, healthy minds”.
Furthermore, the experiences generally have a positive effect. They leave the person joyful and peaceful, and with a greater sense of meaning, purpose and prosociality (wanting to make a positive contribution to society).
So while some neuroscientists and psychologists still thank that these experiences are just physical by-products of our brains, others say none of the scientific explanations cover all the different experiences, and are investigating further.
Perhaps these experiences give us insights into the world and ourselves that are beyond what science can currently describe?
Seeing and hearing while brain dead?
Pam Reynolds was 35 when a large aneurysm required her to undergo extreme surgery in 1991. The operation was performed in the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix Arizona.
Pam’s body was cooled down so her brain cells could survive longer without oxygen. Her heart stopped and her brain totally ceased functioning. The blood was drained from her brain to allow the surgery team to perform the delicate operation to clip off the aneurysm while she was effectively dead. Then her body was warmed, her heart re-started and her life returned.
The medical procedure all went as planned in a 7 hour operation. But when she recovered, Pam reported an amazing “out-of-body” experience where she travelled down a tunnel towards light, saw some long-dead relatives and felt a warm and loving godlike presence. The experience ended suddenly when her uncle led her back to her body.
None of this out of body experience can be verified, of course. But Pam reported some events in the operating theatre that could be verified from the medical records. Her eyes were bandaged shut and she had speakers emitting a loud noise in her ears (to allow the surgeons to stimulate her brain and monitor whether there was any activity). Nevertheless, she could describe the appearance of her shaved head, the shape of the saw used to open her skull, and some pieces of conversation.
If Pam truly saw and heard events while she was brain dead and unable to see and hear through her normal senses, her mind must have been operating independently of her brain.
Near Death Experiences (NDEs)
It turns out these types of experiences are quite common. Unconscious and even brain dead people see themselves floating above their body while medical teams tried to revive them. Some are transported to other-worldly places where they met up with long-dead relatives, are enveloped in a godlike light and feel limitless love. Some see their whole life in a new perspective
And when they return to their bodies, and wake up, they are new people. For many, their life takes a different, less selfish course, and they never forget what they experienced.
Psychiatrist Bruce Greyson has spent decades talking to people about near-death experiences. He tells of some of the accounts he has heard:
- When Gregg Nome was 24 years old he almost drowned. During the time when it seemed his life would end, he saw crystal-clear and vivid scenes from his childhood that he had mostly forgotten, occurring at high speed, almost all at once, in a wave (I guess like “life flashing before his eyes”). At the same time he could also clearly see the water, the sand bed. And despite his danger, he felt he felt calm and at ease, and somehow felt he understood the meaning of life and the universe.
- After a bad reaction to anaesthesia, one patient recalled: “I found myself in a meadow, mind cleared, identity intact.” The meadow was “lit with this glorious, radiant light, like no light we’ve ever seen,” and “a gentle, inner glow shone from each and every plant.”
- A man who almost died during surgery asked: “How do you describe a state of timelessness, where there’s nothing progressing from one point to another, where it’s just all there, and you’re totally immersed in it?”
- Another person recalled: “The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria.”
Greyson has observed that those who experience NDEs tend to live different lives afterwards – “They end up going into helping professions. They become teachers, or healthcare workers, or social workers.” He has come to the conclusion that “there is more to life than just our physical bodies”.
Research on physical explanations continues, with many scientists explaining them as in the normal functioning of the brain in an extreme situation. A number of different explanations have been proposed (e.g. oxygen depletion, a hyperactive dying brain, damage to a crucial region of the brain, neurochemicals and REM intrusion causing hallucinations) but none have so far been demonstrated.
A 16 year old boy lived since birth with a serious medical condition that prevented food moving from his stomach and being absorbed by his body. Despite many medical interventions in his first year of life, his condition couldn’t be remedied. At 11 months, two tubes were inserted directly into his stomach and intestine to allow him to feed without using his mouth.
Medical interventions, both medications and surgical procedures, continued over the next 7 years, but he was still unable to eat or drink through his mouth. This condition sometimes resolves naturally after a few years, but he reached the age of 16 with no improvement, and poor prospects of any recovery.
The boy’s family were christians but they attended a church that didn’t believe in or practice divine healing. However at age 16 he attended a Pentecostal church with his parents and received prayer for healing. Halfway through the prayer, the boy felt a painful shock, “a pulsating and electrical sensation” from his shoulder to his abdomen. He went home that night and ate a meal without any complications for the first time in his life.
The healing was confirmed by his gastroenterologist after three months, and the tubes were removed. Six years later he was still able to eat normally. The case was written up in a respected medical journal, and the authors say other explanations (placebo or natural recovery) that are possible for some conditions would be unprecedented in this case. It really appears he was healed as a result of the prayer.
Many people who are sick or in distress pray for help, whether they are “religious” or not. And it seems that sometimes they recover and believe they have been healed. Surveys suggest that hundreds of millions of people believe they have been healed by God, or have seen someone else healed.
It is, of course, hard to know what to make of these accounts. It isn’t possible to see or measure God in action (if that is what has occurred). But we can say that remarkable recoveries sometimes occur after prayer and apparently as a result of prayer.
It is one more clue to the possibility that life and the universe are more than the physical world we inhabit and can so easily observe.
Visions of the divine
Jim Link was watching TV at home in Ontario Canada one evening when it seemed like the screen and the walls of the room became invisible. While he was trying to come to terms with what was happening, he became aware that he could see a human figure in the room, wearing long robes and sandals. The figure didn’t speak, but he beckoned Jim to come to him. Jim was an unbeliever, but he immediately thought it was Jesus, and remembered his words in the New Testament: “Come to me all you who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” This experience led to him deciding to become a christian.
Fifteen years later, while meeting with other christians, Jim had another vision. He was sitting at a table when he found himself unable to move. Jesus appeared to him and questioned him for several hours. The others could hear Jim’s responses but saw nothing, and were unable to intervene. Jim felt the vision strengthened his resolve to follow Jesus.
Your first thought might be to think that either Jim was hallucinating, or that these accounts are simply invented. But university philosopher, Phillip Wiebe, has collected dozens of these accounts from all sorts of people who were undoubtedly sane and sensible, and he feels sure were not lying. From the responses in his local area in Canada, he has concluded that these visionary experiences are not as rare as we might think.
So what can we make of these stories?
Philip has examined several different neurological and psychological explanations, and has concluded that none of them properly explain these accounts.
Experience vs science?
How do human beings know anything is true? This life could all be a dream, or we may be living in a computer simulation. Yet most of us don’t think that’s the case. Why not?
In normal life we take people at face value if we don’t have any reason to mistrust them. We assume things are as they appear to be unless we have some reason to doubt. We allow people’s experiences to be expressed and listened to, for who has the right to deny another person what they have experienced?
So while science may not be able to explain these different experiences, we can understand that those who have received healing, an NDE or some powerful and deep experience are likely to accept their experience as real. And for the rest of us, the sheer number of the accounts and the general sanity of the recipients, makes it hard to simply put them aside and believe that “it’s all in the mind”.
Perhaps these are all clues to the deeper reality that life is spiritual as well as physical?
The last word
Barry was an 18 year old college student in Canada when he had a serious skiing accident that broke 3 vertebrae in his neck. He was hospitalised and kept immobile. Swelling caused his vision to become blurry. The doctors planned surgery, and expected him to remain in hospital for 3 months, and in a neck brace for a further 8 months.
However the night before surgery was planned, he woke up to see Jesus at the foot of his bed. They conversed briefly, Barry touched Jesus’ hands, and Jesus said to him: “Everything is going to be OK.” The next morning Barry woke up with full vision and no pain. X-rays confirmed that there was now no fracture where there had been previously, and he was allowed to return home weeks earlier than expected and with no need for a neck brace.
I wrote this account up on this website, and Barry wrote a comment. It was by then 40 years since the vision and healing, but Barry was able to say:
The most important part was that when Jesus was there, the love was so beyond anything I have ever experienced by a factor of 777, that my first and only thought was “take me with you.” ….. The love was truly indescribable. The next day I remember thinking of one of the worst humans to have walked this earth, I thought that I too would have died for that person, because that love was not a doctrine, it was a reality. Yes Jesus healing me. But far, far above that was that he loved me, and I FELT IT!
Read more on this website
Read more accounts, possible explanations plus references to all of the phenomena discussed here.