The NDE group was older than the ketamine group. As noted before, the latter was mainly composed of subjects aged between 20 and 35 years old. In contrast, Fenwick's group members had an age of 35 or more. In both cases, the male component was slightly larger (53 per cent in the NDE group;
56 per cent in the ketamine group). In the ketamine group, the majority were either students (36 per cent) or in full-time employment (42 per cent). In the NDE group, many of the participants were retired (47.5 per cent).
In all groups, the experience often began with a strong sense of dying and of leaving the body, which was reported by 33 per cent of the ketamine group, 53 per cent of the NDE cardiac-arrest group 'a', and 87 per cent of the NDE other-circumstances group 'b'. This was followed by a strong sense of peace and well-being, which was higher in the NDE groups: 93 per cent in cardiac-arrest group 'a' and 90 per cent in the other-circumstances group 'b', but only 72 per cent in the ketamine group. Conversely, a feeling of joy was highest in the ketamine group at 47 per cent, compared with 45 per cent in the other-circumstances group 'b' and only 27 per cent in the cardiac-arrest group 'a'.
The perception of time was reported to alter for the majority of the two groups (69 per cent in the ketamine group; 67 per cent in the NDE group). After an initial rush or acceleration in the perception of time, there was a sense of timelessness, described in terms that suggested 'time' had lost its meaning. Some of the participants explicitly used expressions such as 'I was not aware of time' or 'time had no meaning'. The exception here might be the life review, an experience during which time acquires a particular relevance, through the disclosure of life events.
In both groups, 'thoughts' and visions were sometimes described as speeded up (70 per cent in the NDE group; 69 per cent in the ketamine group), although there were also states in which there appeared to be little logical thought but more of an experiential mental state focused on visions.
An infrequently encountered feature was the life review. Findings seem to be very similar among the three groups. Some 16 per cent of the participants in the ketamine study reported such an experience. In the NDE study, it was reported by 14 per cent in cardiac-arrest group 'a' and by 16 per cent in the other-circumstances group 'b'.
Visions of other 'places'
While time had no meaning, space - or more specifically the sense of 'being-in-a-place'2 - was always present. This was the commonest feature among all the accounts that I considered in this study. In near-death and ketamine cases, these 'other places' were depicted in various ways. Although they could vary from heavenly gardens to open sepulchres, from rural villages to forests, experiences were never 'placeless'. All the respondents in the three groups claimed that there was no other way of knowing or sensing those places except by being there, and they found it difficult to articulate the experience in words. For instance, a respondent in the near-death group observed:
The Lord took me to a garden where surely beauty had found its name. This was an old-fashioned, typically English garden with lush green velvet lawn, bounded by deep curving borders brimming with flowers, each flower nestling within its family group, each group proclaiming its presence with a riot of colour and fragrance as if blessed by a morning dew. The entrance to the garden was marked by a trellis of honeysuckle so laden that you had to crouch down to pass beneath while at the other end a rustic garden gate led to the outside. It was here that my walk through was to end as I was gently led through to the other side. It was at this moment that the realization that I was going to live came to me and I would have to face the consequences of living. There followed two weeks as I lay in a coma in between worlds.
It could be argued that the intuition of one's death here and now, which may have been present to all group participants, renders the temporal dimension of existence less relevant than the spatial domain, which therefore largely prevails. As we saw in Chapter 3, this suggestion is supported by a Japanese theory of place (basho). For instance, Hiroshi Motoyama, after many years of meditative practice, called the state of Samadhi the 'World of Places' (Motoyama 1991). The concept is also implicit in some Eastern philosophies, including Buddhism, according to which temporal consciousness applies to the field of our ordinary experience and relates to the self-consciousness of individuals ('ego-consciousness'). This is viewed as 'inau-thentic' and 'insufficient'. Space-consciousness is different in nature, for it makes a connection to a deeper level of consciousness, unlike the surface time-consciousness within the field of ordinary experience (see, for instance, Yuasa 1987; 1993).
Hence, it could be suggested that transcendental consciousness is place-bound (Corazza 2007b). I will discuss this idea in greater depth in the next few sections and then move on to the comparative discussion by highlighting differences between the ketamine and near-death experiences.
What is it like to be in a transcendental place?
There is a lack of relevant literature on the spatial dominance of place during the near-death experience. Researchers have focused on other elements of the experience, such as the tunnel, or the transition into a period of dark ness, the light, and the meeting with others (see, for instance, Kellehear 1996). It will therefore be valuable if I pay special attention to the spatial element of being-in-a-transcendental-place, which as noted above, was the most common element that I found in both the NDE and ketamine groups. The descriptions furnished by participants suggest that the experience of 'being-in-a-place' is characterized by four main constitutive elements, which can be summarized as follows: (1) the experience of things-events; (2) non-homogeneity of space; (3) multi-sensoriality, including synesthesia; and (4) a higher level of activity, or a faster information exchange.
The recurrent feature of 'being-in-a-place' during a near-death experience first suggests that the experience cannot be isolated from what I call 'thingsevents'. By things-events I mean that which the experience is about. As pointed out in the previous chapters, no two near-death accounts are the same, although there are similarities between the dynamics of the happenings. Many thingsevents happen 'there', and nearly always the protagonists are able to produce interesting narratives of these things-events, which are remembered vividly for years. All the accounts I have collected, far from describing quiet, uneventful experiences, were rich with actions (e.g. involving motion, decision-making, use of various senses). At any stage, things-events were never rigidly imposed on those who reported the experiences, who instead were always able to modify the events-things to various degrees, as in the case below:
I saw something glittering in the distance and went to it. Next thing I knew there was a bright huge wall standing in my way. It was made of golden light. There was something I had to go across between the wall and me. I believe there was no river, no bridge or nothing specifically. The wall, which shone gold softly, was made of pure glory and I was sure that there existed whole in it. I moved towards it, being gravitated to it. I have a feeling that I saw many things in this something. Everything happened very quickly. I remember that I saw everything I had experienced. The sense of gravitation toward the light was so strong that I gradually began to lose the sense of distinguishing myself from the light. I was filled with everything. Then I thought something like: 'Would I be dead if the trend continues?' but 'I have done nothing in this life!'. Then I realized that I had developed a strong feeling of resistance towards this gravitation and the melting into the light. I remember nothing else. The next thing I knew was that I was lying in a hospital bed, and pain and that I was in pain and suffering.
For many of those interviewed in both groups, the experience generally involved a movement, or a motion within a definite place (often explicitly emotional).
Even if the 'travelling self' remained in one place (e.g., a garden, a village, a temple), the situation was never entirely stationary because it always involved a focus or an action within a place. So it was for a Japanese lady who found herself in a beautiful garden covered by bright yellow flowers. The next thing she saw was a river in front of her:
As I got closer, at the very end of the other side of the river, I saw my mother who passed away 18 years ago. I could see only her face because a group of children monks, dressed in white and black, masked the rest of her body. The children were very noisy. I moved closer, to see my mother. She looked very worried and she said: 'Don't come here! Go back!' So I turned back and regained consciousness in the hospital. At that very moment, I heard a nurse calling my name.
As illustrated by this case, things-events sometimes have a cultural undertone. For instance, as previously observed, the vision of beautiful gardens with many flowers was quite common among the Japanese group, as well as the vision of a river which divides the world of the living from the world of those who have passed away (the 'realm of Yomi').
Less reported is the 'travelling self' moving from place to place. So it was for another participant, who visited several villages in another realm and finally ended up in the countryside, where he was surrounded by empty factories:
On my way I met people I didn't know before. I saw many villages with streets like normal streets in this world. I saw many different landscapes and empty factories.
One of the remarkable things about these accounts is that the transition from one place to another is always reported as happening by mere 'power of thought', rather than by transportation. For instance, the participant above described streets as being 'like normal streets in this world', but he mentioned no cars, buses, trains, planes, and so on. He visited the countryside, but why did he not drive or take a train there? This is yet another feature of the NDE that we shall have to explain.
A possible answer is that the 'travelling self' is already a means of transportation and that there may be a fundamental equation between person-hood and embodiment. The idea that the soul has a mobile post-mortem body is an ancient belief reflected in such terms as the Egyptian ka, the Greek ochema, and the Sanskrit kosha, deha and sarira, which indicate 'vehicles of consciousness', some of which pass into post-mortem realms. The subject has been explored at great length by Dutch philosopher Johannes Jacobus Poortman (1896-1970) in his book Vehicles of Consciousness (1978), in which he formulated the concept of a hylic pluralism. According to his research, the notion of a body-vehicle is supported by evidence found, for example, in the Rig Veda, the Upanishads, the Old Testament, the pre-Socratic philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, certain Epicureans and Stoics, Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Origen, Saint Paul, many Gnostics, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Paracelsus, Swedenborg, and several modern philosophers, novelists, and scientists.
Afterlife places in both groups were often described as having particular qualities, which made them different from the places we inhabit in everyday life. In the ketamine group, 44 per cent had the feeling of entering a clearly mystical or unearthly world. Affirmations like 'It was Heaven!' were quite common.3 Experiences of Hell were also reported; 25 per cent described a strange or unusual place, while 30 per cent did not report this kind of experience.
Did these people really go to heaven or hell? It is, of course, very hard to answer the question. According to Le Goff (1981), heaven, hell and purgatory are all forms of what he called 'spatialization of thoughts', which he considered a product of our imaginations.
More flexible in this regard is the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England who recently revised their views:
No one can be compulsorily installed in heaven, whose characteristic is the communion of love. God whose being is love preserves our human freedom, for freedom is the condition of love. Although God's love goes, and has gone, to the uttermost, plumbing the depths of hell, the possibility remains for each human being of final rejection of God, and so of eternal life.
(Church of England 1995)
According to the Commission:
In the past the imagery of hell-fire and eternal torment and punishment, often sadistically expressed, has been used to frighten men and women into believing. Christians have professed appalling theologies which made God into a sadistic monster and left searing psychological scars on many. Over the last two centuries the decline in the churches of the western world in the teaching of everlasting punishment has been one of the most notable transformations of Christian belief. There are many reasons for this change, but amongst them has been the moral protest from both within and without the Christian faith against a religion of fear, and a growing sense that the picture of a God who consigned millions to eternal torment was far removed from the revelation of
God's love in Christ. Nevertheless it is our conviction that the reality of hell (and indeed of heaven) is the ultimate affirmation of the reality of human freedom. Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being. Dante placed at the bottom of hell three figures frozen in ice - Judas, Brutus and Cassius. They were the betrayers of their friends, and through that they had ceased to have the capacity for love and so for heaven. Annihilation might be a truer picture of damnation than any of the traditional images of the hell of the eternal moment. If God has created us with the freedom to choose, then those who make such a final choice choose against the only source of life, and they have their reward. Whether there be any who do so choose, only God knows.
(Church of England 1995: 198-9)
The concept of the non-homogeneity of space is an intriguing topic of study which has been overlooked in contemporary literature. An exception is found in the work of Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), who explicitly stated that the non-homogeneity of space is an assumption that 'precedes all reflections on the world and allows the world to be constructed, because it reveals its fixed points (the sacred places)' (Eliade 1959: 21). In his book The Sacred and the Profane (1959), he observed that space for a religious person is always non-homogenous. He wrote: 'For religious man, space is not homogeneous; he experiences interruptions, breaks in it; some part of space is qualitatively different from others' (ibid.: 20). In phenomenological terms, this suggests that the perception of the sacred is active on a pre-noetic (or 'pre-reflective') level of consciousness, which becomes fully available only during peculiar circumstances, as for instance in a near-death experience.
The case for the non-homogeneity of space has ancient roots. It is common knowledge that cathedrals, churches, temples and other places of ritual importance were built in certain places chosen in relation to the lie of the land, the flow of the water, the direction of the wind, the vegetation, and so on. This kind of awareness is also known as geomancy. In China, ancient practices based on a system of understanding the balance of energies, or the flow of the 'chi' in places, such as the feng-shui,4 are still present and regularly practised today. Despite these ancient beliefs in the power of places, and a current revival in their practice, most of us today tend to consider one location very much like another.
Auditory experiences were also common in both groups. For instance, at the beginning of the experience, a noise or a buzzing or a ringing sound was often heard: 'I heard a loud buzzing sound in my ears, followed by a travel into a narrow tunnel. I left the physical world as well as my body. I thought I was dead, but I wasn't scared at all', said Jo, a young physician who took ketamine in his lab. Other sounds were also reported. Another respondent heard a 'sweet sound of bells' coming from the Light. Chants (like the reading of sutras) were mentioned in the Japanese accounts. A Japanese participant described these sounds as being quite disturbing: 'I saw a large group of children monks running towards me. They were dressed in a white dress with black skirts (a typical costume for Japanese monks). They were aged between 10 and 12, and they were all bold. They were terribly noisy, and I couldn't understand what they were saying.' Some other times, harmonious music was heard: 'I remember I could hear melodies, I never heard before. I have tried to reproduce them with my music', said Mr S., a young composer who lives in London.
As I highlighted in a previous study (Corazza and Terreni 2005), the idea of representing the 'sound' of the NDE in music was carried out in an original composition by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), namely his String Trio (Op 45), a work commissioned by the Department of Music of Harvard University. The story behind this composition is quite singular. In August 1946, Schoenberg had a heart attack, which was nearly fatal. His heart stopped beating for a while and he 'returned' to life only after an injection in the cardiac muscles. As he revealed in a letter dated 9 May 1946, his String Trio is an attempt to reproduce all the phases of his travel in the after-life (ibid.: 47).
'Thermal space' was also described. For example, the vision of the Light was associated with warmth. So it was for Mr D. who said: 'The light was very bright and emanating warmth. I could easily stand the heat. I was also more aware of the large amount of energy around me.' Similarly, Mr F. said: 'I saw a distant light, which was growing bigger and bigger. There was a strong feeling of love and warmth. I was attracted toward it, but I knew that it wasn't my time to go there.'
Olfactory sensations were sometimes described. For instance, the pleasant fragrances of flowers or the wild scents of the forests were reported by one participant in the ketamine study and by all the participants in the Japanese study. I did not record any touch or taste sensations.
In conclusion, sensorial experiences in both the ketamine experience and the NDE can be important. In the ketamine study, 73 per cent felt that the senses were 'incredibly more vivid', whereas 17 per cent asserted that they were 'more vivid than usual'. A recurrent observation was that colors were brighter than usual. A Japanese lady claimed that 'the ground was filled with beautiful yellow flowers, like a sort of carpet'. Although she couldn't tell what kind they were, she noticed that the color was very unusual, for they were 'particularly bright'. Another participant observed that once he had travelled down along a dark tunnel 'there was much light. Everything was exceptionally bright, although my experience was dreadful.'
Synesthesia is defined as the interchange of sensory images from one sensory organ to another (Marks 1978, as cited in Domino 1989), such as 'seeing' a sound, or 'tasting' a color. Sensory categories are also referred to as modalities, and so synesthesia is also known as a sensory cross-modality, or crossing of the senses (Cytowic 1995). The phenomenon appears to be more prevalent in individuals with artistic or musical backgrounds (Domino 1989), a group well represented among those interviewed as part of this work. Many were able to see sounds or hear colors during the experiences. Calvin, a young man in his twenties, gave the following account:
On 'K' I was not only able to see the colors but to smell them. Even now, after two years from my last ketamine experience, I am able to recognize the difference between the smell of green or red. It is such an incredible experience!
Another feature commonly reported by the ketamine and the near-death groups was communication with other entities, such as the spirits of deceased loved ones, the Light (or God), Beings of Light, strangers or other entities. It has often been reported that the communication happened without speech, by the power of thought alone. How is it possible? A similar phenomenon is telepathy, which has been studied scientifically for more than 100 years. The most cited experiments are probably those known as 'Ganzfeld' (or 'total field') experiments, which use audio and visual sensory deprivation in order to test telepathy. Participants sit in a relaxed state in dim red light, with half a ping-pong ball covering each eye. In another room, a 'sender' concentrates on a picture or video clip, selected at random from a pool of possible targets. After the session is over, the participant is shown four pictures or video clips and asked to pick one that most closely corresponds to impressions he or she may have received during the test session. By chance, participants would select the correct target picture roughly one time in four, with a hit rate of 25 per cent. A meta-analysis published in 1985 covering 28 studies showed an overall hit rate of 37 per cent (Honorton 1985). A published meta-analysis of the same data (Hyman 1985) again showed that the odds against chance were very high. Unfortunately, the Ganzfeld procedure bears little resemblance to apparent telepathy in everyday life. Also, in most Ganzfeld and other tests on telepathy in parapsychology laboratories, the 'senders' and 'receivers' are strangers, whereas apparent telepathy in real life is said to take place more readily between people who know each other well, such as intimate friends and family members. Psychiatrist Berthold Schwarz described 505 episodes that appeared to involve telepathic exchange between himself, his wife Ardis, their son Eric and daughter Lisa. Like Freud, Jung and other psychoanalysts who had an interest in the subject, Schwarz observed several ways in which apparent telepathic communication is influenced by unconscious psychological processes.
Rupert Sheldrake has recently attempted to explain telepathy in relation to his theory of the 'sense of being stared at' (Sheldrake 2003). Sheldrake believes that the experiments which he and other collaborators have carried out over the past few years have produced some evidence for telepathy, but so far the scientific world is generally not convinced. The debate gave rise to a special edition of the Journal of Consciousness Studies entitled 'The Sense of Being Glared At: What Is It Like to Be a Heretic?' (2005). One of Sheldrake's studies involved the investigation of possible telepathic communication in connection with e-mails. On each planned session, there were four potential e-mailers, one of whom was selected at random by the experimenter. One minute before a prearranged time at which the e-mail was to be sent, the participant guessed who would send it. Fifty participants (29 women and 21 men) were recruited through an employment web-site. Of 552 trials, 235 (43 per cent) guesses were hits, significantly above the chance expectation of 25 per cent. Further tests with five participants (four women, one man, aged 16-29) were videotaped continuously. On the filmed trials, the 64 hits of 137 (47 per cent) were significantly above chance (Sheldrake and Smart 2005). The problems associated with studies of this nature have been addressed by a range of authors, such as Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe Weird Things (2002) and David F. Marks and Richard Kammann, authors of The Psychology of the Psychic (1980).
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