Differences between ketamine and neardeath experiences

What seemed to be initially a largely anecdotal observation that ketamine and near-death experiences are sometimes the same has in fact turned out to be a valid line of enquiry for providing further suggestions about the nature of both these states. Many of the participants in all three groups shared the feeling of dying, of travelling at high speed along a tunnel, of entering another 'place'. Rare in both groups was the life review. However, I would now like to focus on the major differences between the two states, which emerged for the first time from this study.

Encounters with other beings

Particularly significant was the finding that encounters with deceased or religious beings were mentioned by 57 per cent in the NDE cardiac arrest group, by 47 per cent in the NDE other-circumstances group, but by only 17 per cent in the ketamine group. Of the encounters that included religious figures in the two near-death groups, the majority included encounters with Jesus. Such visions were not reported in the ketamine group: here 'beings of light' were not attributed any definite or recognizable personality. A possible reason for such a significant difference is that ketamine users had induced the experiences themselves and so during the journey were less likely to have a psychological need for support from a recognizable and comforting presence. Far more helpless are those who have experienced a car accident or other emergency, like a cardiac arrest. In this case, there is a serious threat to life. Nevertheless, the argument becomes more complex if we consider that the majority of those who had a ketamine experience had the absolute conviction of dying or being dead during the experience, and they had completely forgotten about the fact that they were under the effect of the substance. It is also possible that the NDE groups, being from an older generation, had more of a Christian upbringing or were more Christian-oriented, and therefore were more likely to experience or interpret spiritual presences as Jesus.

Vision of the Light

The vision of the Light was much higher in the two NDE groups (73 per cent for cardiac arrest; 72.5 per cent for other circumstances). A similar result emerged from a study carried out by Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick at the Southampton Hospital on cardiac arrest survivors (Parnia et al. 2001), in which 75 per cent of the participants experienced the Light. Conversely, light was reported by only 19 per cent of ketamine users. In both studies the Light was described as having particular qualities, such as a luminous color (silver, gold, or white) and with no shadows. It was 'brilliant like the sun', emanating pure love and compassion, and warm and welcoming. It was often identified as God or the Absolute. Non-verbal communications with the Light (God) were often reported. Curiously, regardless of the cause of the experience, the persons were not usually able to remember the content of the message. When this was remembered, in both NDE and ketamine cases, the Light (God) had sometimes apparently sent the person back to life because s/he had to take care of a family member or other dear persons.

Interestingly, those who claimed to have met the Light in the ketamine group gave very detailed accounts of their experiences, but they could not report the final message given by the Light. This phenomenon, although under-reported, has also emerged in previous near-death studies. But how can it be that such an inspiring aspect of the experience is so easily forgotten, especially when the experience as a whole is characterized by full clarity? Several possible explanations for this phenomenon can be suggested. First, the person's ordinary mind was unable to process and store the information adequately because the information was communicated too quickly (although it may be difficult to explain while only the communication with the Light was too fast) or for some other reason, such as a change in normal mental functioning in the ketamine and NDE states.5 A second, connected possibility is that messages were received at a pre-noetic or pre-reflective level of consciousness, which most of the time remains unconscious and non-verbal: hence the message is not accessible and cannot be described to others at later interviews. Yuasa (1993) referred to this as the region of 'dark consciousness'. If this is the case, then these may contribute to the life-changes that may happen to those who 'spoke with the Light'. Third, it is possible that those interviewed did not want to disclose the information, perhaps because it was too personal. Fourth, it is possible that the forgetting serves to protect consciousness from the knowledge of 'the Light' and the 'inner workings' of the universe, knowledge that would make life difficult and distressing. In other words, the amnesia acts as a psychological/spiritual protective mechanism against 'too much truth', a kind of replacing of the samite over the Holy Grail to deliberately shield its light. The most 'scientific' hypothesis within the contemporary paradigm is that the data are not remembered for the same reason that large parts of dreams are not remembered and fade as the sleeper wakes. There are several theories of this kind, which make no reference to spiritual or paranormal realities. NMDA receptors are closely involved in memory formation, and those in certain parts of the brain may play a central role in the recollection of conversation. If NDE, ketamine experience, and dreaming involve blockade of these sites, as Jansen suggests, then we can expect incomplete memories to form and subsequent gaps in the recollection of the experiences.

Many participants in both studies referred to visions of 'lights'. I have recorded some of these statements: 'I saw a light silver, white and red'; 'The light was orange'; 'I saw a red triangle rising up from the very dark ground'; 'I saw the light as my physical form would have'. The experience sometimes seemed to be characterized by brighter colors, which were described as more vivid than usual. This aspect has also been pointed out in previous NDE studies (Moody 1975; Greyson and Stevenson 1980; Ring 1980). The light was usually located at the end of a dark tunnel or tunnel-like alternatives, such as a cave, spiral, valley, or just a general period of darkness.

Being one with the cosmos

It is interesting that although the ketamine group subjects were less likely to meet the Light, they were more likely to report a sense of harmony and unity with the universe (52 per cent). This kind of experience was reported by only 20 per cent of subjects in the cardiac arrest group and 30 per cent of those in the other-circumstances NDE group. As noted in Chapter 4, some individuals felt they were taking part in the 'fabrication of the universe' itself or were able to understand the constitutive principle of the universe by means of the principle within the self. The idea that we are all interconnected with the entire cosmos is an ancient belief. For instance, the Delphic exhortation to 'Know Thyself', inscribed at the Temple of Apollo, could be interpreted as more than a call for moral self-knowledge: it could also be understood as a call to look 'inwards' to find the intelligible order and the God within (Marshall 1992: 81). In modern times, mystical intimations of the order, life, unity and interconnectedness of the universe have sometimes been called 'cosmic consciousness' or 'cosmic mystical experience'. It constitutes a particularly expansive kind of 'extrovertive mystical experience', a type of mystical experience in which the world or some its contents become a focus of special insight or unity (Marshall 2005).

Marcia Moore, in her book Journeys into the Bright World (Moore and Alltounian 1978), has offered several personal accounts of 'cosmic union' that took place while she was under the influence of ketamine. As Karl Jansen has commented, her book is 'of particular interest in that it was written by a woman, as writing about psychedelic drugs is an area still largely dominated by men, with rare exceptions' (Jansen 2001: 55). Her cosmological intuitions were sometimes followed by considerations about the universe as an organized intelligence.

On a less mystical, more theological level, the recognition of an 'order' within the cosmos has been expressed by Richard Swinburne: he notes that 'the universe might so naturally have been chaotic, but it is not - it is very orderly' (Swinburne 1979: 136). He argues that after some exploration, the universe becomes organized to the explorer's eyes. Once we accept the order, we can either explain it in scientific terms, or we can seek an alternative explanation in terms of a free and conscious intelligence ('God'), which lies behind it. He argues for the completeness of the second choice.

Point or border of no return

Another interesting peculiarity of the ketamine experience is that only a marginal number of participants have approached 'a point of no return'. This can be identified as an edge, a wall, a river, among other patterns. This is in significant contrast to Fenwick's study, in which 77 per cent had the 'point-of-no-return' experience. There are at least a couple of possible explanations for this. First, ketamine users knew from the beginning of their trip that they would 'come back', for the substance has a short duration of action. Second, it is possible that the ketamine experience does not always lead to the deeper stages. Its effects could easily depend upon the quantity of the substance taken and the personal characteristics of the experiencer.

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