Psychological explanations

There are various psychological explanations of the NDE. One of these was formulated by Noyes and Kletti (1976), who state the NDE should be seen as a form of depersonalization, which occurs as a defense mechanism against the perceived threat of dying. Another psychological theory considers the near-death experience to be analogous to birth, while the 'tunnel effect' and the emergence into a bright light have been interpreted as a symbolic re-living of the birth process. The tunnel is the birth canal and the white light is the world into which we were born. This theory was promoted by the late astronomer Carl Sagan. In his words:

The only alternative, so far as I can see, is that every human being, without exception, has already shared an experience like that of those travellers who return from the land of death: the sensation of flight; the emergence from darkness into light; an experience in which, at least sometimes, a heroic figure can be dimly perceived, bathed in radiance and glory. There is only one common experience that matches this description. It is called birth.

Sagan's theory was influenced by the work on death and dying carried out by Stanislav Grof and Joan Halifax (1977), who also advanced various parallels between mystical experiences, NDE and drug-induced experiences (especially LSD and ketamine). At a conference in London at Rudolf Steiner House,2 Stanislav Grof argued that the NDE, far from being proof of an afterlife, recalls universal symbols of life and death, which are surprisingly common among different cultures. He went on to relate scientific theories about the universe to birth experiences. His idea seemed to present some similarities with C.G. Jung's 'archetypes' of the collective unconscious (Jung 1936).

Various scholars have found these theories inadequate to explain the NDE for several reasons. For instance, according to Susan Blackmore, a newborn infant would not see anything like a tunnel as it is being born. This is because the birth canal is stretched and compressed and the baby is usually forced through it with the top of the head and not with the eyes (which are closed anyway) (Blackmore 1982). In order to test her theory, Blackmore carried out a study where she interviewed some people born normally and others delivered by Caesarean section. Almost exactly equal percentages of both groups had a tunnel experience (36 per cent) during an NDE (ibid.). Other objections have been proposed by Carl Becker. He observed:

The newborn's eyes are generally blurred by tears. They are often closed, either from relaxation, napping, or blinking . .. Even if their eyes are open and free of tears, they are often completely devoid of attention, like adults who may be momentarily oblivious to their physical surroundings even when their eyes are open.

And even if the newborn infants were able to perceive their surroundings with any kind of completeness or uniformity at birth, the birth experience and the death experiences with which we are concerned are not sufficiently analogous to reduce NDEs to memories of birth (ibid.: 115).

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