The river of no return1

As Edward Hall, the anthropologist, said: 'There is no such a thing as "experience" in the abstract as a mode separate and distinct from culture' (1959: 143). We may wonder, does this claim apply to NDEs? This chapter will address this question by presenting the results of various cross-cultural studies of NDE. It will also introduce for the first time the results of a small-scale study that

I carried out in Japan and explore its cultural significance in terms of 'Death and Life Studies'.

Cross-cultural study of the NDE is a relatively new and complex field of investigation. Some researchers hold the view that the NDE is a universal experience, which has basically the same structure around the world, although cultural and religious beliefs influence various details and the way the NDE is interpreted. For example, we currently know that an Indian person is more likely to see Yama, the King of Death, or his messengers called Yamdoots (Pasricha and Stevenson 1986), rather than Christ or angels. On the contrary, others, like Cherie Sutherland, have reported cases where the content of the experience was actually different from the cultural or religious background of the person who reported the experience (Sutherland 2007).

Sociologist Allan Kellehear thinks that the idea that the NDE is a universal experience is particularly appealing to those who support a biological explanation of the phenomenon and he considers this kind of conclusion premature on the basis of the limited existing data in non-Western countries (Kellehear 1996). In order to support his view, he offered a systematic comparison of near-death experiences reported in India, China, Western New Britain, Guam, Native America, and New Zealand. He published his results in a book entitled Experiences Near Death (1996), in which he came to the conclusion that only two features are universal: (1) the transition into a period of darkness; and (2) the meeting with 'other beings', once arrived in the 'other world'. Other aspects, like a 'life review', are nearly always absent in non-Western accounts. He wrote:

In every case discussed, deceased or supernatural beings are encountered.

There are often met in another realm, which is a social world not dissimilar to the one the percipient is from. The major differences are that this world is often much more pleasant socially and physically. Clearly, the consistency of these reports suggests that at least two features of the NDE are indeed cross-cultural.

It is interesting to observe how the concept of 'transition into a period of darkness' is rather different from the vision of a tunnel (also known as 'tunnel effect'). The latter, following Kellehear, is socially constructed:

This darkness is then subject to culture-specific interpretations: a tunnel for Westerners, subterranean caverns for the Melanesians, and so on. NDErs who do not report a period of darkness may not view this aspect of the experience as an important part of their account or narrative.

He gives the example of children's literature in Western societies, which 'is replete with tunnels, extraordinary beings, life reviews, flying experiences, and tales of reunion' (ibid.: 153). Classical tunnel-based stories are those of The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy is transported inside a 'tunnel' to another place and she meets the 'good witch of the east', or Alice in Wonderland, where Alice begins her journey after a long fall down a dark rabbit hole. Moreover, there is Santa Claus who comes every December down the chimney of the house (ibid.).

Kellehear's theory largely contradicts Blackmore's biological explanation that the 'tunnel experience' is caused by a lack of oxygen (anoxia) in the brain (Blackmore 2003). Consequently, this causes a random activity throughout the visual system, giving the impression of lots of bright lights flashing in the middle where there are lots of cells, but fading out towards the periphery of the visual system, where there are fewer. As the oxygen level falls even more, the brightness in the middle will increase, leading to the impression of travelling along a tunnel towards the light. Eventually the whole area would seem to be light, giving the feeling of entering the light (Blackmore 1993b).

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