Do not look into the light

Abstract: Neurology explains why near death experiences are not glimpses of heaven…

Near-death experiences have a terrible habit of sneaking up on you when you least expect them, and for that reason they can be quite bothersome. However what we should never do is see them as opportunities to have a sneak peek at heaven.

My such experience was, rather ignominiously, while I was perched upon the toilet. I was gathering my thoughts and thinking about the day ahead, when I was suddenly overcome by the sensation of a cold, wet cloak being thrown over my shoulders. At the same time everything seemed to go dark around me, and I found myself looking down a tunnel of light. I heard the voice of an angel calling my name.

I came round to find my wife helping me off the floor and nursing a rather cruddy looking gash on my forehead. She guided me to bed, tucked me in and I slept for a couple of hours. When I awoke I shunned any suggestion of seeing the doctor and went about my work, dismissing any queries about my wound with a casual, “this is nothing; you should have seen the other guy.”

However, I couldn’t help worrying about what had happened, and, aware of the supposedly universal characteristics of near-death experiences – the darkness, the tunnel of light, and the voices of angels – I decided to do some digging. What I discovered was quite remarkable.

First of all it’s important to understand that reality, as we know it, is simply the accumulation of our experiences. These are shaped by our senses – what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch. What is often forgotten, though, is that our senses have a nasty habit of playing information lint-rollers, picking up all sorts of stimuli without us even knowing.

Importantly, our experiences are also shaped by ideas, opinions and philosophical templates, which we develop through social interaction. This explains why people of one culture may see a collection of stones as the remnants of a building, whereas those of another culture may see the same collection of stones as a place of intense religious significance.

It also means that ‘reality’ is not absolute. People see the same things differently. It’s a point I often bring up with my wife when she and I disagree on anything, and she is convinced that she is always right.

The only thing we do know for a scientific fact is that everyone’s reality is contained within his or her brain. Stand next to someone who has taken a hit of some nasty psychotropic substance and who’s shouting at a giant rabid purple frog in an empty room, and you’ll understand what I mean. The frog is in his head, and his head alone.

A later visit to my doctor provided further clues to the nature of near-death experiences. It seems I had developed an irregularity in my blood pressure. Nothing serious, but it’s clear my adrenalin-fuelled party days are over, and nowadays if I’m looking for a rush, I grab a park bench and feed some pigeons.

My doctor diagnosed – as my research had suggested – that death and I hadn’t rubbed shoulders while I was on the toilet, I had simply fainted. He explained that the sensation of a cold cloak being placed around my shoulders was the result of blood draining from my head. He said it’s a little like remaining crouched for a long period of time, and then suddenly standing bolt upright and enjoying the sensation of feeling light-headed – not to be done whilst standing next to a braai, by the way.

As for the tunnel vision, speak to any neurologist about this phenomenon, he said, and they’ll probably smile and nod their head. It’s a routine clinical occurrence that results from not enough blood being pumped to the head. Because the retina is particularly sensitive to poor blood flow, any loss of blood flow to the head can cause the loss of peripheral vision. As a result, only a narrow circle of light enters the eye, creating a tunnel-like vision. Importantly, even though the function of the eyes is disrupted – eyes invariably remain open as someone faints – the rest of the senses remain unaffected. This explains why people who have the tunnel vision normally associated with near-death experiences, may still register, smells, the sounds of voices, and the sensation of touch.

Importantly, at this time, real time sensory input is mingled with subconscious thoughts and emotions in a colourful tapestry of images and experiences, not unlike dreaming; except with a closer attention to the detail of the moment. It’s why people experiencing cardiac failure in hospital may sense themselves in the room, and even visualise what’s happening to them.

It’s easy to dismiss blacking out on the loo as a far cry from almost dying on an operating table; but reports from neurological studies into patients who claim near-death experiences during cardiac arrest have been shown to echo those of laboratory studies into fainting.

This helps explain why near-death experiences aren’t really glimpses of heaven. They’re just our brain playing tricks on us, distorting our reality for a brief moment in time.

Oh yes, I almost forgot: the angel calling my name? It seems it wasn’t any celestial guardian beckoning me to heaven; it was my wife shouting at her husband, lying flat on his face on the floor with his pants around his ankles.

Originally published in the Sunday Tribune SM, 7th October 2012