I’ve recently been reading an old classic that had hitherto eluded my reading list. It’s called Reflections on Life after Life by Dr Raymond Moody. It’s actually the sequel to his original book simply called Life After Life, but I couldn’t find that one in the library. They were both written around the 1970s and they spawned a whole new genre that many others have since taken up with enthusiasm (though not always with good sense).
The basic premise is this: Dr Moody is a medical doctor who has been involved in a large number of resuscitations – people who are clinically dead, and are then brought back to life. Usually this happens within that brief window of opportunity before permanent brain damage sets in, somewhere around 5 minutes. There have been rare cases that broke that record and still came out perfectly normal. Medicine is like that; the moment you take something for granted a patient comes along to demolish it!
But the thing his books focus on is the weird experience that some of these patients (probably a minority) are able to recall after they have been brought back to life. In the first book (apparently) he outlines a number of general characteristics of these experiences that seem to be common among these patients. These include things that have now become a standard part of our culture and even our language. The tunnel, the light at the end, the beautiful place, the meeting with dead relatives, the shining person who emanates peace and joy, the command to return to life on earth, the reluctant return. In the second book he outlines some additional features that are by no means as common as those in the first book, but which are pretty interesting, such as the confused and lost looking souls and the sense of having ‘all knowledge’ suddenly become available to you (wouldn’t that be great?!) He also addresses some very interesting and important methodological issues in his research (which should set to rest many of the criticisms sceptics have raised, for he is quite thorough in his methodology) and most interestingly, speculates as to where this kind of research might lead in the future.
It makes for absolutely intriguing reading, but I wonder what these experiences mean. It would be all too easy to simply say “Of course these are just confirmation of what the Bible has been saying all along”, but the indomitable sceptic within me cannot help but ask questions:
Most of Dr Moody’s patients were Caucasian Christians. Would these experiences be any different in India? Or Tibet?
What research has been done to examine the possibility of these visions being hallucinations resulting from the trauma of illness or side effects of medications used, quite often in high doses in operations and resuscitations?
The list could go on. I recently came across a much more recent study that seemed to promise a definite answer as to the nature of these experiences. In some cases, patients have described going through a feeling that they somehow left their bodies. They rose up in the air and could look down on themselves, surrounded by medical staff frantically trying to save their lives. Some of these patients describe the scene with exquisite detail, including things that by all the laws of logic they could not know. For example, one case in another book on the subject, Beyond Death’s Door by Dr Maurice Rawlings, has the patient describing the colour of the tie worn by a doctor who came into the room after he had become unconscious, and left the room before he regained consciousness. How could he do that???
Well, Professor Bruce Greyson in the USA thought up a brilliant experiment to try to settle the question. He set up a laptop computer on the top of a tall cabinet in a room where patients who are having pacemakers inserted have their hearts stopped temporarily as part of the procedure. On this laptop, a programme was installed that displays a random picture on the screen. There is absolutely no way for anyone to know which picture is going to be displayed beforehand, and afterwards, the laptop is removed without any of the medical staff or the patients seeing the picture. The idea was that if a patient had a near death experience and felt themselves rising up and looking down on the scene, they would see the top of the cabinet, and identify the picture on the laptop screen. If they correctly identified that picture, that would indicate that the experience was undoubtedly genuine and not just a hallucination or drug side effect.
But even the best laid plans of mice and men …
Unfortunately, I discovered that the research did not answer the question. Why? Because in the whole series of patients in the study’s time frame, not one single one of them happened to have a near death experience! Drats! Those doctors are obviously too good to be any good for such an experiment! Oh well; at least it illustrates the kind of experiment that might one day truly tell us whether these experiences are genuine or not. I for one will be waiting with bated breath, but I won’t be holding my breath long enough to pass out and have a near death experience.
You can check out Dr Moody’s work at http://www.lifeafterlife.com/