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What Fiction Can Tell Us About NDEs

11/28/2012 10:17 am ET | Updated Jan 28, 2013

NDEs offer us a highly effective effect of hyper-reality. What we choose to do with it, as a culture, is a key ethical and spiritual question. Do we want to privilege dying as a heightened state of awareness or do we want to downplay it?

If the terminally ill and others who have had a traumatic brush with death insist their visions are more real than everyday experience, how can we honor them even if, perhaps, we are skeptics when it comes to specific images or religious traditions? The vast majority of non-Western cultures, and Western culture itself in earlier times, have regarded closeness to death as a privilege granting higher wisdom. But such wisdom has never been automatic. On the contrary, attaining it comes from cultivating the right attitude: mainly, letting go of fear, allowing death to become familiar, being able to see through physical pain. Sounds great, but how do we do this, in our current culture and in hospital settings? This is where fiction can help.

Recent neuroscience suggests that just as we can say "you are what you eat" we should also say "your brain is made up of what you think": specific synaptic connections are created and reinforced by specific patterns of thinking; meditation has been shown to increase brain mass and change a host of neurotransmitter and hormone behavior. Our habits of thought, then, give shape to our brain.

And while such habits are not fictional in the sense of false, they are fictional in the sense of hypothetical -- possible explanations for experiences in a world that does not, itself, contain conceptual meaning, explanations that as we know can contain a healthy dose of fantasy, while still remaining effective.

According to Thomas Kuhn, scientific revolutions work this way too.

So what if we were to examine NDEs as a pattern of thinking? As with meditation, the answer to the question, "Is it real?" would be, "Only if you practice it."

Do I mean by this that otherworldly domains, such as purgatory, actually materialize because NDEers have visions of them? No. Rather, in NDE what becomes real -- and what our "brain muscles" get some practice in -- is experiencing death as a journey (maybe a little scary, mostly exhilarating).

This opens a series of further questions, the very ones that fiction about NDEs tends to focus on. These include:

What is the brain doing during an NDE, if it is not functioning normally? We know very little about this as by our current measures the brain is mostly "dead."

Are there practices that train you to experience an NDE? Notice how in the field of NDE studies, answering yes to this question puts you in the skeptics camp, but this is not so for meditation, where having training is considered good, not proof of some sort of faking.

Is it possible or desirable to disentangle the effects of NDE from their cultural framing? Meditation seems to have similar effects across religious traditions, for example: can we say the same of NDE and what is at stake in that comparison?

When it comes to the first question, I will just mention two radically different works that both suggest the brain is rewiring itself: Connie Willis' 2002 cliffhanger Passage and Péter Nádas' 2002 autobiographical Own Death. This might be a provocative explanation for how storytelling (to the extent that NDE visions are a form of storytelling) helps to heal trauma, creating new neural pathways during a state of emergency instead of getting stuck in the horror of the emergency itself (the majority of NDEers develop positive feelings toward their experience).

What can prepare you for an NDE, and isn't this "cheating"? Two plays by major authors (and specifically, masters in the psychology of self-deception) grapple with this: Luigi Pirandello's 1930 "Lazarus" and Graham Greene's 1957 "The Potting Shed." Both admit that, as humans, we are likely to see almost exactly what we expect to see. But both also contend that fiction is substantial training for us to look at our own psyche with a skeptical eye. And they focus less on NDEers themselves than on everyone else: the majority of us, onlookers, who have hidden stakes in what NDEers see or don't see. Today this might mean: what are the real desires and fears evoked by NDE stories, for doctors, nurses, hospice workers, families, religious authorities and so on...

Finally, what about the cultural framing of NDEs? Little quantitative research exists, but it shows that the symbols, myths and morals that surround death in our culture will influence what we see. Should we look for an underlying commonality? Most people who want to take NDEs seriously, as I do, say yes, because universality is associated with truth. It is, however, just as probable that the human brain experiences anoxia and other stresses in similar ways across cultures. Works of fiction propose that we set aside this moot point of NDE's universality and focus on the specifics: what do the NDEs of a certain culture tell us about that culture? And vice-versa, can changing NDEs actually promote cultural change?

Two last examples from the world of fiction portray this in dramatic, even melodramatic terms. In Leonid Andreyev's 1906 short story "Lazarus," the despair of the title character gradually infects all of those around him, and reflects what Andreyev saw as the inescapable decadence of his world. In D. H. Lawrence's 1930 novella "The Escaped Cock," Jesus resurrects to this life and promotes a vitalistic celebration of it, rejecting the other realm he formerly preached of; he thus seeks to effect the cultural transformation Lawrence himself sought. If these NDEs have anything in common, it is their intensity -- to borrow H. U. Gumbrecht's term -- and nothing that we could call "content" or "message."

And this intensity is why, yes, NDEs can actually be agents of cultural change. And also why, I suspect, the debate is getting heated and reaching the cover of Newsweek. It's not so much that NDEs will ever succeed in proving, or disproving, that there is life after death. It's that they confront us with our deepest desire to create something to counter our own skepticism, something intense enough to stick when our moment comes.

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