Some people undergoing deathbed experiences report "seeing angels", "figures of light", "beings of light", or other supernatural beings. And all these entities are "bathed in light", or are "made of light". The same is also true of some of those who recount near death experiences. Are these entities real supernatural entities? Or are these entities products of the serious conditions affectings these people at the time they underwent these experiences? This page describes some of the possible mechanisms by which the body generates such visions.
The brains of many dying and desperately sick people often no longer function entirely normally, even though the affected people feel in themselves that their thoughts are clear and lucid. This is a typical property of many conditions such as oxygen starvation due to any one of a myriad of causes, or conditions due to drugs, medicines, anesthetics etc. Some people may hallucinate during such conditions. And these hallucinations may include figures from their religious pantheon, or relatives, or even unknown strangers, other supernatural entities, as well as figures of light, or beings of light. This is the so-called "Peak in Darien Experience" described by Frances Cobbe (1822-1904) in a book published during 1882 called "The Peak in Darien" (click here to download a copy of her book "The Peak in Darien" (NB. select the desired format on the left hand side)). Cobbe describes the experience as:
We have walked in company with our brother, perchance for years, through the " wilderness of this world," over its arid plains of toil and through its sweet valleys of love and pleasure; and then we have begun to climb the awful Andes which have always loomed before us at our journey's end, their summits against the sky, and beyond them the undiscovered land. Onward, a little before us, as chance may decide, our companion perhaps mounts the last acclivity; and we see him slowly approach the mountain's crown, while our lagging steps yet linger on the slopes below. Sometimes, ere he reach the hill-top, he is enveloped in cloud, and then we see him no more ; but again, sometimes, he remains in the full sunlight, and though distant from us, and beyond the reach of our voice, it is yet possible for us to watch his attitude and motions. Now, we see him nearing the summit. A few steps more, and there must break on his vision whatever there may be of the unknown world beyond, a howling wilderness or a great Pacific of joy. Does he seem, as that view bursts on him, whatsoever it may be, does lie seem to be inspired with hope or cast down with despair? Do his arms drop in consternation, or does he lift them aloft with one glad gesture of rapture, ere he descend the farther slope, and is lost to our sight forever?
It appears to me that we may, though with much diffidence, answer this question as regards some of our comrades in life's journey, who have gone before us, and of whom the last glimpse has been one full of strange, mysterious, but most joyful promise. Let us inquire into the matter calmly, making due allowance both for natural exaggeration of mourning friends, who recall the most affecting scenes, and also for the probable presence of cerebral disturbance and hallucination at the moment of physical dissolution. (pages 248-250 in Cobbe 1882)
In more modern language, Cobbe is asking the fundamental question of whether the visions of the dying truly do indicate whether the dying pass into a afterlife during which the individiual consciousness continues to live, or are such marvelous experiences products of "cerebral disturbance and hallucination at the moment of physical dissolution". This reveals she also understood these experiences could just as well be hallucinatory. Nonetheless, while it is easy to say all these visions are hallucinations, this is simply not true, because the functioning of the human body under some circumstances can also cause people to talk of "seeing angels", "figures of light", or "beings of light".
The pupils widen during severe oxygen starvation, during fear or terror, or during extreme relaxation. And when the pupils widen, not only does more light enter the eyes, but the focal depth of the eyes is also reduced. These two effects can cause people to report seeing angels, figures of light, or beings of light. But how?
A photograph taken by the author during 1981 of the Mother's Hospital, Clapton Road, London, not long before it was demolished. (Note: The author actually worked in this hospital part-time during 1978-1979 as part of his training while an anesthesiology resident.)
A wonderful example of how the body can generate such experience was revealed by a woman who lay dying after giving birth in the Mother's Hospital, in London, during 1923. The obstetrician, Lady Florence Barrett, wrote the following passages describing the perceptions of the unfortunate woman who lay dying in the Mothers' Hospital, in London, England. These passages revealed typical visual effects caused by widening of the pupils (Click here to download book: Barrett W, (1926), Death-Bed Visions. Psychical Experiences of the Dying. ).
Suddenly she looked eagerly to one part of the room, a radiant smile illuminating her whole countenance. "Oh, lovely, lovely," she said. I (Lady Barrett) asked, "What is lovely?" "What I see," she replied in low, intense tones. "What do you see?" "Lovely brightness - wonderful beings." It is difficult to describe the sense of reality conveyed by her intense absorption in the vision.
The experience of the "lovely brightness" described by this woman is explained in this website explaining experiences of "Seeing the Light". Another passage in the same report was very revealing:
I (Lady Florence Barrett) left shortly after, and the Matron took my place by the bedside. She lived for another hour, and appeared to have retained to the last the double consciousness of the bright forms she saw, and also of those tending her at the bedside, e.g. she arranged with the Matron that her premature baby should remain in hospital until it was strong enough to be cared for in an ordinary household.
Not only the "lovely brightness", but also the vision of "wonderful beings" were due to widening of her pupils. This well-known optical phenomenon perfectly explains the visual experiences of this unfortunate woman.
The optical mechanisms of this phenomenon are known to all keen photographers, especially portrait photographers. Portrait photographs are a good example of reduced focal depth. The photographer makes the subject, in this case a person, stand out from their background by adjusting the camera in such a way that the person is sharply focussed, while the background is vague and blurry. This is done by widening the diaphragm of the camera lens.The diagram below illustrates this point for the similar situation in the eye, only instead of a camera diaphragm, the focal depth in the eye is determined by the pupil diameter.
Figure A shows the situation of an eye looking at a man through a narrow pupil. Everything from close to far away is in focus, because the dispersion of light from each point of the image in front or behind the focal point on the retina is minimal.Figure B shows the same situation, but with a wide pupil. The image at the focal point on the retina is sharp, but because the dispersion of light from each point of the image is quite large, the sharpness of the image rapidly diminishes at points behind, or in front of the focal point.
This raises another question. How can the human eye focus on objects and people once the pupil diameter is fixed? About 70% of focussing of images in the eyes is done by the cornea (c). This is why laser treatment of the cornea is such an effective treatment for near-sighted people. Besides the cornea which does most of the focussing, there is also the jelly-like lens within the eye (le). Around the edge of the lens are muscle fibers (cm) which tense or relax, so making the jelly-like lens thicker or thinner. In this way, the control mechanisms of the human eye perform the fine focussing to ensure that the images we see are truly sharp. The same principles apply to photographic cameras - after adjusting the diaphragm opening, focussing of the images is done with the camera lens.
So I made a series of photographs of two figurines on a chessboard to illustrate the effects of pupil widening, The photograph below shows the situation.
Imagine that these little figures are people in a room - then you see that they and the walls of the room are all seen clearly - everything is more or less in focus. After making this phototgraph, I widened the diaphragm of the camera without changing the exposure time. This is a situation similar to sudden widening of the pupils in the eyes while the ambient lighting does not change. Now, not only did the scene appear to be flooded with light, but by adjusting the lens of the camera, I could also focus on the front figure, the rear figure, or the background as desired. The results are a startlingly clear demonstration of the perceptions of those people who tell of seeing angels, "figures of light", or bright "beings of light" while still being able to clearly see individuals around them.
Front figure in focus.In the situation of deathbed visions or near death experiences, those near to the affected person are in focus, while those further aways are seen as vague "figures of light", "beings of light", "seeing angels", or other supernatural beings.
Rear figure in focus.In the situation of deathbed visions or near death experiences, those near to the affected person are out of focus, and are perceived by the affected persons as vague "figures of light", "beings of light", "seeing angels", or other supernatural beings tending them, while those further away are seen clearly.
Background in focus.In the situation of deathbed visions or near death experiences, all the people in the room are out of focus, and affected persons talk of "seeing angels", vague "figures of light", "beings of light", or other supernatural beings tending them, at the same time as clearly seeing the further walls and other furnishings of the room.
Comparison of these optical effects with the description of the visual perceptions of this unfortunate dying woman convinced me that pupil dilation was the cause of her dual visual perceptions of seeing "figures of light", or "beings of light", "bright forms", as well as of those attending her bedside. This was the cause of her "double consciousness" reported in the citation above. This woman also saw visions of her deceased sister and father, but the cause of these visions was most likely hallucinations due to oxygen starvation of her brain, together with her certain knowledge that she was dying, (see the page on Near Death Experience-Types).
This article clearly illustrates the nature of the perceptions reported by the dying woman reported by Lady Florence Barrett. The same principles are applicable to all other perceptions of "beings of light", "figures of light", "seeing angels", or other supernatural entities perceived during deathbead experiences and near death experiences (see reference 2, chapter 17). It transforms a wonder-story to a readily explained phenomenon. So this website also teaches the valuable lesson, that when examining any near-death experience, it is always first necessary to learn the exact circumstances under which the experience occurred, as well as the medical condition of the person describing the experience.