During 2010, a well known near-death experience (NDE) researcher, Dr. Bruce Greyson, published an article in which he claimed that NDE reports where persons claimed to have met the souls of deceased relatives were proof of the reality of a life after death. Furthermore, the strongest aspect of this evidence was the category of NDE "visions of deceased people who are not known at the time to be dead." All this was clearly indicated in the summary of his extensive 12 page article.
The ubiquitous belief that, after death, our consciousness might persist in some discarnate form is fueled in part by phenomena like near-death experiences (NDEs) and deathbed visions, mystical experiences reported on the threshold of death. Some NDEs, called “Peak in Darien” experiences, include visions of deceased people who are not known at the time to be dead. Cases of this kind provide some of the most persuasive evidence for the survival of consciousness after bodily death. (Greyson 2010)
Dr. Greyson is not alone in this belief. This same belief is also expressed by several others propounding the reality of survival of personality and consciousness after death, such as:
But is this belief true. Is the fact that some people report meeting deceased relatives during NDEs proof of the literal reality of these wondrous experiences? This belief deserves some discussion. But first we must answer one question.......
A "Peak in Darien" experience iis a term first coined by Frances Cobbe (1822-1904), a 19th century feminist activist. The latter term is in no way intended to be perjorative, because she and several others actively fought to improve the sad lives of women at that time: half the world's population, a gender doomed by the possession of two X-chromosomes to suppression and oppression, and a gender who by genetic fate were denied any chance at personal development of their talents at that time (download her inspiring book "The Duties of Women" here (NB. select the desired format on the left hand side)). This was a good woman. However she also wrote of other things, and among them was the book "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. Her chapter describing this experience cites innumerable reports of dying persons, who shortly before dying had visions of deceased family members. Frances Cobbes' final conclusion was typical of her age. She finally concludes that the meeting of deceased family members and loved ones at the moment of death is not definitely proven to be real, but is a hope for all humanity.
It may be awaiting us all. There is even, perhaps, a certain probability that it is actually the natural destiny of the human soul, and that the affections which alone of earthly things can survive dissolution will, like magnets, draw the beloved and loving spirits of the dead around the dying. I can see no reason why we should not indulge so ineffably blessed a hope. But, even if it be a dream, the faith remains, built on no such evanescent and shadowy foundation, that there is One Friend [Jesus], and He [Jesus] the best, in whose arms we shall surely fall asleep, and to whose love we may trust for the reunion, sooner or later, of the severed links of sacred human affection. (Page 266 in Cobbe 1882)
Frances Cobbe wrote of these experiences more than 100 years ago. Yet thes same experiences are still being reported. For example, cardiologist Maurice Rawlings described the case of a 48-year-old man who had a cardiac arrest. Part of the near-death experience he underwent during resuscitation contained the following:
He also recalls meeting both his mother and stepmother during one of these subsequent death episodes, The meeting place was a gorge full of beautiful colors. He also saw other relatives who had died before. This experience was very pleasurable, occurring in a narrow valley with very lush vegetation and brilliant illumination by a huge beam of light. He "saw" his mother for the first time. She had died at age twenty-one when he was fifteen months old, and his father had soon remarried. This man had never even seen a picture of his real mother, and yet he was able to pick her picture out of several others a few weeks later when his mother's sister, after hearing of his experience, produced some family pictures for identification. There was no mistake. The same auburn hair, the same eyes and mouth - the face was identical to the lady he saw in his experience. She was still twenty-one years old. There was no doubt it was his mother. He was astounded and so was his father. (pages 5-6 in Rawlings 1978)
A medical person would say that he has a vision of a person with features common in his family line. Several weeks later when recounting his experiences to his relatives, he recognises a woman with features common in his family in an old photograph, and invests the experience with paranormal significance. Cardiologist Pim van Lommel reported the extensive NDE of a Dutch man who, during a cardiac arrest, saw his deceased grandmother and a man who looked at him lovingly, but whom he did not know, but later found he was his biological father.
During my cardiac arrest I had a extensive experience (…) and later I saw, apart from my deceased grandmother, a man who had looked at me lovingly, but whom I did not know. More than 10 years later, at my mother’s deathbed, she confessed to me that I had been born out of an extramarital relationship, my father being a Jewish man who had been deported and killed during the second World War, and my mother showed me his picture. The unknown man that I had seen more than 10 years before during my NDE turned out to be my biological father. (Lommel 2004)
The explanation of this report is the same as that of the man above. Here again there is recognition of genetically transmitted common family features in an old photograph subsequently invested with paranormal significance. People sometimes report acquiring distant information. They perceive this distant information at a time that they were physically incapable of observing the things they later reported. An example of this is the report of a man who acquired distant information during a period he was undergoing resuscitation for heart problems. He reported:
I was terribly ill and near death with heart problems at the same time that my sister was near death in another part of the same hospital with a diabetic coma. I left my body and went into the corner of the room, where I watched them work on me down below. Suddenly, I found myself in conversation with my sister, who was up there with me. I was very attached to her, and we were having a great conversation about what was going on down there when she began to move away from me. I tried to go with her but she kept telling me to stay where I was. “It’s not your time,” she said. “You can’t go with me because it’s not your time.” Then she began to recede off into the distance through a tunnel while I was left there alone. When I awoke, I told the doctor that my sister had died. He denied it, but at my insistence, he had a nurse check on it. She had in fact died just as I knew she did. (page 173 in Moody 1988)
This man perceived everything that happened to his body and around his body during his out-of-body experience. This is local information. At the same time he learned of the death of his sister in a distant room in the same hospital. This is distant information. He was being resuscitated for heart problems at the same time his sister died, so he was in no condition to learn of her death at that moment. Some people might say this man learned of the death of his sister by means of paranormal sensory abilities. But paranormal sensory abilities are not needed to explain how he learned of the death of his sister. This man knew his sister was near to death in a diabetic coma in the same hospital, and diabetic coma had a mortality varying between 4.9-46% during the 1980's and before (Hamblin 1989, Khardori 1984, Pinies 1994, Rimailho 1986). He needed no paranormal senses to predict the death of his sister, because he was very likely to have been correct. The fact his sister died at about the same time as he was being resuscitated was no more than coincidence. So his apparently paranormal sensations and experience were a combination of his own sensations, together with a statement of a likely event subsequently invested with paranormal significance.
The most important aspect of all such stories is accuracy of information and timelines. Many of these stories reporting seeing deceased family members go as follows; "I didn't know my Aunt Tillie was dead, yet I saw her during my NDE." Everyone then looks amazed, their jaws drop, and the more superstitious will accept it at face value without checking on the details of the story. They call loudly in an amazed tone of voice, "Wow! This is amazing! This is inexplicable. This is PROOF of the truth of an afterlife!" Yet when the details of these stories are carefully checked, one must always account for factors such as:"
Only when all these factors are known, can one suspect that something as yet unexplained occurred. To simply say something is amazing and inexplicable without investigating these facts, is to be believing and superstitious. Indeed when all these factors are investigated, the final story is often somewhat more mundane. A good exmple of such careful investigation was provided by the story above of the man who learned of the demise of his diabetic sister during his NDE.
How strong are these genetically transmitted similarities? Everyone has experience of this in their own families. All people know that family members reveal similarities in appeasrance. One nice website revealing this is that of the Cottrell family (click here for Cottrell family website). This is an example from one family, but what of others? Just examine these photgraphs:
The above photograph reveals striking similarities in the jaw line in three generations: son, father, and grandfather.
The above photograph reveals striking similarities in the facial features acroos tweo generations of women: black-white photo on the left is the grandmother, and the color photograph on the right is the granddaughter.
These photgraphs reveal that genetic similarities are transmitted across generations. But appearance is not the only attribute transmitted across generations. Personality, career choices, and even social attitudes are stongly influenced by genetic inheritance (click here to read Chapter 3 in "The Limits of Family Influence" for exstensive discussion). Here are two lists of social attitudes whose presence is determined by inheritance, or by social envrionment during upbringing (page 85 in on page 85 in Chapter 3 in "The Limits of Family Influence"):
Many of these apparently surprising experiences of recognition of deceased family members are no more than remembered visions of persons with familiar genetically transmitted features. And because these visions occur during NDEs, they are subsequently given some paranormal significance and considered proof of a life after death. One important factor in such "afterlife" vsions of meeting family members and loved ones is often ignored. This is the known fact that the relationships of persons seen during such visions differs according to the sociocultural background of the person reporting the NDE vision. This is shown very clearly by comparing NDE visions reported by people from India and the USA.
Data for chart from: At the Hour of Death, by K. Osis & E. Haraldsson, published by Hastings House, U.S.A., 1986,ISBN 0-8038-9279-9.
The effect of sociocultural factors upon NDE visionary content is extensively discussed at this website where the reader can (click here) to read more on this fascinating subject. In addition to sociocultural determination of the nature of the persons seen during near-death experience visions, medical factors are also important. After all, people reporting such visions are supposedly dying or near to death. The body and brain of a person in such a condition is not functioning normally. So as Frances Cobbe warned during 1882 in her lecture on Peak in Darien Experiences, these visions may well be hallucinations induced in the malfunctioning brains of those reporting them. This latter is the most likely explanation. After all as Peter Fenwick described on page 307 in the book The Truth in the Light (1996), the main causes of near-death experiences in his study of somewhat more than 300 persons was:
Indeed, the brains of people rendered apparently unconscious, or who are dying from such disorders, do not function normally, even though they themselves may feel their minds are clear. So to sum up:
all means that such visions cannot be considered proof of an afterlife. However, believers in the reality of an afterlife should take comfort in the fact that this does not prove the absence of an afterlife, it just means the physical explanation is more likely than the paranormal explanation.