The SciShow Psych channel on YouTube published a video about near-death experiences, below. I’ve mentioned near-death experiences a couple times before in relationship to mysticism and visionary experience. They are very much related, it seems to me.
I must disagree with Hank Green that “these experiences probably aren’t as mystical as they seem.” This is a popular misconception of the term mysticism. As I’ve noted before, mysticism means essentially “union with God.” I think these kinds of experiences, whether caused by near-death or a host of other triggers, are precisely as mystical as they seem. I think such experiences are the means through which humanity has always communed with and become one with God.
Transcript below video:
Hopefully you have never had a near-death experience, but if you have, glad that you survived it! Also, maybe this sounds familiar: a blinding white light, your life flashing before your eyes, floating out of your body, and looking down on that body from above.
Honestly it might sound familiar either way. At this point the near-death experience is a bit of a cliche in pop culture, but this stuff really happens.
Near-death experiences are most likely caused by a bunch of different processes and scientists are still figuring out all of the mechanisms, but either way these experiences probably aren’t as mystical as they seem.
There are accounts of near-death experiences going back to ancient Greece and because modern medicine can bring people back from the brink of death more often they are even more common now. What’s weird is that most people who have them report seeing the same kind of stuff: the white light, the out-of-body experience, the sense of peace, an awareness of being dead.
The experiences are so universal that there’s actually a standardized questionnaire to evaluate whether or not someone has had a near-death experience.
But when it comes to understanding why they happen things are less clear. For one thing there’s virtually nothing medically, demographically, or psychologically different about the so-called experiencers compared to non-experiencers who have also almost died.
They’re also just really hard to study it’s generally frowned upon to almost kill someone while they’re in an fMRI machine. Also studies of near-death experiences have major sampling issues. Studies done after the fact rely on experiencers identifying themselves as participants which can cause some serious bias.
But other studies like ones where experimenters waited on call for people to go into cardiac arrest have a hard time getting enough participants for a good sample size. Also waiting around for people to start dying, not a super fun job.
But even though they’re hard to study there are tons of ideas about what could cause these experiences and they’re probably not just caused by one thing.
One idea is that rather than experiencers seeing and feeling the same things because they’re actually having similar experiences, they see and feel them because they expect to. This kind of thing happens all the time like in eyewitness testimonies. People are pretty suggestible so it’s reasonable to think that the cliches about near-death experiences might impact what people actually see and feel during them.
Another view is that they are a psychological response to the threat of death. Beginning in the 1930s psychologists suggested that these experiences were a result of depersonalization, where you feel detached from your identity and what’s happening to you. Basically, you know you’re dying but you feel completely detached from it. It’s like it’s not real. Among other things that would also explain why near-death experiences cause calmness and peacefulness.
More recent research has argued that dissociation, where your consciousness seems independent from your real physical experience, is actually to blame. Daydreaming is a totally normal example of this, but an extreme case is an out-of-body experience.
And there’s some evidence to back this one up. All kinds of trauma often result in dissociation so there are tests to clinically identify it. The tests ask respondents to identify how often they do things like totally zone out while watching TV or have no recollection of an important event. A study from 2000 looked at 134 subjects who had come close to death, 96 of whom had near-death experiences. They found that the experiencers scored much higher on the dissociation test, meaning that they were more prone to mentally check out of situations.
It’s also possible that near-death experiences could be entirely or partly biological and there are a number of possible mechanisms that could explain the things experiencers see and feel. For instance the combination of fear and depriving the optic nerve of oxygen has been known to cause tunnel vision.
And when faced with the extreme stress of dying the brain probably releases all kinds of chemicals to protect itself which can lead to some of those other weird symptoms. A 2004 study showed that out-of-body experiences can be triggered by stimulating the temporoparietal junction, a part of the brain that plays a role in processing information from your environment and in distinguishing between yourself and others.
Experiments with an anesthesia called ketamine have also suggested that under stress the brain might release neurotransmitters that cause detached dreamlike states or hallucinations.
And other studies have shown that stimulating a part of the midbrain called the locus coeruleus can release noradrenaline which is involved in fear and stress reactions and can alter your emotions and memories. Both of those processes could be related to peaceful emotions, hallucinations, and that sense of your life flashing before your eyes.
So it’s possible that near-death experiences are caused by a combination of all of these factors, biological and otherwise.
Of course there are critics of these studies and they make a good case. They argue that if these are normal biological mechanisms associated with the stress and trauma of death why doesn’t everyone who almost dies have them. We don’t know. But for people who do have them, there are a whole bunch of scientific explanations for where they might come from.
And whether they’re caused by biology, psychology, or something in between, near-death experiences can teach us a lot about how our brains work and that weird thing that we call consciousness.
It has been discussed by Robert Fillerup in his Sunstone paper from 1990 that the First Vision and other early Mormon visions have many associations with near-death experiences (NDE). Also related, Robert Bushman in his Sunstone paper from 2001 discussed the First Vision as it is related to out-of-body experiences (OBE).
I think most may be able to pick out many of these similarities between the First Vision and near-death experiences as discussed in this video:
- extreme stress or psychological distress possibly triggering a release of a flood of neurotransmitters in the brain, causing visionary states of consciousness
- seeing a blinding white light
- this light at the end of a tunnel (similar to the “pillar” of light that Joseph described at a distance and then grew nearer, as if one was travelling towards or through a tunnel)
- dissociation (or out-of-body experience), a feeling that his mind was “caught away” from his natural surroundings (perhaps also from his body, as he said that afterwards he “found himself lying on his back”)
- a sense of tremendous peace and calm
There is also the idea here that near-death experiences’ reports are influenced by the experiencer’s expectations, something which I and others have also suggested may be why Joseph saw a Christian God in the First Vision, and not a Buddhist God, Hindu God, or another God.
Depersonalization I think may come into play. As the video notes, this is the sense of being detached from one’s self. I think this often happens in deep contemplative-meditative experiences as well, and is known as self-transcendence, or the experience of no-self, the sensation that the “self” that we usually identify with is “not real,” or as Eastern traditions call it, maya, or illusion. I think this is particularly critical in most mystical experiences that perceive divine realities.
I think the key to recognize is this:
Even if the First Vision was entirely caused by a combination of psychological and/or biological causes wholly within the brain/mind, without any external cause whatsoever, which I actually think is most likely the case, I believe it still triggered a genuine mystical visionary experience of God in a similar way that prophet-mystics throughout history have experienced God. It may have shut down the egoic center of his brain temporarily, perhaps the temporoparietal junction, allowing him to perceive in a more self-transcendent holistic oneness way the truth about his being and the world around him.
I consider this to be most assuredly still mystical, or “union with God,” but just not in the way we usually consider it. Mystical experiences seem to always take place when there is an alteration of consciousness, and one perceives reality in a much different way than is typical. This may reveal much deeper understanding about life and our place in the world that are normally hidden or obscured behind the “veil” of our standard egoic form of consciousness that we often work from on a daily basis.
It should be noted again that these kinds of mystical experience may be triggered by a host of different causes, near-death being only one of them. Contemplative practices, including meditation and centering prayer, with dedicated practice can cause some of the very same changes in consciousness as described in this video.