Responses to Selected Questions From the Audience

Question: Is there a difference between hallucinations and NDEs?

Dr. Fenwick: People tend to forget their hallucinations, whereas NDEs remain absolutely clear. If you ask people about the nature of their experiences while they are in the intensive care unit, you find they have a totally different flavor from NDEs. They have hallucinations, many of which are illusions based on what is going on in the intensive care unit, and they are usually strongly paranoid. For example, one patient felt that everybody in the unit was against her, that devils were poking her, and that she was being roasted. As she slowly came to consciousness, she realized that the roasting was being on the hot warming pad on the bed, and the devils were the nurses giving her intravenous fluids and injecting her. Now experiences like those do not have the clarity; they do not have the narrative quality; they do not certainly have the positive emotional valence of the typical near-death experience. So I think, at long last, we are beginning to be able to draw a distinction between hallucinations due to altered brain chemistry and the near-death experience. I think they are different.

Question: Does the NDE give us insight into the structure of the universe?

Dr. Fenwick: This is a really wonderful question, and it goes right to the heart of our understanding of what the universe is and how it is constructed. Physicist Amit Goswami (Goswami, Reed, and Goswami, 1995) argues that the basic ground structure of the universe is love and consciousness, and that the physical universe is a manifestation of this ground state. He has a theory relating to quantum mechanics about how every moment that we perceive something, we do create the physical world of that perception, and we create it essentially from the ground structure of the universe. So he argues that consciousness is primary and notan epiphenomenon of the brain. Goswami is very much in the Buddhist tradition, and this is the Buddhist view of the world. Now let us just go back to the experiences people have of the universe and how in these wide experiences they define its structure. So again, let us try to follow the data.

These very wide experiences are called transcendent experiences. About 30 percent of the population will have weak transcendent experiences, and about 10 percent strong transcendent experiences, very similar to NDEs, in which they see through into the structure of the universe. Everybody who has had this experience is very clear: that the universe is composed of love and consciousness. And when they see the structure of plants, matter, people, the whole thing, they say that it is composed of love and consciousness. That is what they say. Now, that is very similar to what people say about their experience in the NDE, and that would also fit in with Goswami’s model.

You probably know that a large number of astronauts had transcendent experiences. Edgar Mitchell is one (Mitchell and Williams, 1996). But the astronauts who were in control of the capsule did not have these experiences because they were busy with calculations and responsibilities. It was the guys that could stare out of the windows, who were not doing so much, who had the luxury of contemplation, who had transcendent experiences. And, again, if you talk to Mitchell, he will tell you quite simply that the universe is a universe of consciousness and love. Goswami’s ideas go along with this, but the challenge is in formalizing these observations so that they can, in fact, be used by science.

Question: In childbirth, people are not dying, so why do they have NDEs?

Dr. Fenwick: The NDE has many different causes, and can occur for different reasons. My own view is that the NDE at its limit transforms itself into a transcendent experience, and I am not sure that you can distinguish between NDEs and transcendent experiences. For example, some people have the NDE when they are relaxed, or in a dream, or when they are asleep, and the experience then seems to be much better classified as a true transcendent experience. In a true near-death experience, large changes in physiology are involved; the typical near-death experience which then occurs has many features that will allow its classification also as a true transcendent experience. Some people who do get very seriously ill in childbirth drop their blood pressures and may have catastrophic bleeds. During this medical crisis a true NDE is often experienced. In summary, near-death experiences are transcendent experiences, but transcendent experiences can also occur when you are not actually near death.