11th September 2013
Reading ‘Near-death experience: the brain’s last hurrah’ (23 August) made me shrink. I’m tired of scientists who behave like Procrustes, the giant innkeeper of Greek legend with only one bed, which he stretched short travellers and lopped tall ones to fit. I’ve not had a near-death experience (NDE), but I’ve had a lifechanging mystical one which shares many features with NDE’s, dovetails with metaphysical narratives across faiths, cultures and epochs, and is still radically amazing me seventeen years later. I’d sought sanctuary in a Catholic chapel when I was flooded by a starburst, a lucent wave of peace, compassion, beauty and joy. It was multi-facetted and synaesthetic – lilies, music, sexuality, wordless language, the sea at sunrise – yet seamless. For perhaps 20 minutes wild sweetness, luminous ecstasy poured through my being from a source outside myself that was quintessentially, ineffably truthful and sure.
Your columnist would describe this as ‘normal brain function gone awry’; other sceptics posit psychosis or seizures. Are those of us who report this kind of experience deluded, mad, lying, or are we making contact with a dimension of consciousness scientists haven’t yet evolved the tools to measure? Just because something’s unquantifiable doesn’t mean it’s not true. For me to construct a world view that excludes such an experience would be dishonest; it’s the anomaly that draws me back to itself as a magnetic pole around which my life can’t not attempt to constellate. Jung nailed it when he said, ‘Religious experience is absolute. It is indisputable’.
I would argue that consciousness is the next great mystery, and that we know as little of who we truly are as our forebears knew of the TB bacillus, dark energy or DNA. The facts of the world are themselves gobsmacking; what we can see is less than 1% of what actually exists; humans are midway in size between a galaxy and the smallest sub-atomic particle; we’re aware of 2000 of the 400 billion pieces of information the brain processes every second.
In such a context, why rationalise or scoff at metasensory experience? Perhaps consciousness is just as vast and mysterious as the physical universe. Let us not limit the questions and possibilities but glory in them, in the spirit of physicist Niels Bohr who said, ‘It isn’t crazy enough to be true’.