Living with death and dying
Living with death and dying

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Living with death and dying

A psychological explanation for near-death experiences

Some people put forward a psychological explanation of the near-death experience which goes something like this: the personality (or ego) is attempting to deny its imminent dissolution and so evokes such mechanisms as depersonalisation (as in ‘leaving the body’) or ego defence (hearing voices, etc.). This explanation is like the medical one in assuming that consciousness perishes with brain stem death. In fact Sabom wishes to challenge that assumption and to suggest that consciousness may exist beyond or outside of the activity of the brain. He questions the philosophical basis of the materialist, medical framework, proposing that near-death experiences are to be taken at face value, as explicable in terms of an encounter with God, ‘an ineffable truth encountered face to face at death’s closest moments’ (p. 186).

At the same time Sabom doesn’t claim that near-death experiences describe the afterlife or that they can legitimately be used as proof of its existence. They tell us what happens during the process of dying, but they cannot be used as a description of what happens after death, for none of his interviewees actually died (my emphasis). Despite this, the popular media have in recent years presented the experiences as evidence of an afterlife, as in the following article from the Daily Mail.

Can there really be life after death?

… there is growing evidence from people of different cultures, different jobs and aspirations all reporting startlingly similar phenomena in near-death experiences which appear to testify to the existence of something else beyond life.

… Not only are medical advances making it possible for more people to ‘come back from the dead’ than ever before, but sophisticated treatments for heart disease may also sometimes stimulate these same near death conditions – giving scientists a unique opportunity to probe and understand the complex processes at work … now sophisticated life-saving procedures are giving the best clues we have ever had as to the possibility of anything beyond.

… Modern resuscitation techniques mean that far more people are being brought back when all seems lost. Certainly the more the experience is shared, the more chance we have of finding clues to the question most of us in our heart of hearts want answered: Is there anything after death?

Scientists are beginning to think there might be.

(Hope, 1990)

Although this course makes no attempt to arrive at conclusions about the existence or not of life after death, it can and does provide information about and insight into a range of views and beliefs on this issue. The Daily Mail piece serves as a useful reminder that belief in life after death can certainly be found amongst people who have no formal religious tradition and that the impact of near-death experiences extends well beyond those individuals who have themselves ‘lived through it’.

Thus far we have explored the impact that the knowledge of death has on our everyday lives and also how the lives of people who have particular encounters with death are affected by these encounters. The remainder of this course concentrates on the actual problems of dying. How do individuals react to the prospect of their own death and make choices about their care when dying?


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