My earlier post "The desert and the sea" attracted a lot of comments. I admit that I was basically thinking aloud when I wrote that post, and in retrospect I shouldn't have said that desert and ocean environments never show up in NDEs and channeled accounts of the afterlife. Several readers provided examples of seascapes appearing in afterlife reports, though I continue to think that descriptions of such environments are pretty rare.
One puckish reader rewrote my own words in the post, as follows:
If the various accounts of the afterlife were purely the product of fantasy, one might reasonably expect some of those fantasies to include bananas or hot pants. As far as I can tell, none of them do. Perhaps this argues that there is an underlying reality to these reports.
Then he added archly:
Or perhaps such ruminations are as silly as they sound.
I see his point, but as I replied in the comments:
From my perspective, though, it's something of a mystery that such a popular locale as the beach doesn't show up in NDEs, channeled communications, or deathbed visions very often, if at all. Given the thousands of reports, we might expect to see more of a variety of environments.
A garden seems to be the overwhelming favorite, showing up far more often than other settings. Why should this be? Is there something hardwired into the human psyche that makes us imagine a garden paradise as opposed to some other environment? Is it purely the result of childhood exposure to stories about the Garden of Eden? I don't know.
It's also interesting that the cliches of pearly gates, angel choruses, clouds, etc. are very seldom mentioned in NDE accounts, channeling, or deathbed visions. If hallucinations and fantasies account for these experiences, why do they run contrary to so many people's expectations?
A commenter named Aftrbrnr contributed this thought:
One thing I wonder about NDEs is if they are hallucinations, why does everyone dream about dying and going to the afterlife? I'm actually expecting to hear accounts where people experience near death but don't report going to the afterlife but just dream as if they were asleep, which is where I think you should be seeing things like the beach, ocean, etc. that we're discussing here.
I also recall a study I can't remember off the top of my head that found that NDEs didn't conform to any religious beliefs. The study did Christians and Hindus, and with Hindus you have to remember a core part of their beliefs is reincarnation. Working on that, if NDEs are a result of expectations, one would imagine a Hindu NDE may consist of dreaming of living in your next life on Earth. However, the study found that Hindu experiencers went through the similar spiritual world scenario that most people go through, which in the light of Hindu beliefs of reincarnation doesn't make sense.
Not using this is evidence or proof, but just something to think about.
To which I replied:
That's a good observation, Aftrbrnr, and brings out a serious point made (perhaps inadvertently) by the commenter I quoted. Namely, if NDEs are hallucinations, why don't they include "bananas and hot pants"?
A hallucination, like a dream, can have pretty much any content imaginable. So why aren't there NDEs where the person sees himself playing piano at Carnegie Hall, or winning the Super Bowl, or seducing a supermodel, or hang-gliding in Hawaii, or ...?
Considering the possible range of human fantasies, which is at least as broad as the range of things we dream about, it's surprising (to say the least) that NDEs tend to reproduce the same patterns and environments over and over again.
Skeptics try to explain this by saying either a) there are variations in NDEs, or b) the commonalities can be explained as reactions to specific kinds of brain trauma. (E.g., the "tunnel" is a reaction to the brain's visual center shutting down.) The trouble is that a) the variations are minor compared with the repetitive patterns, and much less significant than would be expected in hallucinations; and b) NDEs occur in all sorts of circumstances in which the brain is traumatized in very different ways. (And sometimes in cases where the brain has not been physically traumatized at all - for instance, cases of mountaineers who had an NDE while falling, but landed safely.)
Though I didn't mention it in the comments thread, this issue is addressed at some length by Keith Augustine in his essay "Hallucinatory Near-Death Experiences." Much of his article is devoted to showing that NDEs are not as consistent in their contents as some people maintain. In contrasting Western and non-Western NDEs, he writes:
Of the 8 prototypical Western NDE elements, only 'meeting others' is truly universal in non-Western cultures. Landscapes are nearly universal, but quite variable in their details. Even the OBE does not appear to be a universal NDE element, though it is more common than many of the other elements sought in non-Western NDEs. Encountering a barrier that one cannot cross was equally prevalent. Perhaps most surprising of all is the absence of feelings of peace, a clear tunnel experience, an experience of light, and a life review in almost all of the non-Western NDE reports, given their prominence in the prototypical Western NDE....
Simply reviewing the existing cross-cultural literature on NDEs led Kellehear to the surprisingly modest conclusion that "the major cross-cultural features of the NDE appear to include encountering other beings and other realms on the brink of death" (34). No other features identified with the prototypical Western NDE appear to be universal....
Since far more differences than similarities have been found between Western and non-Western accounts, the commonalities between different Western NDEs require a special explanation. What could possibly explain consistency between Western accounts but not cross-cultural consistency?
He notes that the explanation sometimes offered - that Raymond Moody's 1975 book Life After Life popularized NDEs in Western society and led to imitative reports - doesn't hold water, because many Western NDEs reported prior to the publication of Moody's book contain some of the same elements. What, then, is the explanation?
With Keith's permission, I'm reproducing a more extended excerpt from his essay, which grapples with this question.
With that caveat [that a given NDE typically does not contain all the elements identified by Moody] duly noted, we must return to our original question: How do we explain the consistency between Western NDE accounts? Perhaps Western NDE motifs are found in some part of the Western cultural background other than the NDE literature since Moody. But then one is nagged by a poignant issue raised by Fox:
[I]n the cases where NDEs with classic features such as tunnels and lights are reported, we might wish to question where NDErs actually derive their cultural-linguistic NDE pattern from.... For it is clear that such experiences, complete with recurring motifs such as traversing a period of darkness towards a light, do not represent part of any of the religious traditions of the West (Fox 117).
Specific NDE motifs certainly are absent from the standard depictions of the afterlife provided by Western religious traditions. But Irwin carried out a systematic survey of Western stereotypes of the afterlife to test the hypothesis that NDE motifs derive from social conditioning (Irwin, "Images" 2). Irwin puts that hypothesis as follows: "[I]n a situation of sudden confrontation with death people might draw upon their common cultural heritage to generate comparatively uniform hallucinatory images about a state of existence that is independent of the physical body" (1). Irwin first considers the biblical depiction of Heaven offered in Revelation 21, but quickly notes that biblical sources not only fail to account for the uniformity of Western NDE motifs, but are actually at variance with such motifs:
The difficulty here is that the biblical account is somewhat at odds with the descriptions of the afterlife realm given by subjects of the NDE.... [T]he general public would be well aware of [the biblical] representation of heaven as a city of buildings and streets of pure gold and a surrounding high wall with [pearly] gates. In the NDE on the other hand, the post-mortem realm commonly is reported to comprise a pastoral setting, one with rolling green hills, trees, flowers, perhaps a stream and a blue sky above (Irwin, "Images" 1-2).
As Irwin notes, prima facie "this disparity does not sit well with the view that the near-death experient's image of the afterlife springs largely from social conditioning" (2). However, he cautions that such biblical imagery does indeed feature in some NDE reports, but more importantly, it is questionable "that the portrayal of heaven in Revelation 21 forms the popular stereotypical image [of the afterlife] in our culture" (2).
Consequently, Irwin set out to determine the most common Western visions of the afterlife by administering a questionnaire survey to 96 introductory psychology students at the rural University of New England in Australia. The survey concerned such variables as the appearance, inhabitants, and means of travel of the afterlife, as well as its auditory features (2). He found that (of each questionnaire item) the most common Western images of the afterlife included a cosmic existence simultaneously everywhere and nowhere in the universe (40%), a pastoral scene of "lush green hills, trees, flowers and streams" (30%), and a formless void of pure being (29%) (2, 3). A mere 7% of respondents selected the biblical image, and 9% expected large gardens to figure prominently in the afterlife (3).
Irwin draws three key conclusions on the basis of this data. First, there are several different Western visions of the afterlife, not just one. Second, the biblical image of Heaven—though widely known—is not widely held, and thus sociological sources of NDE motifs "can not be denied on the grounds that the account of the afterlife in NDEs fails to correspond to the biblical representation" (3). Finally, the image of the afterlife as a pastoral scene—an image often represented in NDEs—is quite commonplace, even though respondents' questionnaire answers indicate that "the pastoral stereotype generally is not based on familiarity with NDEs" [emphasis mine] (3).
Like the image of looking down upon the Earth from the clouds in the afterlife, a pastoral scene appears to have an obscure but clearly Western cultural source independent of NDE reports themselves. And in turn this image—like that of a garden or the pearly gates—appears to have influenced the content of some Western NDE reports. As Irwin notes, religious indoctrination is one possible source for the pastoral image: "the Bible frequently appeals to pastoral metaphors ... [and] Sunday School classes often include exposure to pictures of Christ standing in a grassy, sunlit field" (3-4). And the 'cosmic' image of the afterlife, which Irwin suggests is "rooted in diverse mystical and non-Christian traditions," appears to have been represented in a 'meaningless void' experience in which a 28-year-old woman reported encountering a small group of jeering circles 'clicking' back and forth from black to white, and vice versa, which she later discovered were Taoist yin-yang symbols—a symbol she likely was subconsciously aware of but had consciously forgotten about (Greyson and Bush 102).
One prototypical Western NDE element may be represented by two items in Irwin's questionnaire (#6 and #7), which combined indicate that a full 57% of respondents anticipated some sort of illuminating light in the afterlife (3). If we combine being "bathed in perpetual sunshine" with being "illuminated by a soft, diffuse light with no apparent source," respondents anticipated illuminating light more than any other particular item concerning the appearance of the afterlife, and this was the only feature anticipated by a majority of the respondents. Though 'illuminating light' may be too vague to be identified with it, an experience of light is a major Western NDE motif—perhaps the most prominent feature of NDEs in the popular imagination.
Though no other NDE elements are evident in Irwin's survey, OBEs appear to represent the most natural way to imagine what will happen to your soul immediately after the death of the body (as noted in Veridical Paranormal Perception During OBEs? above). Moreover, Heaven—which polls indicate is where the vast majority of people expect to end up after death (Gallup 5)—is explicitly conceived of as a place of bliss and peace. Tunnels might be the most natural representation of transition for Westerners, as Kellehear has argued. And, as is evident in one of the creation accounts in Genesis, light is often associated with what is good in Judeo-Christian tradition, and God is conceived of as perfectly good. It is not much of a leap to associate God with light, and to think that God would be found on the other side of a transition between life and death. Individuals universally expect to meet others in the afterlife, and most contemporary religious traditions posit some sort of postmortem accounting or judgment of one's actions during earthly life. Consequently, it is possible that NDErs are interpreting their experiences of specific physiological events in terms of their cultural expectations.
So there's a well-thought-out, skeptical appraisal of the relative consistency of Western NDEs.