Readers who’ve been checking this space for a while may remember that I have a longstanding fascination with near-death experiences and the ways in which they can alter lives. And so I was struck by this line from a recent Wall Street Journal piece about researchers’ continuing attempts to determine why, exactly, folks on the verge of death tend to have awe-inspiring visions of a culturally appropriate Great Beyond:
At least 15 million American adults say they have had a near-death experience, according to a 1997 survey—and the number is thought to be rising with increasingly sophisticated resuscitation techniques.
That’s an aspect of medical progress that I’d never before considered: As more and more people survive trauma, we’re going to have a lot more folks walking the streets who have been fundamentally changed by the hallucinations that often precede death. (For the record, I believe that these visions are the product of a neural mechanism that seeks to maximize a person’s odds of survival by limiting their pain and panic. But I could be totally wrong.) That means millions more people are going to take radically different directions in life upon recovering from their injuries. And that could really be a net positive for the nation, as those who’ve undergone near-death experiences are often predisposed to take risks that can lead to greatness. My favorite case in point: James Michener:
During World War II, at age 40, he was assigned to the South Pacific as a naval historian to investigate problems on various islands and write reports. Observing the interaction of two different cultures and inspired by the beautiful setting of the South Pacific, he began to make notes with no specific goal in mind. A near fatal landing at dusk, on the Tontouta Air Base in French New Caledonia, changed his life. He recalls in his autobiography, “As the stars came out and I could see the low mountains I had escaped, I swore: ‘I’m going to live the rest of my life as if I were a great man.’ And despite the terrible braggadocio of those words, I understood precisely what I meant.”
I remain convinced that medical science will eventually figure out a way to simulate the effects of near-death experiences, in order to provide psychological therapy to people suffering from depression and malaise. But at present, as the WSJ notes, the only way we can do this is by either applying great gobs of pressure to the brain, or administering Special K. Tough to foresee the FDA approving either one of those methods.
(Image via BBC Local Cambridgeshire)