Science and near-death experience: a gathering Storm?

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I have to admit that I am running late with this post. Nearly three months have now passed since I first touched on the subject of near-death experiences, mentioning in particular the remarkable story of former art professor turned United Church of Christ minister Howard Storm in connection with events he underwent in 1985 when visiting Paris together with his students from Northern Kentucky University. Before plunging into Storm’s story, I would however first like to say that there has been a reason for this hiatus (other than my indolence); in tackling the question of NDE accounts we are dealing with a topic which seems to be becoming a hotter potato with every month that passes, both at the popular and more academic level, so keeping pace with events is proving quite a challenge to my speed-reading skills as well as putting a strain on my budget for new books! Recent weeks have for example seen the appearance of two significant new ‘middle-brow’ publications on the subject – the thoughtful Dancing past the Dark by (theologically-trained) International Near-Death Association president emerita Nancy Evans Bush, and Brain Wars by Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard. A cogent extended essay placing NDE reports in the more general context of the fundamental challenge posed to reductionistic materialistic science by current consciousness research, Brain Wars sparked a furious polemical reaction from biologist and radically anti-religious science blogger PZ Myers when an extract from the book appeared on the much-read website www.salon.com .

In addition, near-death experiences were the focus of ‘Final Passages’,  the 2012 Bioethics Forum hosted by the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute in Madison, Wisconsin at the end of April, grouping together many of the leading researchers in the field. Speakers included figures such as Dr Raymond Moody, whose Life after Life effectively lit the touchpaper for discussion of the whole issue when first published in 1975, Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel and Dr Eben Alexander III, a neurosurgeon whose former reductionist view of the mind-brain relationship was radically altered by his own NDE during a coma in 2008. Dr Alexander has now joined the ranks of those who, like Beauregard, are openly calling for precisely the type of reconciliation between science and spirituality which figures such as PZ Myers seem determined to thwart at all costs. With professional credentials including a spell as associate professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School (1994-2001) and a list of scientific publications standing at 150+, Alexander can scarcely be dismissed as a typical ‘woo-monger’ (the favoured term of abuse on the part of the skeptical materialists regarding near-death experience); his forthcoming book to be published later this year by Simon & Schuster is awaited with considerable expectation.

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Could it just be that we are currently experiencing a dramatic, if hotly-contested, paradigm shift in the way that we consider the possibility of life after death and the nature of human consciousness more generally? It is certainly striking that growing scientific interest in the question of the near-death experience as more than a fringe concern seems to be paralleled at a popular level by the flood of NDE accounts in recent years both in book form and on film which have clearly gripped the general public. Of these perhaps the best-known examples of what is fast becoming a social phenomenon are Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (for which NDE researcher Dr Penny Sartori, one of the Bioethics Forum panelists, was a consultant) and the extraordinary children’s reports found in Colton and Todd Burpo’s Heaven is for Real, (still at n.3 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list after 78 weeks on the chart) and Alex/Kevin Malarkey’s The boy who came back from heaven.

If it seems that the American popular readership has already made up its mind as to the veracity of the two boys’ compelling stories – which interestingly have made next to no impact in the UK -, there has also predictably been no shortage of sniping from the skeptics, not least because their fathers, co-authors of the books in question, are both Christian ministry professionals (Todd Burpo being a Wesleyan Pastor, Kevin Malarkey a Christian therapist) and that their sons Colton and Alex had therefore already been familiarized with Biblical imagery from a very young age. The objection is therefore raised against Heaven is for Real and The boy who came back from heaven is that their descriptions of a life beyond this one are so heavily coloured by a pre-existing theological framework that they can hardly be taken seriously as anything more than sincere but deluded wish-fulfilment and the result of prior socialization. Whether this objection holds or not is of course a matter of opinion – I personally think not, for reasons that will become apparent as we proceed (although of course I can hardly plead neutrality) -, but I can certainly understand the skeptics’ argument.

It is here that arguably the most interesting NDE reports are those which, far from confirming the experiencer’s prior expectations shaped by a religious worldview, are radically counter-intuitive in nature and led to a drastic and enduring change of outlook as a result of the events in question. I have already mentioned Eben Alexander, (whose synaesthesic NDE account incidentally reads uncannily like the programme note for a work of Olivier Messiaen, as he claims that his experience of the transcendent was triggered by the perception of a melody in the form of colours) as clearly falling into this category. Howard Storm, whose My Descent into Death: a Second Chance at Life, which came to broad public attention when the bestselling author Anne Rice triggered its re-publication by Doubleday (and penned its foreword) in 2005, is another prime example. His is a story which definitely cannot be reduced to wish-fulfilment, for the simple reason that his experience in no way corresponded either to what he expected or hoped for (those who may wish to skip the summary of Storm’s NDE which follows below might like to read a representative précis of his account published in the British Catholic Herald this April). Although Howard Storm has now been a UCC pastor for two decades,[1] he was neither a Christian at the time of his NDE, nor a New Ager eagerly awaiting union with an all-embracing light or a transcendent experience of the oneness of all things. He was to all extents and purposes an atheist.

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Storm’s NDE occurred as he was lying on a bed in the Hôpital Cochin in Paris, where he had been rushed after a sudden perforation of his duodenum; he had the misfortune to arrive at Cochin at the weekend when medical staff were in short supply (as those acquainted with Parisian public hospitals will probably be aware), which meant that he was left untreated for several hours without even the administration of painkillers. His condition was so excruciating that by the time he realized that he was fading away, he welcomed what he assumed in his non-theistic world-view would be his imminent extinction:

‘I closed my eyes & relaxed & let go to die. There was no question in my mind that I could do it. It was real easy to do at that point. The doctors told me here that considering the surgeon’s report that I had a 5mm hole in the duodenum, without any treatment all day that my life-expectancy, like 5 hours was good, and so I was way beyond that. I felt like I was going to sleep, and I was real glad of it and I knew that what would happen next would be that forever and ever I would no longer have a thought or an existence or anything else. I knew that to be true, absolutely. During this entire day the idea of praying or a life after death or anything never even crossed my mind; it wasn’t a possibility, and I drifted into darkness, just kind of like going into a sleep; and it felt wonderful.'[2]

That wonderful feeling turned out to be extremely short-lived, however; to Howard Storm’s shock he did not simply fade to black but found himself (as is extremely common in NDE accounts) painlessly contemplating his own sick body from outside, together with people in the hospital who were oblivious of him despite his attempts to communicate with them. It is at this point that Storm’s report takes on a strange and disturbing tone, as a group of unknown figures dressed in hospital uniform then beckoned to Storm to follow them out through a door. Their voices were initially friendly, but as they led him away towards an unspecified dark location Storm gradually realized that he had been deceived into following them, as their numbers grew and they became increasingly malevolent. They then turned on him and proceeded to victimize him horribly for their own pleasure:

‘They began shouting and hurling insults at me, demanding that I hurry along. The more miserable I became, the more enjoyment they derived from my distress.[…]These creatures were once human beings. The best way I can describe them is to think of the worst imaginable person stripped of every impulse of compassion […] I had no sense of there being any organization to the mayhem. They didn’t appear to be controlled or directed by anyone. Simply, they were a mob of beings driven by unbridled cruelty. […] Much that occurred was simply too gruesome and disturbing to recall. I’ve spent years trying to suppress a lot of it. After the experience, whenever I did remember those details, I would become traumatized.’[3]

In desperation and against his own metaphysical convictions, Storm began to pray an incoherent ‘jumble from the Twenty-third Psalm, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Lord’s Prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and “God Bless America,” and whatever other churchly sounding phrases came to mind.’ [4] This had the effect of infuriating Storm’s tormenters, who retreated; if this was of some relief to him it still left him with a sensation of utter loneliness, ‘a worm cast into the outer darkness’ in the ‘sewer of the universe’.

Curiously, he recognized the departing lynch mob as kindred spirits, in that they had exhibited towards him precisely the same kind of lack of compassion as he had demonstrated in his earthly life as a ‘dyed-in-the-wool cynic’, a misanthrope interested only in his career. The self-description in My Descent into Death provided by Storm with regard to his previous life is scarcely flattering:

‘Being an artist was a way to get what I wanted. You win eternal fame as an artist. They display your work in marble temples and worship it for thousands of years. I wanted to be famous for hundreds and thousands of years. People would read books about me and say, “Howard Storm, the great artist. […] I viewed people who were religious with contempt. I thought they believed in fairy tales because they couldn’t cope with the harsh reality of life. They had bought into a fantasy in order to justify their mediocrity. […] The rugged individualism that I had learned from my father, my schooling, and my American culture was my religion. Why would I need to believe in a higher power? Who would put the needs of others ahead of their own needs? You have to watch your back always. Life is every man for himself. The one who dies with the most toys wins. Compassion is for the weak.’[5]

Down in the existential sewer pipe, Storm in effect felt that he had reaped what he had sown during his earthly existence, and that his own nihilistic lifestyle had led to its logical conclusion; the only form of existence on offer to him in the penumbra would be to side with the mobsters:

‘I felt like a match whose flame had been spent and the ember was slowly dying away to nothing. Little strength was left to resist becoming a creature gnashing his teeth in the outer darkness. I wasn’t far from becoming like one of my own tormentors for all eternity.’[6]

Happily, as we shall see in the next instalment, this is not a story which ends in the cosmic basement.

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Jeroen Bosch, ‘Ascent of the Blessed’, from ‘Visions of the Hereafter’, between 1500 and 1504

Ducal Palace, Venice

  • Many versions of Rev. Howard Storm’s account are available on the internet, of which perhaps the most phenomenologically interesting are those made in the years immediately following Storm’s NDE (i.e. prior to his seminary training). Extensive audio from one of his 1987 presentations can be found at http://ndestories.org/howard-storm/ .

NOTES

[1] While it should be pointed out that NDE accounts are not easily subsumed under any one confessional framework, Howard Storm is certainly not the only near-death experiencer to have become an ordained minister following an NDE. Other much-publicized cases include that of neuropathologist George Rodonaia, who became an Eastern Orthodox priest , and Ian McCormack, whose NDE was induced by being stung by five box jellyfish while diving off the coast of Mauritius.

[2] http://restoredgospelevidences.blogspot.fr/2011/10/howards-storms-near-death-experience.html This quotation is taken from a transcript made in 1988 by the NDE Research Institute in Fort Thomas, KY on the basis of oral presentations by Howard Storm. The fact that this scanned transcript is embedded on a Mormon website is irrelevant to the present inquiry.

[3] Howard Storm, My Descent into Death: a Second Chance at Life , with a foreword by Anne Rice (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 16-18.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 22-23.

[6] Ibid., 23.

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