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NDEs in the Blind

By Barbara Mango, Ph.D.

 

     Although OBEs provide compelling and frequently verifiable evidence of the NDE, studies of the congenitally blind yield the most stringent test of the hypothesis to date. The International Council of Opthalmology defines congenital blindness as a complete lack of form and visual perception since birth, and is commonly referred to as no light perception, or NLP.

     Psychiatrist Stanislov Grof purports that sight in congenitally NDErs is medically inexplicable. He states:    

             There are…reported cases where individuals who were blind because of a medically confirmed organic damage to their optical system could at the time of clinical death see the environment….Occurrences of this kind… can be subjected to objective verification.  They thus represent the most convincing proof that what happens in near-death experiences is more than the hallucinatory phantasmagoria of physiologically impaired brains[19].

     In accord with Grof, psychologists Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper decided to conduct the most in-depth study ever undertaken of NDEs of the blind. The objective of their study was to ascertain if the blind experience the same veridical occurrences as the sighted. As Ring purposed, the blind see for the first time in their lives during a NDE. However, they do not retain sight when they return to their bodies.

Using qualitative research, they sought to determine if verifiable evidence supported their hypothesis that experiences of the congenitally blind conform to the familiar prototype of sighted NDEs. Their research ascertained that the narratives of the blind were indistinguishable from those of the sighted. [20] 

Thirty-one subjects were chosen for this study. Of these, fourteen subjects were blind from birth, eleven had lost sight before five years of age, and six were considered severely visually impaired.  According to Ring and Cooper, “The analyses of persons blind from birth… provide the strongest and conventionally most inexplicable data pertaining to the proposition that the blind may actually see during their NDEs and OBEs”. [21]  Thus, only cases of the congenitally blind will be presented.

Ring and Cooper consider “Vicki” to be one of the most compelling and verifiable cases of the congenitally blind ever recorded.  Vicki was born blind due to severe and irreversible optic nerve damage.  Asked in an interview if she has ever been able to see, she replied, “Nothing, never.  No light, no shadows, no nothing, ever...I’ve never been able to understand even the concept of light.” [22] Thus, the visual components of her NDE are astonishing.  After a near-fatal car accident and suffering from brain damage, Vicki was rushed to the hospital in a coma.  She recalls her experience by stating:

           And it was frightening because I’m not accustomed to see things visually, because I never had before!  And initially it was pretty scary!  And then I finally recognized my wedding ring and my hair. And then I thought: is that my body down there?  Am I dead or what? They kept saying, “We can’t bring her back, we can’t bring her back!” And they were trying to frantically work on this thing that I discovered was my body and I felt very detached from it and sort of “so what?” And I was thinking, what are these people getting so upset about?” [23]

     Upon resuscitation Vicki described seeing her crumpled Volkswagen van.    Additionally, she “saw” herself floating above the stretcher and travelling to the hospital’s roof, where she experienced a 360-degree panoramic view of the hospital grounds.  Vicki’s surgical team later verified her accurate description of the wedding ring and precise account of both the hospital grounds and damage to her Volkswagen van.

     In a later interview, Vicki was asked to compare her dreams and NDE.  When asked if she had ever experienced visual perception while dreaming, she responded, “Nothing.  No color, no sight of any sort, no shadows, no light, no nothing.”[24]     

Van Lommel finds Vicki’s story astonishing.  He emphasizes,

             “The fact that somebody who has been blind from birth as a result of an atrophied eyeball and optic nerve…can nonetheless see people and surroundings raises significant questions…  How does she do this?  This is impossible according to current medical knowledge.” [25] 

It appears inconceivable that a congenitally blind woman to whom the visual world is foreign and incomprehensible, could describe objects and color with such crystal-clear vision.

Another of Ring and Cooper’s remarkable case studies is that of “Brad”.  Suffering from severe chest congestion, Brad stopped breathing and went into full cardiac arrest.  The emergency room physician declared him unresponsive.  He was later informed that his heart and respiration had stopped for four minutes.  It was during this period that he felt himself floating to the ceiling and rising to the roof of the hospital.  He described the surroundings from the hospital roof as follows:

I think that everything except for the streets was covered with snow, thoroughly.  It was a very soft snow.  It had not been covered with sleet or freezing rain…The streets themselves had been plowed and you could see the banks on both sides of the streets.  I knew they were there.  I could see them. [26]

     When later asked about his dream life, Brad replied:

Generally--except for this one near-death experience--my dreams have had the very same consciousness…as I’ve had in my waking hours.  That would be all my senses function, especially my sense of hearing and my sense of touch, but all the other senses function, except vision.  In my dreams, I have no visual perceptions at all [27]

     How is it possible for the congenitally blind  to possess an acute, 360% visual field, the ability to recognize and describe colors, objects, and the environment in fine-grained detail?  Indeed, it is incredible these individuals apparently transcend all sensory restrictions.  Thus, the question must be posed; does sight in blind NDErs actually depend on the eyes, or is there a non-retinol explanation?   

Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper postulate the blind experience a distinctive type of transcendental awareness termed “mindsight”. They define mindsight as:

A distinctive state of consciousness, which we would like to call transcendental awareness.  In this type of awareness, it is not of course that the eyes see anything—how could they?  It is rather that the mind itself sees, but more in the sense of “understanding” or “taking in” rather than of visual perception per se. Or, alternatively, we might say that it is not the eye that sees, but the “I” [28]  

Ring and Cooper are proposing a theory in which the spiritual body transcends limitations of the physical body and sensory organs.  In their model, “the blind can see because, with the physical body temporarily inoperative, the spirit within them can make use of the finer sense organs of the astral body, which presumably are perfect, to gain temporarily a kind of vision they could never have in life.”[29]  They hypothesize that the blind have access to an expanded supersensory awareness not connected to an organic visual system. Their model posits the existence of a non-local or “spiritual” consciousness.

Over a century ago, noted British scholar F.W.H. Myers arrived at the same conclusion proposed by Ring and Cooper. He hypothesized:

“I start from the thesis that the perceptive power within us precedes and is independent of the specialized sense-organs, which it has developed for earthly use.” [30]

However, skeptics of the mindsight theory argue that “vison” in the blind is entirely brain-based, and is the result of either retrospective reconstruction or dreaming. The chief proponent of this hypothesis is British psychologist and NDE researcher Susan Blackmore. She contends the blind are able to report visual descriptions of their NDEs due to a combination of prior expectations, familiarity with hospital procedures, sensory cues, lucky guesses, and most importantly, overheard conversations.

Thus, according to Blackmore, what appears to be a visual accounting is actually retrospective reconstruction. She states:

             It does not take much information from such sounds for a person to piece together a very convincing and realistic visual impression of what is going on. This will provide the best model they have and seem perfectly real. They may have no idea that the model was constructed primarily from things they heard…. We can only remember the general point that people who appear unconscious may still be aware of some of the things going on around them and they can easily build these up into a good visual picture of what was happening [31]  

     Ring, Cooper, et al, argue vigorously against Blackmore’s reconstruction theory. First, it fails to account for instances which could not be predicted, anticipated, or is beyond comprehension in a blind world.  How is it that Vicki was able to accurately describe the physical descriptions of her operating team, as well as the hospital grounds, when this information had not previously been disclosed to her?  It seems implausible that Brad’s finely-grained and textural description of snow is the result of retrospective reconstruction.  The more viable explanation is that Brad and Vicki experienced veridical perception from a distance outside of the operating room. 

     Cardiologist and NDE researcher Michael Sabom further contends:

           Thus, we have attempted to explain the apparent accuracy of the…NDEs by prior general knowledge, by information passed on by another individual, and by physical perception of sight and sound during semi-consciousness. None of these possibilities have been found to be plausible explanations[32]    

     Blackmore’s “dream theory” is additionally contested by non-materialists.  Dreams of the blind have been researched for over a century. Findings conclude that these dreams never include visual imagery.  Instead, they are experienced only via sound, touch, feel, smell, and taste.  Hearing is the primary sense in dreams of the blind, followed by feel and kinesthetic elements. Thus, the crystal-clear vision of blind NDErs is radically different from their dreams which lack any visual imagery whatsoever.  Ring further explains this by referring to the aforementioned cases of Brad and Vicki. He states:

             Again, if one did not know Brad was completely blind it would be almost impossible to tell from his transcript…that this is a man who has no previous experience with the visual world. Instead, he describes it using the lexicon of a normally sighted person. His account, therefore, coupled with that of Vicki’s, makes it very difficult to refrain from  concluding that under conditions of a NDE, seeing is native to and self-evident in the blind.[33]

 



[19] Grof, Stanislav.  Books of the Dead: Manuals for Living and Dying.  London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

[20] Ring, Kenneth, and Sharon Cooper.  Mindsight: Near-death and Out-of-body Experiences in the Blind.   Bloomington: IUniverse, 2008: 13

[21]Ibid, 26

[22] Ring, Kenneth, and Sharon Cooper. Mindsight: Near-death and Out-of-body Experiences in the blind. Bloomington: IUniverse, 2008: 14

[23] Van Lommel, Pim. Consciousness beyond Life: The Science of the Near-death Experience. New York: HarperOne, 2010: 24

[24] Ring, Cooper, Ibid, 84

[25] Van Lommel, Ibid, 26

[26] Ring, Kenneth, and Sharon Cooper. Mindsight: Near-death and Out-of-body Experiences in the Blind. Bloomington: IUniverse, 2008 :41

[27] Ibid, 85

[28] Ibid, 107

[29] Ibid, 112

[30] Myers, Frederic William Henry. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. Vol.1. London: Longmons, 1903

[31] Blackmore, Susan. Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences.  Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1993: 124-125

[32] Sabom, Michael B. Recollections of Death: A Medical Investigation. New York: Random House, 1979: 115

[33] Ring, Kenneth, and Sharon Cooper. Mindsight: Near-death and Out-of-body Experiences in the Blind. Bloomington: IUniverse, 2008: 45