Thursday, December 23, 2010

Visual Experience/Structure in Near Death Experiences

Thomas Droulez

Judging by what people who had NDEs with clear visual aspects frequently report (including congenitally blind people, which is very disturbing and interesting, since it might tell us a lot about the functional role of the eyes and the impossibility to equate the visual field –or visual screen, to use the words used by John Smythies in his analogical functional description- and the retinal surfaces in the eyeballs –the optic lens, in his description-…. About the topic of congenitally blind people able to accurately retrieve visual information during NDEs, cf: Ring and Cooper’s excellent study… but that may be too long to develop here and now), they were able to “see through” objects (as weird as it may sounds!) and they had no limitations in their visual field (for example: no ocular rivalry any more, and no blurring!)

About the curvature of their visual field during NDEs, I do not know if we can say that it is really curved in itself, or if it phenomenologically appears as being curved, or if speaking of a “bubble” or a “spherical” form was only the verbal rendering of the experience that was the closest to what they actually experienced (they also speak of a total “omnidirectional” visual perception). If I remember well, in my description I used the terms “as if” (or something of that kind) in my first comment about visual perception during NDEs, when I was describing the subjects’ visual impressions during their anomalous near-death experiences. Some of these subjects describe it (verbally) in retrospect (perhaps because they have to use commonly shared usual frames of reference and commonly intelligible words to describe their anomalous near-death perceptual experience) as being a situation in which they (as observers) suddenly seem to be not “within” but on or rather into the surface of a spherical unit, but with no hidden parts.

It is as if they were now the surface of that sphere itself that is able to expand and contain the “external” environment. Judging by the reports, and especially those studied by Jean-Pierre, the subjects who experienced anomalous but veridical visual perceptions (for example: being able to reach distant or previously unknown places and see events happen that were later reported to have truly happened, or being able to see “through” walls or various obstacles hidden or forlorn objects the existence and aspect of which was later confirmed by people belonging to the hospital medical staff, etc) during an NDE cannot be described as static observers within a dynamically expanding/retracting spherical envelope: it would be more apt to say that it was as if they were that envelope/surface itself, because they did not have any more to revolve around an object to be able to get an overview of all its profiles at various angles, but this visual overview was presented as a unified and simultaneous view of all these profiles (I readily admit that I cannot imagine what it looks like, but maybe we can reach some understanding of that and an approximated representation of it by imagining that it would be the (higher-dimensional?) equivalent of the passage from a succession of 2D visual profiles of an object to a 3D visual presentation of that object.

The people who were able to sufficiently focus their attention on their visual experience and who later thought about the best verbal means to convey the essence of that peculiar perceptual experience, reported that, during their NDE, they were able to see the objects “entirely” as a synchronistical “multi-angle” perspective (and not as our classic/usual diachronically constructed succession of isolated visual profiles of the object with a final amodal completion of its successively hidden profiles).

We must be cautious. I think that, in a way, some of them spoke about a “spherical” or “bubble” impression mainly because of three inter-individually recurring aspects of the experience : 1/ they were able to have a 160° visual field and in some cases there are reports of a 360° visual panorama (I cannot spontaneously remember of any specific observation about the curvature, but I will check in the literature); 2/ they had a peculiar new ability of “projection” or “zooming” (both competing –motor and visual- interpretations of this ability exist) at multi-angle perspectives (as if they were the surface itself of a volume containing a lower space) to see distant places or microscopic details of their spatial environment; 3/they sometimes had peculiar “weightless” (bodily?) sensations (that’s why there are sometimes expressions in their reports like –these are not quotes, only typical samples- “I felt like a floating soap bubble” or “it was as if I was hovering above the room and I was a round cloud”: sometimes, when they think they have an “aerial body” (one of Jean-Pierre’s subjects used that expression), then they become suddenly able to locate their limbs in a kind of new reconstructed body image, but when they stop thinking that they have a body (to be more accurate: when they stop being convinced that since they are not “nothing” and they still exist as “observers” they must logically have a kind of embodiment similar to what we are used to), then they begin to feel either like a medium-sized “spherical” cloud or (less frequently reported) like a mere shrunken “point”. I am not sure to know if it tells us something about the structure of their visual “zooming” and “spreading” ability or rather about their possible new kind of embodiment…

Maybe Bill Rosar's suggestion (stated in "On Looking vs. Being Curved") about the curvature being due to the structure of the eyeballs is interesting and relevant: couldn’t it be compatible with John’s model in which (in the camera comparison) the eyes are described as being only the lenses of our optical system (so maybe: if you change the detecting device, the lenses in our analogical comparison, without modifying the screen itself, then the latter will not appear any more as a curved surface). Maybe that is what happens in NDEs: the eyes are now out of order (or never were functional, like in the cases of congenitally blind people!) and there is a whole new structure doing their job of detection and transmission…and that’s why the new “medium” induces drastic modifications of the visual field (the “screen” part of our device)?


  1. This is wonderful stuff! Thanks so much for sharing it with us, Thomas.

    Dimensionality can be conceived both as a topological and metric property of space. So it is hard to know whether to think of this "altered state" of visual experience (confining my own comments for now to vision) should be conceived or partly conceived as a kind of topolological expansion of the visual field (due to a process analogous to topological "stretching" or "bending") of to conceive of it as involving a increase in the number of dimensions, or even perhaps a decrease, because it is almost as if the observer becomes the extended visual surface itself, at least from the way you have described it.

    It is hard to know how to interpret the term "omnidirectional" in this context, but as I noted previously, Galton talked of "visualizers" who claim to achieve "centripetal" visualization in which they say they can see the entire surface of a globe at once. There, as here, I would ask: Would a globe still appear round?

    It is as though the visual field seems to extend more around objects, much as our ability to feel an object in our hands by enclosing it within them--a visual analog of that experience perhaps.

    But, as you duly note, Thomas, it is hard to know just how literally to take these descriptions, being as they are after the fact. For example, one might say of an object that one quickly rotates in one's grasp that one is seeing all sides of it almost at once--that's the impression one gets. Is it perhaps that the observer's point of view can change very rapidly as part of the "zooming" process?

    Ideally we need more details in order to "model" these experiences topologically! But in the meantime, we should remember Moncrieff's theory that ordinary vision is of a clairvoyant nature, and that the eyes are almost like filters--the visual system itself being more like the Bergsonian "cerebral reducing valve" that Aldus Huxley wrote of in "The Doors of Perception."

  2. One odd (and nagging) thought I have had about this since Thomas first described some of these reports is the bizarre idea that it is as if the visual field of these individuals had *detached* itself from them, and became a kind of independent entity--not unlike the luminous "earth lights" that have been reported in the UFO literature that seem to be possess intelligence.

    Another thought is that we tend to conceive of perceptual space as oriented relative to the physical body as if it were in the same position. What if it is sensations that are prying into the physical body from *outside* it, almost like a kind of parasite external to it? (Not sure why that word occurred to me, except due to the seeming causal dependency of them on the brain.)

  3. Inasmuch as I have now mentioned "earth lights," one peculiarity sometimes observed of them is that they have only one side (say, no back side), just like visual space--ergo, a one-sided surface. This fact was mentioned by Paul Devereux, who has written extensively about earth lights (especially as a phenomenon in search of a theory):

    "What are earth lights? Well they certainly have electrical and magnetic attributes, and some form of plasma is assumed. Modern witnesses who come close to earth lights typically report hallucinatory episodes – suggesting magnetic fields that are known to be able to affect parts of the brain. One thing that has struck me in poring over witness reports from different periods of time and parts of the world is the similarity of descriptions stating that earth lights sometimes behave as if they have a rudimentary intelligence, like inquisitive animals. (Intriguingly, it was very recently announced that scientists in Rumania had created laboratory plasmas that they observed behaved exactly like living cells.) Another type of observation noted in witnesses’ reports from all times and places that has impressed me is that the lights sometimes display illogical effects, such as, and particularly, being visible from one side but not the other. This makes me suspect that earth lights may be macro-quantal events -- phenomena that should exist only at the sub-atomic quantum level, but have somehow manifested on our larger macro-scale of experience. More modest macro-quantal phenomena have already been produced in the laboratory, and I think earth lights, produced in the greatest laboratory of them all (the one that belongs to Mother Nature) have remarkable lessons to teach us."

    According to investigative journalist, John Keel, the intelligence that earth lights exhibit is anything but rudimentary, as description of them from his own personal field observations in the 1960s reveals:


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