When Dr. Raymond Moody wrote Life After Life in 1974 and coined the term near-death experience (NDE), most people had never heard of such a thing. The author was amazed by the worldwide public response to his book and the discovery of thousands who claimed to have had such experiences. The subject was taken up and popularized by the media, and there is now an active International Association of Near-Death Studies.
Among Moody's readers was a young pediatrician, Melvin Morse, who later cared for a young drowning victim. He feared she would either die or suffer brain damage, but after days in a coma she awakened, bright as a button, and told him where she had been and what she had seen. Intrigued, the doctor began a serious study of NDE that has continued for a decade. He decided to record NDEs of children since it had never been done and he had access to documents listing youngsters who had undergone near-fatalities. His best-selling Closer to the Light (1990) recorded the results and, like Moody, he was astonished by the volume of letters and interview requests that poured in.
During conversations with several near-death survivors (NDEers) who contacted him, he found they had never forgotten their childhood experience and that it had changed them and the course of their lives. It was their conviction of having been changed for the better that caught Morse's attention. How, he asked himself, could a childhood NDE change a person? Did it change all of them? Did the transformation last? He wanted to meet others with childhood NDEs to verify any changes which might have taken place. Transformed by the Light: The Powerful Effect of Near-Death Experiences on People's Lives, (Melvin Morse, with Paul Perry, Villard Books, New York, 1992) outlines his theories and conclusions while posing questions he hopes other scientists will try to answer. Morse is disappointed that most medical doctors and scientists are so weighed down by scientific dogma that avenues opening into the unseen, ripe for investigation, are casually or disdainfully passed by. Unfortunately, as long as the scientific majority hold firm to the established materialistic formula, the promise of change seems rather remote.
By its nature this subject is controversial, patients' stories being often disbelieved, ridiculed, or attributed to drugs — although this charge has been disproved many times over. While admitting that hallucinatory drugs can give users similar visions, he emphasizes that most such users do not see the transforming "light" typical of NDEs. In support of the reality of people's near-death recountings, he points out that many patients he has known had no time to make up stories, that they spoke immediately after coming out of comas,
a condition that should "wipe clean the content of man's consciousness," according to textbooks on the subject.
In these cases, the near-death experience at the very least indicates that man has some very exciting and unknown aspects of mental functioning that neuroscience is only beginning to explore. — p. 113
This remarkable, easily-read account is one example of an emerging approach to the study of consciousness.
Morse lists nine traits that characterize "full-blown" near-death experiences, though few people experience all of them. One of the most common is an out-of-body experience, an accepted paranormal phenomenon. In these cases the cord binding the astral or model-body to the physical body remains intact; in a complete death, the cord is severed, preventing the person's return to the body. The other most common trait is traveling through a dark tunnel at whose end is a powerful, brilliant light. This spiritual light, as one woman put it, made her feel like an iron filing being pulled to a magnet, and it appears to be the trigger for profound changes and personal transformation.
In the state NDEers variously referred to as heaven or the other world or dimension, all were filled with and enveloped in love, peace, and blissful joy. Although descriptions differ and experiences range from sketchy to profound, many speak of the presence of loving, luminous people, sometimes among them deceased family members and friends with whom they are able to communicate without speech. Usually a shining Being guides them. The figures' luminosity is easily understood: although they have full human consciousness, they do not wear a heavy physical body.
An important chapter discusses Morse's central interest: cosmic energy fields and electromagnetism. The author is "convinced that the NDE itself subtly changes the electromagnetic forces that surround our bodies and each and every cell in it [sic]. This change is so profound that it affects such things as personality, anxiety response, ability to have psychic experiences, and even the ability in some to wear a watch" (p. 133) — the author remarks that more than one-fourth of all adults with childhood NDEs were mystified to find that their watches always stopped when they wore them, although when given to someone else the watches ran perfectly.
In developing his thesis, Morse compares Newton's long-accepted theory of a mechanical universe to modern atomic theory which holds wavelengths of electromagnetism (that is, light) to be the building blocks of everything. Many NDEs give a similar message; one person remarked, "I could see the light in all my own cells and in the universe. I could see that light was God" (p. 135). While the electron was once considered the smallest atomic component, it appears that there is no tiniest part. In other words, everything in the universe is composite, wholes made up of countless infinitesimal particles. Human beings as members of the universe are also composite, not only physically, but on psychological, mental, and spiritual planes as well. Through careful explanations and scientific quotations Morse emphasizes the interaction of cosmic and human electromagnetism.
That electromagnetic forces work within and outside of human beings is an ancient concept. It is found in the Chinese ch'i, the Hindu chakras, and the theosophical concept of the auric egg, so named because of its oval shape. The auric egg is composed of all grades of consciousness-substance which emanate from the individual's divine center as vital effluvia. These draw to themselves the surrounding cosmic substances — spiritual, mental, emotional, astral, and physical. Every being and thing in the universe is said to be an expression of its own auric egg; and its lower ranges include the human aura and what modern science calls a sheath of electromagnetism.
A point that Morse considers most significant is that:
In research I have documented a spot in the brain that functions as the circuit board of mysticism. It is in this spot, located above the right ear in an area known as the temporal lobe, that the symptoms of the near-death experience take place. . . . If a person has a paranormal experience such as leaving their body but it is not accompanied by the light, then the experience is not usually transformative. . . . The transformative powers are in the light. — pp. 162-3
In another section he adds: "Dr. Michael Schroeter, a philosopher and neuroscientist at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, is one who believes that the right temporal lobe is where the brain, mind, and soul converge in the human body" (pp. 195-6).
Morse does not believe he has weakened mysticism by pinpointing a physical location. In refuting this idea he points out that as human beings we must operate in and through our physical bodies. What great assurance it would be, he feels, for everyone to know that within is a circuit board of mysticism, a powerful agent for change, what one neurosurgeon calls "the man within the man." He also is confident that "knowing where the circuit boards of mysticism are gives researchers something real to work with."
This study of the human brain and its right lobe's relation to electromagnetism is not confined to NDE research. Experimental and therapeutic electrical treatments are being performed in this area by accredited MDs and psychologists with surprising success. Several of these therapies have helped a remarkable percentage of those with addictions to alcohol, drugs, and obsessive eating. We learn that infants, even prenatally, retain incredible memories; also, that sophisticated new machines which use the body's own electromagnetism to photograph bones and organs will gradually replace x-rays.
Because he believes in free will, not predestination, it troubles Morse that some NDEers through unsought, increased psychic talents are able to foretell or sense when someone else is going to die, be in danger, or attempt suicide. He thinks this phenomenon involves the right lobe of the brain which NDEs stimulate, that the "receivers" of these people have become more sensitive to vibrations from others than those ordinary people are equipped with. He doesn't mention karma, but the old Eastern doctrine fits well. Daily we are harvesting what we have made of ourselves; relationships with others are part of that harvest, while all the time by thoughts and actions we simultaneously are scattering seeds for a new crop. Those with increased sensitivity may intuitively become aware of events foreshadowed by previous thoughts and acts now coming to fruition.
Morse covers a great deal of ground, presenting case histories that are varied, touching, and often surprising. He applauds NDEers' zest for purposeful living, their awareness of the oneness of life, and their lack of fear of death. The transformative power of these experiences in ordinary people's lives continues to impress him most deeply. One such transformation was expressed by a 62-year-old businessman after a cardiac arrest:
The first thing I saw when I awoke in the hospital was a flower, and I cried. Believe it or not, I had never really seen a flower until I came back from death. One thing I learned when I died was that we are all part of one big, living universe. If we think we can hurt another person or another living thing without hurting ourselves, we are sadly mistaken. — p. xiii
In closing, Morse offers suggestions to assist friends and family to help the terminally ill or dying. He has advice for doctors, too: listen to your patients, bring family and friends to the bedside instead of machines, try to overcome your own dread of death by accepting it. He says that sleep and death are normal, natural, and closely related. The hard difference, of course, for the ones left on earth is that while the deceased is experiencing beautiful dreams, the dreamer is far away. Transformed by the Light is warm, thought-provoking, and is filled with compassionate thoughts. Readers will treasure it.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1993/January 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Theosophical University Press)