November 3, 2012
Near-death Experience: Where Science and Fiction Meet
On October 30, 2012, Stanford University reported on a study about near-death experiences and how the interest in these connects scientists, those studying the hard and soft sciences, and humanists, those studying the humanities. For as long as the collective mind can remember, scientists and humanists have loudly proclaimed disparities from each other. Scientists maintain that humanists “feel” too much while humanists criticize scientist’s seeming disregard for anything other than logic. In the near-death experiences study, scholar and humanist Laura Wittman found the connection to bind these two disciplines thus showing that neither assertion is accurate.
In her studies she found evidence that writers and scientists were delving into and questioning the near-death experience at the same time. Wittman read upwards of 60 novels and stories that mention or use the near-death experience, particularly focusing on those that referenced the biblical story of Lazarus, whose near-death experience may be the first recorded, seriously influencing humanists and continuing to inspire writers, film makers, and artists. Furthermore, she joined scientific associations and delved into the neurosciences where she found that scientific scholars also researched Lazarus and near-death experiences. She found that both disciplines clearly believed in the importance of the near-death experience even to the extent that the descriptions and changes in experiences coincided.
Near-death experiences were described in both the literary and the scientific worlds as one that included a bright light, a “life review,” and then a dead relative telling them that it was not their time, so they must return to the earthly plane. Prior to the cinema age of the 20th century, however, the “life review” was described as flashes of moments in life. Since the introduction of cinema these “life review” experiences have been described as a movie of one’s life. These descriptions paralleled each other in both worlds. Scientists heard and experienced the change in “life review” just as much as authors penned the experiences in stories.
Both worlds are interested in the near-death experience, which connects them. Scientists look at the medical aspects while humanists also consider the philosophical ones, but both agree on the relevance of near-death experiences. No longer can scientists and humanists divide. Wittman’s study shows that they can and should work together to find the truths of the world.
I have not endured a near-death experience; however, I find myself drawn to the stories. In fiction a near-death experience forces me to consider the finality of death and the benefits of a second chance. Now, after reading this study, I am also considering the science behind revival. No longer can I say the medical field is separate from my humanities. Now, I must consider how near-death experiences have been affected by science and what that actually means to the world, to me.
I have been guilty of propagating the dichotomy between science and humanities. I have faulted scientists for their loyalty to logic. Yet I, myself, believe in and live by logic. Yes, I feel and intuit, but I then consider the logic and rationale behind my thoughts. This study shows that scientists do the same only in reverse. They start from logic and then consider intuition.
If near-death experiences connect these two disciplines, then perhaps we can all—no matter our field of interest—learn something about life and death. If we can give ourselves a second chance at life, perhaps we should also do so in our scholarly ventures.
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