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Light at the End of the Tunnel

I once met a woman who claimed to have returned from the dead. This was years ago, not long after best-selling books started coming out that described the so-called “near-death experience” (NDE). The woman said she had gone into a hospital for a routine procedure and had suffered cardiac arrest on the operating table.· She was eventually revived, but not before she left her body and watched as the doctors frantically worked to save her. She recalled traveling through a dark tunnel toward a heavenly light, where she found Jesus waiting for her. All this was pretty typical of such out-of-body accounts, but she added one detail that gave it a certain ring of verisimilitude. Standing in the Lord’s presence, the portly woman reported that she was at least 30 pounds lighter.· "That was the best part of the whole trip," she said.

Although I once felt great peace at what I thought was my imminent death in an automobile accident, I would describe my experience as more near miss than near death. There was no leaving my body or light at the end of a tunnel. So I cannot corroborate the woman’s story with any of my own, although thousands of others have. In the fourth century BCE, Plato related a soldier’s tale of having returned from the dead. Starting in the 18th century, physicians began documenting patient accounts of near-death experiences, long before there was even a term to describe the phenomenon. The depth psychologist Carl Jung, who was himself trained as a physician, devoted a chapter on his autobiography to an out-of-body experience when he suffered a heart attack at age 65 after being hospitalized for a broken foot.

If my long-ago conversation with a death survivor is any indication, at least some of those who report an NDE are obviously sincere. But what exactly has happened to them? The term “near-death experience” would suggest they almost died but were not actually dead, even if they temporarily showed no vital signs. Skeptics maintain that NDEs are nothing more than the paroxysms of a dying brain. They point out that “tunnel vision” is a common symptom of cerebral hypoxia, which happens when the brain is deprived of oxygen. However, this would not account for the reunion with dead friends and relatives, so-called “life reviews” and other standard features of an NDE. Nor would it explain such improbable details as the sudden weight loss by the woman who believed she had died and gone to heaven.

Another explanation for NDEs is that they are not about dying at all but are recovered memories of being born. The dark tunnel leading to the next world is, in fact, the birth canal that brought us into this one. Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof refers to the phenomenon as a “near-birth experience.” It is probably best not to take this too literally, since even those born by caesarian section report traveling through a dark tunnel during NDEs. Birth is an archetypal event that is not only universal in human experience but also has mythic resonance. Rebirth is a standard religious motif covering everything from reincarnation in Eastern religions to the “born again” experience in fundamentalist Christianity.

The concept of rebirth has recently been introduced into the life cycle of stars. Einstein’s general theory of relativity postulated the existence of “singularities” of infinitely dense matter whose gravitational field was so strong that not even light could escape. So-called “black holes” made up of collapsed stars would vacuum up everything in their path. Until recently, the assumption was that anything that disappeared below the black hole’s “event horizon” was doomed. But now Stephen Hawking and other physicists are suggesting black holes may not be giant gravitational compactors at all but tunnels leading to another universe. If true, it would appear that even stars can’t leave this world without finding themselves reborn in the next one.

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