This morning I read something my son had posted on Facebook about the effects of the optic nerve dying.
Maybe surprisingly, when the optic nerve is giving up the ghost, it produces, not a spreading darkness, but a spreading whiteness – rather like the light at the end of a tunnel.
This, he surmised, was behind the tales of the light seen by folks surviving a near-death experience.
My hackles didn’t quite stand up. This is an intelligent boy – well, he is my son after all – and I remember holding a very similar conviction about the provenance of NDEs myself not so long ago.
Susan Blackmore’s “dying brain” theory” may have some merit; it could explain the tunnel and the light described by many NDE-ers. As the brain (and the optic nerve, apparently) shuts down, all sorts of chemical and electrical impulses are thought to be in play.
But, leaving aside the point that all people suffering optic-nerve-death blindness would thus be experiencing an NDE – that particular theory is not sufficient to cover the accumulated facts.
Here is a page of some accounts of out-of body experiences during NDEs. People who saw and heard things going on around them while their brain was supposedly shutting down. There are quite a few of those out there. A dying brain does not begin to explain how someone could hear and see things while it was dying which were supposedly out of the range of their senses at the time.
And then there are all those crisis apparitions to be accounted for: people who, having died, appear to their unprepared loved ones in visions. I know, for I have experienced one of those and no-one is going to convince me it was a fluke coincidence.
The point here, I think, is that we humans frequently leap gratefully upon explanations for “weird stuff” which seems to make the weirdness go away. A dying brain theory is one such theory received with relief by puzzled and often confused members of this race. It explains it all, it smooths the unknown with a gloss of science and helps us believe that it’s all alright – someone somewhere has it all worked out.
The reality, I am discovering more and more as I grow up, is that it’s not that simple.
We have been asking these hard questions for millennia and, outside of the dubious range of religion, have no firm answers, no calming certainties. None at all.
There are bits and pieces, scattered around. Hints of a whole, perhaps; jigsaw puzzle pieces lacking in coherence and widely scattered.
But when you start looking at all the hints – a piece here, a bit of sky there, maybe even a precious corner piece over there – you do come to the conclusion that we know bloody nothing, and that the sane pronouncements of science and terrified skeptics are the most empty explanations of them all.
And that dying-optic-nerve explanation?
I’ve still to assure myself that that is even a fact.