Spirit Guide

P. M. H. Atwater and David H Morgan. The Complete Idiots Guide to Near Death Experiences. Alpha Books, 2000.

There is one positive thing that can be said about this book, and that unlike some others in this series it is not written by an in-house hack with no knowledge of the field in which they are writing, as Ms Atwater has been a writer and researcher in this field for more than twenty years. She started researching after her own NDE, and this, of course introduces its own biases: it is very difficult to separate out in this book actual experiences, and her own New Age interpretations of them.

Perhaps that comment, though, implies that such a separation is possible, but this might not be the for what emerges here, is just how culturally-bound the NDE really is. Virtually all of experiencers quoted here express their experiences in terms of what I think we can regard as an American folk religion distilled from a mixture of pop occultism/New Agery (itself rooted in American transcendentalism and spiritualism) and traditional Christianity,
with American schmaltz and sentiment.

Ms Atwater appears to be aware of this, and indeed argues that, people will seek to express what are essentially ineffable experiences in language and culture familiar to them, and that there is tendency for researchers and experiences together to reduce and stereotype the narratives to conform to standard models of the NDE. Yet, she does not see that she herself is doing much the same thing.

One point which should always be made is that the term 'Near Death Experience' is something of misnomer, for what we are dealing with here are essentially, at best, memories. In some cases, especially with the alleged memories of NDEs of small children or in the womb, it seems, to put it mildly, unlikely that these are actually memories, rather they are memory-like fantasies constructed in later life. Atwater also notes that NDE-like experiences can be generated in other circumstances. A further problem, however, is that as we have no access to other peoples subjective experiences we have no way of knowing whether any of these people really have had the experiences, or possess the memories they claim.
 
A kind of common sense suggests that most have, but common sense can be mistaken, and at least some of the stories reproduced here have some very problematic features, not so much the NDE itself but in the surrounding narrative (how long they were 'dead', claimed amazing abilities etc), generating a sense of unease, an unease which is certainly magnified in those cases where people are telling NDE stories to promote their religious and philosophical beliefs, and even more, to promote their (fee charging) services as 'therapists', 'workshop organisers' or merchandisers of New Age gear.

Similarly, it is unclear to what extent the claims of post NDE 'wild talents' are verified by third parties, preferably other than family members or close associates who may not wish to gainsay someone close to them to a stranger, and to what extent they are based on the simple assertion of the central character themselves is unclear. What is a bit clearer however, is that perhaps in this case sceptics have not been sceptical enough, in that, like Sue Blackmore for example, they have rather taken the standard model of the NDE at face value, and then sought to find explanations for each of the elements, overlooking the powerful, perhaps predominant role of culture in generating these stories.
 
The best guess that we can make at the moment is to suggest that it is more probable than not that some, but not all NDE narratives, are based on actual 'memories', and that it is more probable than not that some, but not all, of these 'memories' are 111 some way generated by neurological events, including those caused by reduction in the blood supply to the brain for a brief period. Beyond that we cannot go. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 61, January 2001.


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