Unexplained psychic phenomena have been around since the get-go. Ghosts and gods, angels and demons, spooks and miracles; they’ve been in our consciousness since the dawn of history. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that a group of English scientists and scholars decided to use the methods of science to study these wild phenomena.
They founded the Society for Psychical Research in 1882. They wanted to find out if there was evidence for postmortem continuity of consciousness—more plainly, for life after death. I’ve written about the results of that research in Experiencing the Next World Now. In this post, I want to recall a pioneer in afterlife studies who was a philosopher and a feminist.
Frances Power Cobbe published a book in 1882 called The Peak in Darien, a collection of essays dealing with issues of body and soul. Two big ideas seemed to animate her work. One was to make the case for women in the ministry.
The church can’t handle sexuality without keeping women subservient, she argued. She complains that Christianity has no “duty of mercy” to animals. And, except for the cult of Mary, there’s no feminine image of deity in the biblical tradition to encourage “tenderness, sympathy, love.”
None of this is good for the soul or the body, Cobbe says, especially when the harsh materialism of the age led to the poisonous pessimism of Leopardi and Schopenhauer, both of whom she slams with good arguments and a sense of humor.
Cobbe’s sense of reality was shaken by materialist science. Depressed but also rebellious, for some reason she despised Spiritualism and thought tales of ghosts worthless. (Wrong on that.)
Nevertheless, her pioneer achievement was to collect accounts of dying people who see visions of another world. “That Peak in Darien,” by which she means the moment of dying, “the apex of two worlds, whence the soul may possibly descry the horizonless Pacific of eternity.”
She was amazed that science seemed to ignore these phenomena. She had collected so many stories pointing to the same conclusion suggesting another world. On the very edge of dying, people have visions of another world, Even more important, they encounter deceased loved ones.
What Cobbe had discovered was a pattern of experiences that 20th century researchers, Osis & Haraldsson, studied and referred to as “deathbed visions.” The modern studies revealed two things. Deathbed visions are typically of dead people. If the visions were just sick brain hallucinations, why aren’t living people or strangers hallucinated? If the experiences are real glimpses of the next world, we would expect them to be of deceased people.
Also, drugs interfered with having deathbed visions, the opposite if the drugs were causing the hallucination. In the 20th century, near-death experiences were even more widely reported, and nowadays we also hear of bystanders joining the dying person’s trip to the next world. There are also reports of people recovering their full mental capacities from brain diseases just before they die. It appears that all sorts of things happen around the time of death suggesting something after the curtain goes down.
Cobbe recounts story after story of dying people who light up with ecstasy as they recognize the arrival at their bedside of deceased loved ones. In one instance, a person not known to have died appeared at the bedside of a dying person, and only later was it discovered that this person had recently perished in India. Cobbe was clearly impressed and fascinated by the stories that she collected.
She hoped but without being certain that these glimpses were not illusions conjured by sick brains. Cobbe is almost wistful as she contemplates the irony and the mystery of the phenomena she has collected. She writes: “Does the brain, then, unlike every known instrument, give forth its sweetest music as its chords are breaking?”
Not sure but full of hope, pioneer Frances Cobbe speaks of “the rapture of reunion with the beloved ones we have mourned as lost, but who have been standing near, waiting longingly for our recognition. . . . “ I wonder. Could nature be so cruelly compassionate as to implant in our brains the capacity to create such ecstatic illusions at death only to lead us smiling into nothingness? Or, are all the glimpses and visions real forerunners of new realities?
Cobbe's elegant quote “Does the brain, then, unlike every known instrument, give forth its sweetest music as its chords are breaking?” brought to mind headlines from a few years ago about how NDEs may be the result of a surge in electrical activity in the dying brain. Of course, that speculative hypothesis was based on an observed 'surge' of electrical activity in the brains of rats seconds after their hearts had been made to stop. I don't know that there is evidence that human brains undergo a similar surge after cardiac arrest, but as you point out in this post, some people seem to regain mental clarity right before death, therefore, a surge of brain activity giving rise to unique mental experiences right before its total breakdown seems a likely possibility.
The passage you cite, Miguel, from Cobbe struck me too. If there is a final surge of energy and awareness, you wonder if it comes down to a last goodbye or is a sign--the surge--of the new postmortem phase of one's existence. That's the question.
Yes, and I very much would like it to be the latter option!
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