Reasons not to scoff at ghosts, visions & near-death experiences?


EXCERPT (Andreas Sommer): There is a long tradition of scientists and other intellectuals in the West being casually dismissive of people’s spiritual experiences. [...] However, there is good cause to question the overzealous pathologisation of spiritual sightings and ghostly visions. About a century after Kant and Priestley scoffed at such experiences, William James, the ‘father’ of American scientific psychology, participated in research on the first international census of hallucinations in ‘healthy’ people. ... This survey showed that hallucinations – including ghostly visions – were remarkably widespread, thus severely undermining contemporary medical views of their inherent pathology. ... such positive findings with ‘ghost stories’ was reason enough ... not to touch the census report with a bargepole, and the pathological interpretation of hallucinations and visions continued to prevail [...]

Things slowly began to change in about 1971, when the British Medical Journal published a study on ‘the hallucinations of widowhood’ by the Welsh physician W Dewi Rees. [...] Rees’s paper inspired a trickle of fresh studies that confirmed ... ‘hallucinations’ don’t seem inherently pathological nor therapeutically undesirable...

Rees’s study coincided with writings by [...] the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in which she emphasised the prevalence of comforting other-worldly visions reported by dying patients – an observation supported by later researchers. ... Kübler-Ross was also among the first psychiatrists to write about ‘near-death experiences’ (NDEs) reported by survivors of cardiac arrests and other close brushes with death...

For instance, although no two NDEs are identical, they usually have in common that they cause lasting and often dramatic personality changes. Regardless of the survivors’ pre-existing spiritual inclinations, they usually form the conviction that death is not the end. Understandably, this finding alone makes a lot of people rather nervous, as one might fear threats to the secular character of science, or even an abuse of NDE research in the service of fire-and-brimstone evangelism. But the specialist literature provides little justification for such worries. Other attested after-effects of NDEs include dramatic increases in empathy, altruism and environmental responsibility, as well as strongly reduced competitiveness and consumerism.

Virtually all elements of NDEs can also occur in psychedelic ‘mystical’ experiences induced by substances such as psilocybin and DMT. [...] This brings us back to James, whose arguments in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" for the pragmatic clinical and social value of such transformative episodes have been mostly ignored by the scientific and medical mainstream. If there really are concrete benefits of personality changes following ‘mystical’ experiences, this might justify a question that’s not usually raised: could it be harmful to follow blindly the standard narrative of Western modernity, according to which ‘materialism’ is not only the default metaphysics of science, but an obligatory philosophy of life demanded by centuries of supposedly linear progress based on allegedly impartial research?

Sure, the dangers of gullibility are evident enough in the tragedies caused by religious fanatics, medical quacks and ruthless politicians. And, granted, spiritual worldviews are not good for everybody. [...] Yet, a century on from James’s pragmatic philosophy and psychology of transformative experiences, it might be time to restore a balanced perspective, to acknowledge the damage that has been caused by stigma, misdiagnoses and mis- or overmedication of individuals reporting ‘weird’ experiences. One can be personally skeptical of the ultimate validity of mystical beliefs and leave properly theological questions strictly aside, yet still investigate the salutary and prophylactic potential of these phenomena... (MORE - details)

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