Melvin Morse on Visiting Death and On Living with Loss
Melvin Morse came to the Bodhi Tree bookstore late in 1994 to talk about his book Parting Visions: Uses and Messages of Pre-Death, Psychic and Spiritual Experiences. A large crowd gathered to hear his presentation. Dr. Morse is a pediatrician, a professor at the University of Washington and has spent much of his career specializing in critical care medicine. Dr. Morse is particularly well known for his research into near-death experiences in children and his introduction to Betty Eadie’s best-seller book Embraced By the Light. Morse’s book Parting Visions describes the wide range of spiritual experiences of those who have died and the people around them. True to form, it is fascinating stuff. What follows is an edited version of his Bodhi tree Bookstore presentation.
Melvin Morse: Throughout my career I’ve struggled with the issue that in the medical profession we consider spiritual experiences to be fantasies or hallucinations. Now I’ve come to the conclusion that these experiences are as real as any other human experience and that most people have them. They just tend to dismiss them or not recognize them for what they are.
For most of us—particularly in the mainstream medical world or intellectual elite—the study of spirits and spirituality is thought to be aside from what proper scientists are supposed to do. Interestingly enough, all of the scientific evidence in my area of work indicates that we do have a spirit. But because of our overwhelmingly rational scientific studies and reductionist philosophy, these important scientific studies and theories are obscured or denied.
I’ll give you examples of parting visions, or what I think are spiritual experiences. I worked for about five years in critical care medicine and I resuscitated a girl who was four years old. She told us that during the time that she was clinically dead, she physically floated out of her body and interacted with someone that she thought was God. That, to me, is a spiritual experience. Here’s another: one on my patients brought her child into me the day before he died of crib death—sudden infant death—saying that she was worried and wanted me to give him a through checkup. He seemed completely healthy, so I thought she was probably just having a bout of fear that parents often have. Her baby died the next day. Afterwards she told me of a dream she had the night before motivated her to come to the office. She floated out of her physical body and a woman in white came next to her and the two of them looked down on her sleeping body. Then she heard these wonderfully compassionate words saying, “You know, she will not be able to keep that baby.” The dream didn’t say, “Your baby has a heart defect and needs surgery,” or something like that. It was more a dream which gave her meaning and purpose to her infant’s death. And for anyone who has suffered the death of anyone close to them, we know that to find meaning is essential for grief resolution.
A friend of mine and his son were in a tragic boating accident. The son was killed, but my friend survived. Later he told me he felt he actually left his body with the boy. It was so real he could look out at the mountains, he could see trees in the distance. He knew who he was and where he was. He wasn’t transported to some other realm and this wasn’t a dream. Nor was he in any danger of dying himself. Suddenly a large male spirit stood behind him and conveyed to him in a detached and telepathic way that he had a choice that he could die with his son or he could return to his body to finish his life’s work, but he would suffer the worst pain that any person could suffer. You know—the knowledge that he had left his son. He chose to return to life and he did suffer that pain, but he told me he knew he would be reunited with his boy again.
We could say his experience was some sort of grief-induced hallucination or we could say that the premonition of death could be an example of what we call “recall bias.” People say, “Well, maybe everybody has a dream that their baby’s going to die and then just coincidentally some people’s babies do die and they assign meaning to that one dream. That’s “recall bias.” They forget all the other dreams.
The truth is we started our study of near-death experiences because we thought they were caused by an anesthetic agent called halothane. But one day a young male patient of mine was killed in a car accident. When his parents went home to tell his sister, who was deaf, they found that she was, for lack of a better word, in a spiritual trance. And in this trance, she perceived that she was communication with her dead brother. She felt she was transported out of her body with him into a heavenly realm where she was given a glimpse of what his dying experience was like. This occurred coincidentally with the boy’s death and when her parents woke her to say, “Your brother has died,” she said, “Well, I already know that because he has come to me.”
You would have to ascribe that to coincidence or maybe that’s just fraud on the part of this family. Yet they seemed to have nothing to gain from telling me such a story and seemed just as puzzled by it. They were like, “What the heck happened here?” That’s an example of a shared dying experience. Incidentally, I have many well-documented shared dying experiences and most often they occur in people who are either deaf or blind.
We know for sure that about fifty percent of widows or widowers will have an experience of after-death communication with their dead spouse, and although this is one of the most common paranormal experiences, we have always considered them to be a grief-induced hallucination. Here’s an example: a woman told me that her family was driving home one evening and their car went off the road and plunged into a river. Her husband was killed on impact but she was able to struggle out of the car and save herself and her children. While she was sitting on a rock taking in what had happened, she suddenly felt that her husband was sitting right next to her. He was so real she felt she could touch him. In fact she started yelling at him, “Why weren’t you assisting in the rescue efforts?” and he said to her, “Everything is alright. You don’t understand. This is how it is supposed to be.” Although he came to her a number of times after this, she thought she was hallucinating because of her sorrow. Yet every time, he was extraordinary real.
What is interesting in her four-year old son had a near-death experience and he said, “Well, everything went all blank but I floated out of my body and I was in a huge noodle, not a spiral noodle.” Then he paused and he thought to himself, “It must have been a tunnel, ‘cause I don’t think a noodle has a rainbow in it.” It is that kind of personal interpretation which convinces me on an intuitive level of the authenticity of these experiences. Because if this was simply a cultural event, then he would have just told me what everyone else seems to say—the tunnel and the light, etc. yet for him it was a noodle and he was quite puzzled by it! And the mother, on hearing about her son’s near-death experience, immediately said, “God, what happened to me was real, too. It was real.”
I’ve found that these experiences fall into a very consistent pattern that is different from any of other hallucinations, crazy dream or reactive grief fantasy. The hallmark of these parting visions is that they’re vividly real and they’re superimposed over ordinary reality. In contrast to intensive care unit psychosis or a drug induced hallucination, people who have parting visions know who they are and where they are.
Also, the information in these experiences is very easy to understand. It’s not cloaked in the symbolism of dreams or obscured by the psychotic or schizophrenic vision which only has meaning to the person who’s having it. Rather, it’s “Your baby’s going to die and that well be alright.” Or “Yes, I have died, but I am doing fine.” To each person they have their own meaning, but it’s something that’s simple. There is also always a sense of a spiritual light.
Our research shows that near-death experiences are very real sensations associated with the process of dying. We took twenty-six children in our intensive care unit that survived cardiac arrest and we asked them what it was like. We found that they have these wonderfully beautiful and simple impressions. Most importantly, from a scientific standpoint, we also interviewed hundreds of children who lacked oxygen to their brain, or were treated with all kinds of drugs, and they did not report this experience.
We concluded that the near-death experience is the only objective evidence of what it’s really like to die. And based on the similarities of the near-death experience with the wide variety of parting visions, we feel that all of these experiences are cut from the same cloth.
There’s an area in our brain called our right temporal lobe which we’ve fond is responsible for having spiritual experiences.
In my book Transformed By the Light we used a wide variety of well-designed control groups an showed beyond a doubt that interactions with a mystical light of any type causes the same transformation. And interestingly enough, that transformation is not necessarily one of spiritual values. We found a difference in people’s behavior. They spent more time with their families. They ate more fresh fruits and vegetables. They often developed some psychic powers.
Our study was designed by the president of the Washington State Psychological Association, so we engaged mainstream expertise. And our results were so solid that they were snapped up by mainstream medical journals.
When we looked at the information on all these experiences we found that they are healing and help to restore meaning to the people who’ve had them. The point is that most researchers now feel that it makes more sense to reorganize this whole body of material into the normal functioning of our right temporal lobe. At the point of death, when input from the brain has shut down, the right temporal lobe is doing what it’s supposed to do. That’s for sure.
Actually I did a fun little study at my medical office. Over a two-year period, I passed out a questionnaire to all of my patients asking, “Have you ever had a dream of this nature that didn’t come true?” Only three percent of my patient population said that they had. We also did a systemic study of mothers who had infants die of sudden infant death and found twenty-five percent of them had a pre-cognitive dream. So from a statistical standpoint, we could not explain these dreams away as coincidence.
Let me fill you in on a few hard science facts. One is that the dying brain has an expanded sense of consciousness. There have been numerous studies to corroborate this. Another is the profoundly comatose patients are obviously quite aware of what’s going on around them. If you know a dying person who seems to be comatose, then that’s a good time to get in there and communicate with them. And another is that dying brains have spiritual encounters. They can hear and see what’s going on around them from a bird’s eye view.
I think it is scientifically respectable to say that, “Wow! When people die, they access a timeless place that’s out of their body and they might telepathically communicate with people they love or feel they need to communicate with at the point of death. And this is all a function of the right temporal lobe.”
My experience with children tells me that these experiences are real. They’re real in the sense that they’re as real as any other aspect of reality and if it sounds like mumbo-jumbo we need to change our perspective. The evidence to me indicates that we have an out-of-the-body sensing God area in our brain. A child told it to me best. He said, “You know, I don’t really think I was floating out of my body. I think I was walking into my mind.”
I think chaos theory is our best scientific explanation of how this and the world works because it tells us that we overlook the hidden forms within our lives by mistaking them for mere happenstance. Yet these children comeback again and again with, “There’s a pattern to life. There is a meaning and purpose to our lives, but I don’t know what it is.”
Dr. Oakley, the dean of American pediatricians told me that he used to be very troubled as to why children die at an early age of congenital diseases. One night he went to bed and a woman in white appeared at the foot of his bed and explained to him that there is a phenomenon known as reincarnation in which people live life after life after life. She further said that every life has a meaning and these children that die at such a young age are here to teach us because they accept the secrets of living that the rest of us don’t. When I started opening myself up to this, with my own patients and in my own practice of medicine, I was astonished to find that these parting visions are quite commonplace—in fact they’re almost mundane. So many people say things like, “I didn’t have one of these experiences you’re talking about, I just heard my daughter say, ‘I’m alright mom, stop crying.’ And I just thought that was a weird dream.”
I must tell you that the healing that I have seen from people finding a thread of understanding in such coincidences is far greater than anything else I have encountered. I have many patients who go to mediums and religious leaders all looking for insights into why their child died. And they don’t find it. Then they begin to validate the notion that maybe they already know what is necessary to heal themselves and they’ve just been overlooking it. Then tears of real healing start to flow and I hear some amazing series of coincidences. They say, “You know, I knew my child was watching over us then.”
These experiences come to us in different ways. And they all have meaning that only we can understand. I have stopped trying to interpret them for people. I only try to tell them that they are really natural. They come to us all in different ways, probably because we all have different understandings of what God is now, and many don’t really believe in spiritual things.
The books of Dr. Melvin Morse:
Parting Visions: Uses and Meanings of Pre-Death, Psychic and Spiritual Experiences by Melvin Morse, M.D. Introduction by Betty J. Eadie (208 pp.)
Melvin Morse ranks with Elizabeth Kubler Ross as one of the first serious students of near-death experiences. Since interest in such experiences has blossomed in the past several years, he has remained a compassionate, considered and articulate authority on the subject. His work has contributed to a greater understanding of death by medical schools, who previously taught that near-death experiences were nothing more than meaningless hallucinations, caused by abnormal brain activity. This book looks at the broader range of death related visions, gathered from over a decade’s worth of research. It seems that the great majority of us have post-death encounters with loved ones who have passed, and here Morse explores all of that: death related visions by those left behind, pre-death premonitions, visitations, psychic dreams and the baffling phenomenon of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). He draws heavily on readable, fascinating case histories and ultimately gives meaningful lessons on how to live. Near-death experiences represent the only objective evidence of what it is like to die; but more than that, Parting Visions has the power to contribute to productive dialogue on the nature of the human soul.
Closer to the Light: Learning From the Near-Death Experiences of Children by Melvin Morse, M.D. (236 pp.)
Dr. Morse, trained as a pediatrician, was introduced to the near-death experience through the near drowning of one of his young patients. Her story inspired him to research the phenomenon and he interviewed hundreds of children who had once been declared clinically dead. His book provides highly readable and compelling proof that these experiences exist. Dr. Morse found the same description, the same experiences, the same attitude, over and over again that the end of life is serene and joyful, a welcome event not to be feared. Here, in children too young to have absorbed our adult views and ideas of death, are responsibly documented first-hand accounts of out-of-body-travel, telepathic communication, and encounters with dead friends and relatives—all illuminating what it is like to die, and all proving that there is and elusive “something” that survives bodily death.
Transformed By The Light: The Powerful effect of Near-Death Experiences On People’s Lives by Melvin Morse, M.D. (265 pp.)
Medical researchers have been able to identify nine common stages that define near-death experiences (NDE) and suggest that a person having an NDE usually goes through one or two of these. This book is based on the results of the largest study ever done and shows that one does not have to have a full-blown NDE to be transformed by the experience. In fact, Morse suggests that virtually all of those who have NDE’s are truly transformed. They are healthier, happier, have stronger family ties, a greater zest for life and virtually no fear of death. Some have developed psychic abilities and some have even increased their intelligence. Whatever form the shift might take, those who return from the brink of death are profoundly changed for the better—spiritually and physically.
Transformed By The Light provides invaluable insight into the psyche of those who have both lived and died and a proposal for a new theory of brain-mind interaction.