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Behavior: The Pleasures of Dying

4 minute read

When both of his parachutes failed in a recent jump from a plane 3,300 feet above the Coolidge, Ariz., airport, Skydiver Bob Hall, 19, plummeted earthward and hit the ground at an estimated 60 m.p.h. Miraculously, he survived. A few days later, recovering from nothing more serious than a smashed nose and loosened teeth, he told reporters what the plunge had been like: “I screamed. I knew I was dead and that my life was ended. All my past life flashed before my eyes, it really did. I saw my mother’s face, all the homes I’ve lived in, the military academy I attended, the faces of friends, everything.” Hall’s words lend credence to the folklore about the thoughts of drowning men going down for the third time. They also point up a growing interest among psychiatrists in the sensation of almost—but not quite—experiencing sudden death.

In his investigation of the phenomenon, University of Iowa Psychiatrist Russell Noyes Jr. has made it easier for other researchers by translating a long-neglected 1892 report* by Swiss Geologist Albert Heim. Probably the best collection of sudden-death experiences available, the report details interviews that Heim had with some 30 survivors of Alpine falls after he himself nearly died in a similar accident. Psychiatrist Noyes also analyzed other accounts of 19th and 20th century near fatal accidents and published his conclusions in a recent issue of Psychiatry.

Noyes found that the experience of almost dying, and presumably of dying itself, often includes three phases that he calls resistance, life review and transcendence. In the first phase, a person faced with the apparent certainty of sudden death struggles frantically against both the external danger (for instance, a current that threatens to sweep him away as he swims) and a strange longing to surrender to the danger and let himself die. When there seems to be no further chance of survival, his fear disappears and he welcomes death. That strange emotion was experienced by Literary Patron Caresse Crosby. Recalling her rescue from drowning as a child, she wrote: “I saw the efforts to bring me back to life and I tried not to come back. I was only seven, a carefree child, yet that moment in all my life has never been equaled for pure happiness.”

Before the mood of surrender sets in, however, some oddly irrelevant thoughts may occur. In one case, a University of Michigan student was thrown from a careering car and sent rolling head over heels down the highway. Certain that he would be killed, his immediate concerns were for his new coat (which he could see ripping as he rolled) and the Michigan football team, which according to the car radio was losing to Minnesota. In another case, a child of eight slipping off a cliff was afraid he would lose the new pocketknife his father had given him.

Ecstasy. Stage 2 is frequently marked by vivid, happy memories of the past. Noyes believes that this “life review” is an emotional defense against the thought of extinction; apparently deprived of his future, a dying person concentrates his vital energy on recapturing what was precious to him in the past. Describing his personal experience, Heim wrote: “I saw myself as a seven-year-old boy going to school, then in the fourth-grade classroom with my beloved teacher Weisz. I acted out my life as though I were on a stage upon which I looked down from the highest gallery in the theatre…My sisters and especially my wonderful mother, who was so important in my life, were around me.”

Such reminiscences are likely to be followed by what Noyes calls “a mystical state of consciousness.” After her recovery, a nurse who nearly died from an allergic reaction to penicillin reported an experience of bliss and ecstasy in which she was idyllically absorbed in contemplating a mental picture of the Taj Mahal. Similarly, Heim reported: “Death through falling is subjectively very pleasant. Those who have died in the mountains have, in their last moments, reviewed their individual pasts in states of transfiguration. Elevated above corporeal grief, they were under the sway of noble and profound thoughts, heavenly music, and a feeling of peace and reconciliation. They fell through a blue and roseate, magnificent heaven; then everything was suddenly still.”

According to Noyes, that kind of experience is not unlike the mystical states of consciousness sometimes brought on by LSD. He suggests, therefore, that one way for scientists to find out more about what it is like to die is to study what happens to people when they take drugs.

* Published in Omega, a journal devoted to the psychological aspects of dying.

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