Carl Sagan: Near-death Experiences and the Birth Theory
Updated: Jun 19
I have been studying near-death experiences (NDEs) for close to ten years. It is my opinion that NDEs provide incredibly strong evidence supporting the theory that consciousness continues after death.
It is disheartening me to that most academics, scientists, and physicians disagree. Instead, they argue that various physiological, psychological, and pharmacological explanations disprove the validity of NDEs. The most common of these include:
NDEs are the result of Anoxia-a severe, life threatening oxygen deficiency to the brain.
Temporal lobe seizures-A type of epileptic seizure and one of the most common causes of epilepsy
NDEs may be explained by:
REM sleep intrusion-a phenomena which occurs as an individual is either falling asleep or awakening.
Dissociation-a separation of thought, emotions, or experiences apart from the normal stream of consciousness and memory.
Depersonalization-a pathological disorder characterized by a sudden sense of being outside of oneself, distortions of time and space, anxiety, or unreality.
NDEs may be caused by either insufficient anesthesia or DMT
Insufficient anesthesia-a patient is not administered a sufficient dose of anesthesia and remains “partially” conscious.
Hallucinogenic drug DMT (Dimethyltryptamine)
It is claimed that the hallucinogenic drug DMT triggers the feeling of almost dying so accurately- that those who take it describe hallucinations that mirror near-death experiences.
I have read countless theories of skeptics and debunkers. However, to me, there is none more “out there” than Carl Sagan’s “Birth” theory.
Carl Edward Sagan was an American astronomer, planetary scientist, and cosmologist, In 1979, he supported a hypothesis that near-death experiences are merely memories of birth.
I have trouble reconciling the fact that Sagan was an ardent advocate of Extraterrestrial life, yet remained so skeptical of the validity of NDEs. After all, he advocated the scientific method, pioneered exobiology (the branch of science that deals with the possibility and likely nature of life on other planets or in space), and promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
Sagan believed his “Birth theory” explained the tunnel and heavenly light components of the NDE. Sagan argued it was the only logical explanation for the consistency and universality of NDEs. He defended his position by stating:
The only alternative of the NDE, so far as I can see, is that every human being, without exception, has already shared an experience like that of those travelers who return from the land of death: the sensation of flight: the emergence of darkness into light; an experience, in which, at least sometimes, a heroic figure can be dimly perceived, bathed in radiance and glory There is only one common experience that matches this description. It is called birth.
Sagan asserted that the experience of moving through a tunnel into a mystical white light was simply a passage through the birth canal into the bright light of a delivery room The obstetrician was symbolic of the heroic figure.
Yet, science and the birth process itself dispute his claims:
Newborns are incapable of recalling their birth experience for several reasons:
During delivery, a baby’s face is pressed against the birth canal. In this position, an infant would be unable to see either a tunnel, light, or delivering figure.
Newborns are unable to respond to light unless there is a 70% contrast between light and dark. Thus, they have limited, fragmented, and blurry sight unlike the enhanced and detailed vision in NDEs.
NDEs are universally recalled as blissful, peaceful, and infinitely loving experiences. Birth is associated with trauma.
Philosopher Carl Becker contrasts the ecstasy of the classic NDE to the distress of delivery:
The figure (delivering obstetrician) would more likely seem like a clinical torturer, holding him (the baby) upside down by the feet, cutting his connection with his womb and food supply, putting silver nitrate in his eyes, and strapping bands around his ankles.
Sagan’s theory also fails to consider birth by cesarean section. Studies almost unanimously agree that there is virtually no difference in NDE tunnel experiences between babies born naturally or via cesarean section.
The position of the baby in the birth canal, and its insufficiently developed vision and brain, fail to explain how it is possible for an infant to experience the classic light and tunnel of the NDE.
This remains one of my favorite, “out-there” theories. As a woman, I find it especially odd that a male, experientially incapable of understanding the birth process, would create a theory based upon it!
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