Death and the Big Wow
Updated: Feb 2
The brain specialist, though, was not impressed. “I’m not going to stand here and listen to this!” he barked, and whirled out of the room in a rationalist huff.
Barbara Bartolome was 31 years old when she was, in the words of writer C.S.Lewis, surprised by joy. And there were other surprises that evening. Clinical death, that was a surprise, and then later a pummeling such as one might receive at the losing end of a botched prize fight. And there was something else, something that completely blew her mind. It was a night she will never, ever forget. Ever.
Some days before, Bartolome had painfully blown her L5-S1 disc in a tender area known to backache hobbyists as the Lumbosacral Joint, the culprit a gravity-bound bag of concrete mix. The threat to the spinal cord was such that a neurosurgeon of local renown agreed to take the case. By the time she was admitted for surgery Bartolome had only 30% function in her left leg, a worrisome development possibly signaling that the spinal cord itself had been compromised. To be safe, a pre-surgical procedure called a myelogram was ordered. Dye would be pumped down her spinal cord and watchful professionals in ill-fitting hospital garb would look for signs of dye outflow, indicating a breach in the cord.
It’s a comparatively routine procedure, sufficiently routine that the distracted technician, chatting up his colleague in the treatment room, pushed the wrong button, reclining rather than raising Bartolome’s head and spilling a quantity of injected neurotoxic dye the wrong way up the vascular plumbing of her neck and into her startled brain. Immediately she began to black out. Hyperventilating, struggling to speak, she knew something must be wrong.
“The guy who was talking had heard me breathing fast and leaned over me to see what was going on, then I saw him lean back to look at his thumb on the x-ray table button, and then I just saw this look of ‘Oh my God!’ on his face. I shut my eyes. “ In a seamless overlapping instant, she felt the back of her head at rest against the ceiling of the room; a phenomenon that rarely indicates the successful conclusion of a medical procedure.
Barbara Bartolome is a wife and mother and striking redhead with the effervescence of a lightly caffeinated teen. Her eyes shine and her facial expression never fully relaxes from an ‘isn’t this great!’ projection of infectious positivity.
“I was up on the ceiling and they were calling Code Blue, they were putting an oxygen mask on me as I looked down at my body. I thought, ‘huh’. If I’m up here and my body’s down there, I must’ve... died.’” Strangely, it didn’t occur to her to be freaked or discomfited by the odd situation. The sense was rather a sort of organic comprehension of the episode, accompanied by full body bliss.
Float Like a...Butterfly?
An eavesdropper at her own demise, Bartolome, looking down, could hear the panicked technical banter, saw the ruffled medical folk bustling around; businesslike and professionally alarmed. Some sort of reviving device had hastily been ordered to the room but wouldn’t arrive in time. Suddenly the orthopedic surgeon took two steps forward and loudly ordered the others to Stand Clear.
“He took his right arm and held it behind his back, then arced it high over his head and just...slammed it right into my chest!” The first blow did not affect the green flatline and its droning alarm, but the second one did. Bartolome blinked her eyes up there and opened them in her supine position on the table. She started right in.
“And I just…”, she laughs, “started speaking into the oxygen mask! I said, ‘Oh! Oh my God!’” A nurse shushed her, told her to lay still and not talk. But she had to talk. There was a lot to talk about. They took off the oxygen mask and in an uncorked rush Bartolome breathlessly relayed what had just happened to her. “I was on the ceiling!” she blurted to the assembled medical personnel. “I could see you, and I could hear you!”
Bartolome’s neurosurgeon had come to the room and now received her excited outpouring with undisguised scorn.
“Barbara - “
“No!” she pushed back, now describing things she had not been in a position to see, a phenomenon known as Veridical Perception. Bartolome had just emerged from a classic NDE; a Near-Death Experience. She continued regaling the gathered medical folk, some of whom grew visibly ashen as she went on. “You said this and you said that - I relayed this technical conversation they’d had.” The brain specialist, though, was not impressed.
“I’m not going to stand here and listen to this!” he barked, and whirled out of the room in a rationalist huff.
Grim Reaper Sent Packing
The rented Unity Church chapel is quiet and mostly empty this warm Wednesday night. The calibrated lighting is a pleasant and welcoming mimicry of dusk, the large room possessed of that warm expectant hush that precedes happy public gatherings in the evening. Long tables in the lamplit entry hall are lined with a tidy pot-luck potpourri of chips and brownies and finger foods. A little before seven the attendees begin to arrive in earnest, straggling in amid a group-murmur of amiable chatter, enlivened by each other’s company and the anticipation of an evening that will further affirm what is to this group an essential truth; THE essential truth. The Grim Reaper is a phony.
“So Welcome to IANDS Santa Barbara!” Bartolome hollers in lilting tones from the front of the packed hall. Throats clear and there is much rustling and settling. Bartolome is Director and Founder (August 2011) of this local chapter of the Santa Barbara organization whose membership is unique for being comprised, in part, of people who have died. IANDS, the International Association for Near-Death Studies, has a mere 46 chapters in the world. One of them is right here in Santa Barbara. “For those of you who are new here, this is a wonderful group!” Bartolome continues in her enthusiastic sing-song. The assembled loudly concur.
The Moody IANDS Mission
As member organizations go, IANDS is a strange bird; half NDE research clearinghouse, half caregiving and support group, the organization has evolved in fits and starts according to the unfolding NDE conversation over the decades, and the sometimes fractious internal squabbles inherent in IANDS’ slightly bipolar mission. Founded in North Carolina in 1977 in the course of an ad hoc meeting of several clinicians, researchers and psychologists interested in the subject and med student Raymond Moody’s watershed book Life After Life, a sober reportorial work on a topic that had theretofore never been seriously publicly discussed by academia, the medical community, or the Man in the Street, for that matter. Moody interviewed 150 ND Experiencers for the book and sought to consolidate and find a common thread through their accounts.
The book was pointedly research-colored and non-sensational in approach, and it immediately took NDE from embarrassed whisper to loud public conversation. It was into this environment IANDS was launched. The org was initially called Association for the Scientific Study of Near-Death Phenomena.
A knowing theoretical physicist standing on a street corner and plainly stating the accepted tenets of today’s quantum canon would draw the sympathetic stares of passerby, and would even make a few pitying bucks besides.
The NDE contains elements that today are almost pop-culture tropes: a tunnel of light (which must be a particularly alarming Welcome to the Hereafter if you died being struck by a train at night in a tunnel), a borderless dark void, a ball or Being of light, an initial sense of leaving one’s body and floating above it, and often, visitation with departed loved ones. To researchers who see in NDE and untethered consciousness a quantum mechanical phenomenon, some of these NDE features have unfortunate spiritual undertones that further complicate the conversation. Today about 8 million Americans claim to have experienced the phenomenon. In all, around 4% of the Western World, or 68 million people, claim to have seen the Other Side.
Bartolome has the floor, is clutching her mic like a delighted pageant hostess and gazing with affection at the attendees as she speaks. “Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody. Woo hoo! I want tonight to have everybody turn to the person next to them -” (oh g*d no!) “- and just shake a hand, and just give a little love.” The place absolutely erupts in smiley, noisy love-giving and the sort of protracted deep hugging that can make you want to shout at people. I pivot stiffly to my immediate right and left and tentatively extend my hand. Through the clamor and some rows back I hear someone warning a soon-to-be-startled stranger, “A little love from behind you, dear.”
“I want to introduce my group leaders and advisors,” Bartolome says, gesturing. Her IANDS teammates emerge from the shadows one at a time, take the mic (“Thank you, Barbara”) and frankly describe their healing wares. It is a collective portfolio of non-traditional skills so vividly and uniquely Californian you have to take a mental step back to remember how mad this stuff would sound in the banquet room of the Detroit Lion’s Club.
James Smallwood - “Hi, good evening. Im glad everybody’s here. I facilitate the Experiencer’s group (a closed door meeting of near death Experiencers who get together in the hour before the main meeting begins at 7), and I also do private sessions of...Awakening, basically. I teach meditation and basically connecting people with their higher self and intuition and giving them the tools to manifest a creative life.”
William Peters - “I’m Founder and director of the Shared Crossing Project... and the real jewel in that process is where the surviving loved one goes into the afterlife with the one dying and experiences the beginning stages of the afterlife. …”
Ness Carroll, a cheery, humor-filled woman with a delightful New Zealand accent - “I ‘d like to talk to you in a little more detail about what I do because so many people ask me. I work with all stages of the consciousness process; conscious birthing, I work with rebirthing, I work with welcoming people into this life, I work with Transition Coaching, I’m working particularly with the different practices in consciousness-raising that are available to us in the spiral of conscious evolution on this plane.” One perfect beat later, and she offers the disarming denouement; “I’m sure that made it a lot clearer, right?” she laughs, and the audience laughs with her, too loudly. She was speaking unanchored gibberish at the end there, and we’re relieved to hear Ms. Carroll acknowledge as much, and with warming giggles.
Peter Wright - “I’m a hypnotherapist and Past Life Regression Therapist - board certified, one of 50 in the nation. I take people into hypnosis and then into the spirit world where one can connect with one’s own Council of Elders... “
This is a rogue's gallery of New Age carpetbaggers Woody Allen would delightedly savage in a spasm of typing. Ha Ha! Right?
Insanity of the Quantum Everyday
Reality, in its irreducible quantum state, is completely crazy. Not the plain ham sandwich with mayonnaise most of us assume it to be, or wish it to be. Remember High School Physics? No, I’m talking about this other thing with the electrons and such. Our gum fell out of our mouths we were so bored by it, but it described a world we wouldn’t recognize now if we tripped over it; Superposition (everything is everywhere, all the time), Wave Form Collapse (reality is just broken probability), and Quantum Entanglement (two particles separated by vast distances synchronously linked in a way that suggests some extra-dimensional medium connects them) are examples of the nano-magic we blithely accept while dissing phenomena that, by comparison, don’t sound terribly exotic.
A knowing theoretical physicist standing on a street corner and plainly stating the accepted tenets of today’s quantum canon would draw the sympathetic stares of passerby, and would even make a few pitying bucks besides. Schroedinger's Cat is both alive AND dead until you look in the box. Remember? That’s canon. Once you grasp how mightily impossible quantum reality is, leaving the body at death seems about as wild and crazy as a high-necked gingham dress. The only thing ordinary about reality is our bland ongoing attempt to rebrand it.
The guest speaker, Alan Hugenot, is lengthily introduced. He is an engineer with a deep love of science and a number of indecipherable decorations to his credit (he is in fact a Naval Engineer and Marine Surveyor of some renown, and a respected maritime journalist) and he has been studying Consciousness for some 20 years, He bounds out from behind the covered grand piano he has been leaning against and takes the mic. A laptop on a nearby stool projects a Powerpoint presentation whose introductory graphic is a sort of colorfully idealized deep space scene with a swirling planet in the foreground and other heavenly bodies receding into a star-clouded firmament. It is a child’s rendition of the cosmos and would not look out of place rendered on black velvet. The doctor is quite taken with it. “I love this picture, “ he says, almost to himself. He stares at the graphic for a moment before going on.
His presentation is long and somewhat rambling and often he is hastily reading straight off the PowerPoint in a mumbled rush. Like many speakers, he also uses the word ‘okay’ as a place holder. “Approximately 96% of the universe is dark matter, we can’t quite agree on the figure. Maybe 96 and-a-half percent. We know about the dark matter and dark holes in the universe because of the mathematics used in astronomy. Okay.” Rustling in the house. “That is a lot of room for the Afterlife.” Someone guffaws and self-stifles. Whatever extra-dimensional journeys he has undertaken (he was involved in a briefly fatal motorcycle accident in the early 1970s) their collective wisdom do not seem to have made of him a gifted proselytizer of the Beyond. “We know where the dark energy is but we cannot detect its effects, we cannot discern it. Okay. It exists outside our 3-D. So the postulate we get is this: consciousness exists in the dark energy field that pre-exists the evolution of the brain.” Several times during his presentation, when briefly referencing his own NDE, he has to stop and compose himself. He seems about to weep.
Stepping Onto the Planck Scale
The human brain is a 3lb gelatinous blob of wetware so stuffed with wonder we are stymied by its largesse. Tightly packed with neurons (never mind how many; it’s a lot), it has more than enough electric mojo to make actionable ‘sense’ of the kaleidoscopic barrage of input it must process every waking second. But the lock-step algorithmic workings of the brain structures, however complex, don’t yet satisfactorily explain the glissando of ‘feeling’ we experience, the inexpressibly nuanced spectrum of emotional states that define and color our indescribably subjective interior lives. Why might a certain hue of magenta produce an emotional response, why might a particular chord played on a piano cause you to feel a certain way? These are examples of ‘qualia’, those subjective experiences we all have whose subtle, penetrating essence we can’t begin to articulate, and which can’t be explained away by the firing of neurons, no matter the number and complexity of the firings.
Can a brain’s admittedly mind-bending computational prowess produce such non-algorithmic stuff as love and melancholy and unbridled enthusiasm for teal cable-knit sweaters?
Efforts to locate consciousness at its source are taking stalwart materialists to uncomfortable places. It is all said to be happening at what’s called the Planck Scale - the smallest measure of the physical. The period that ends this sentence is to a Planck Length as the entirety of the visible universe is bigger than the period. Put another way, if you dropped one on shag carpeting you wouldn’t be able to find it, even with all the lights on. Something is happening way down there in the nano-basement, our ‘minds’ are happening down there. The scientific argument about consciousness has grown rancorous.
Can a brain’s admittedly mind-bending computational prowess produce such non-algorithmic stuff as love and melancholy and unbridled enthusiasm for teal cable-knit sweaters? It’s the ancient Mind/Body Problem. Am I my brain? This is the arguable keynote of the Near Death Experience, and what makes it more than a fat, slow-moving target for laughing reductionists. Consciousness, if at all separable from the lump of electrified jelly that we have always supposed generates and houses it, may be a moveable feast; something that inhabits the material of the brain but is not produced by it.
The only physical measure of ‘consciousness’ is the gamma-radiation the brain generates at varying levels during various states or degrees of conscious thinking. It’s been shown that the brain of a dying person emits a crazy burst of gamma in the moments before physical death. As the respected science weekly journal Nature puts it: “In sum, these data suggests that long after clinical death, the brain enters a brief state of heightened activity that is normally associated with wakeful consciousness.”
Where is "I"? Non-local Consciousness
Pim van Lommel, a Dutch researcher whose work with NDE and consciousness studies appeared as a groundbreaking and controversial article in peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet (the gold standard of medical and scientific credibility) believes consciousness may be entering the brain from the outside. He describes “…a concept in which our endless consciousness with declarative memories finds its origin in, and is stored in, a non-local dimension as wave-fields of information, and the brain only serves as a relay station for parts of these wave-fields of consciousness.”
This hypothesis has some connection to Italian physicist Paola Zizzi’s theory on the very origin of consciousness, which she postulates may have blurted into existence at the Big Bang owing to a massive accidental quantum delaminating of space-time that she has coined The Big Wow. Possibly the most rancorously debated theory of consciousness, because it is so rooted in the brain structure, is that of eminent mathematician Roger Penrose and consciousness researcher Stuart Hameroff, who suggest that consciousness, not a spirit but a mechanistic component of reality, inheres in microtubules within our neurons which, when acted upon by quantum gravity, produce consciousness.
These musings once occupied the cultural bookshelf between Tie-Dye for Dummies and the Vedantic Cupcake Cookbook but are now central to the discussion of Who and What we are. As Sir Isaac Newton once wrote in the spelling-challenged 17th century: ‘To determine by what modes or actions light produceth in our minds the phantasm of colour is not so easie’.
Making Love on the Periodic Table
Step away from the nutty nanoscale events, collapsing wave functions, quantum superposition and moment-of-death neuronal gamma bursts. The fact is, the sages in their saffron pajamas have been plainly telling us one or another version of this story for millennia. The universe IS consciousness. All time and space is Love itself, for want of a better word. I mean, Love? Seriously? Can we just call it the Zero-Point Field, or something? That we can handle. Love doesn’t sound scientific enough to even merit discussion in this setting. Neither do reincarnation, Transition Counseling, Conscious Birthing and the rest.
But what if Love and Consciousness and other cosmic brand-identifiers of the New Age are not to do with spirit, but are just the impersonal workings of a big machine that is perfecting itself in plain Darwinian earnestness? What if Love is an overpraised mechanical expedient whose ‘practice’ benefits the forward motion of both the Machine and the Hallmark corporation? Barbara Bartolome and her team are on to something, are looking where the rest of us won’t look. They are at least in pursuit of Answers where some of us don’t even see a question. Is there a dynamo in the middle of All This, throwing sparks? We owe it to ourselves to ask.
Tonight’s meeting of the Santa Barbara Chapter of IANDS is wrapping. In a few moments Dr. Hugenot will be presented a birthday cake aglow with candles and will be so visibly moved by the gesture the audience will sigh as one. A roomful of human empathy is itself a wondrous thing. But for now the good doctor is taking questions from the audience and Bartolome is energetically walking around the large room with a wireless mic, a near-dead Phil Donahue. People ask Dr. Hugenot about his experience with mediums, wonder aloud about reincarnation, determinism, our collective destiny.
Finally a handsome older gentleman to my right with a full head of lustrous gray hair haltingly raises his hand, haltingly asks his question. His wife has died. His manner indicates the wound is still fresh. “Can I talk to her?” he says in a broken voice. “Can I ask her things? I want to know what I can do for her.”