Those who suffer the loss of a loved one may experience such anguish and emptiness that they are unable to let go, and they may come to believe they have had some contact with the deceased. “It’s commonly reported that the deceased person has communicated in some way,” says Judith Skretny (2001), vice-president of the Life Transitions Center, “either by giving a sign or causing things to happen with no rational explanation.” She adds, “It’s equally common for people to wake in the middle of the night, lying in bed, or even to walk into a room and think they see their husband or child.” These experiences are sometimes called “visitations” (Voell 2001), and they include deathbed visitations (Wills-Brandon 2000).
During over thirty years of paranormal investigation, I have encountered countless claims of such direct contacts (as opposed to those supposedly made through spiritualist mediums [Nickell 2001a; 2001b]). I have also occasionally been interviewed on the subject-most recently in response to some books promoting contact claims (Voell 2001). Here is a look at the evidence regarding purported signs, dream contacts, apparitions, and deathbed visions.
In her co-authored book Childlight: How Children Reach Out to Their Parents from the Beyond, Donna Theisen relates a personal contact she believes she received from her only son, Michael, who had been killed in an auto accident a month before. She was browsing in a gift shop when she noticed a display of dollhouse furnishings. Nearby, on a small hutch, were a pair of tiny cups that were touching, one bearing the name “Michael,” the other the words “I love you, Mom.” Although at the time a “strange, warm feeling” came over her, she was later to wonder: “Was I merely finding what I so desperately wanted to see? Was I making mystical connections out of ordinary circumstances?”
On the other hand, the fact that the two cups were displayed together, out of dozens of others sold there, convinced Theisen that the incident “defied the odds.” Soon she “began looking for more strange occurrences” so as to confirm that the cups incident was “a real sign.” Her book chronicles them and the experiences of other grieving parents (forty of forty-one of them mothers). One, whose son was killed by a train, was wondering whether to give his friend some of his baseball equipment when she heard a train whistle blow and accepted it as an affirmation. Others received signs in the form of a rainbow, television and telephone glitches, the arrival and sudden departure of pigeons, a moved angel doll, and other occurrences (Theisen and Matera 2001).
To explain such “signs” or “meaningful coincidences” (conjunctions of events that seem imbued with mystical significance), psychologist Carl Jung (1960) theorized that-in addition to the usual cause-and-effect relationship of events-there was an “acausal connecting principle.” He termed this synchronicity. However, in The Psychology of Superstition, Gustav Jahoda (1970) suggests there may often be causal links of which we are simply unaware.
Even in instances where there may in fact be no latent causal connections, other factors could apply. One is the problem of overestimating how rare the occurrence really is. Nobel prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez (1965) told how, while reading a newspaper, he came across a phrase that triggered certain associations and left him thinking of a long-forgotten youthful acquaintance; just minutes afterward, he came across that person’s obituary. On reflection, however, Alvarez assessed the factors involved, worked out a formula to determine the unlikeliness of such an event, and concluded that 3,000 similar experiences could be expected each year in the United States, or approximately ten per day. Synchronous events involving family and friends would be proportionately more common.
A related problem is what psychologist Ruma Falk (1981-82) terms “a selection fallacy” that occurs with anecdotal events as contrasted with scientifically selected ones. As he explains: “Instead of starting by drawing a random sample and then testing for the occurrence of a rare event, we select rare events that happened and find ourselves marveling at their nonrandomness. This is like the archer who first shoots an arrow and then draws the target circle around it.”
Some occurrences that are interpreted as signs probably have mundane explanations. Although unexplained, they are not unexplainable. For example, the mother of a severely handicapped little boy reported that on the morning of his funeral, she awoke to see a small, glowing red light on the dresser where his baby monitor had been. It was in fact a tiny lantern on her keychain. “It had never been turned on before,” she says. “In fact, I didn’t even know it worked! The moment I touched the light, it went out.” This happened for several subsequent mornings (Theisen and Matera 2001, 192). How do we explain such a mystery? One possibility is that the light was not turned on at all but only appeared so as sunlight reflected off its red cover; when it was picked up, the illusion was dispelled.
Photographic “signs,” which are also becoming common, may be easily explained. I recall a Massachusetts woman approaching me after a lecture to show me some “ghost” photographs. I immediately recognized the white shapes in the pictures as resulting from the camera’s flash bouncing off the stray wrist strap-a phenomenon I had previously investigated and replicated (Nickell 1996). In fact, in one snapshot, the strap’s adjustment slide was even recognizable, silhouetted in white. But the lady would not hear my explanation, instead taking back the pictures and stating defiantly that her father had recently died and had been communicating with the family in a variety of strange ways.
In addition to numerous glitches caused by camera, film, and other factors, photos may also exhibit simulacra, random shapes that are interpreted, like inkblots, as recognizable figures (such as a profile of Jesus seen in the foliage of a vine-covered tree [Nickell 1993]). These can easily become visitation “signs,” as in the case of a photo snapped from a moving vehicle at the site of a young man’s auto death. “When this photo was developed,” the victim’s mother wrote, “the tree branches formed a startling figure that looked just like Greg wearing his hat. In addition, there appeared to be an angel looking out toward the road.” She added, “we all viewed this photo as more evidence of Greg’s ongoing existence” (Theisen and Matera 2001, 47).
A significant number of after-death “contacts” come from dreams. They have been associated with the supernatural since very ancient times, and attempts to interpret them are recorded in a papyrus of 1350 b.c. in the British Museum (Wortman and Loftus 1981). Now New Age writers like Theisen and Matera (2001) are increasingly chronicling instances of people having dreams about their departed loved ones.
It has been estimated that the average person will have approximately 150,000 dreams by age seventy. Although most are forgotten, the more dramatic and interesting ones are those that are remembered and talked about (Wortman and Loftus 1981). But people’s reports of their dreams may be undependable due to the effects of memory distortion, ego, superstition, and other factors.
Even an ordinary dream can be especially powerful when it involves after-death content, and there are types of dreams that can be extremely vivid and seemingly real. They include “lucid dreams” in which the dreamer is able to direct the dreaming, “something like waking up in your dreams” (Blackmore 1991a).
A powerful source of “visitations” is the so-called “waking dream” which occurs in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep and combines features of both. Actually an hallucination-called hypnagogic if the subject is going to sleep or hypnopompic if he or she is awakened-it typically includes bizarre imagery such as apparitions of “ghosts,” “angels,” “aliens,” or other imagined entities. The content, according to psychologist Robert A. Baker (1990), “may be related to the dreamer’s current concerns.”
For example, here is an account I obtained in 1998 from a Buffalo, New York, woman: “My father had passed away and I was taking care of my sick mother. I went to lay down to rest. I don’t remember if I actually fell asleep or if I was awake, but I saw the upper part of my father and he said, ‘Mary Ellen, you’re doing a good job!’ When I said ‘Dad,’ he went away.”
To say, correctly, that this describes a rather common hypnagogic event, does not, however, do justice to the person who experienced it. For her, I think, it represented a final goodbye from her father-and therefore a form of closure-and provided a welcome reassurance during a period of difficulty.
Sometimes, a waking dream is accompanied by what is termed “sleep paralysis,” an inability to move caused by the body remaining in the sleep mode. Consider this account (Wills-Brandon 2000, 228-229): “My sister said she was abruptly awakened from a very deep sleep. When she woke up, she said her body felt frozen and she couldn’t open her eyes. Suddenly she felt a presence in the room and knew it was Mother. She felt her standing at the foot of the bed.”
By their nature, waking dreams seem so real that the experiencer will typically insist that he or she was not dreaming. One woman, who “hardly slept” after her daughter’s suicide, saw her, late at night, standing at the end of a long hallway, smiling sadly then walking away into a brilliant light. “At first I thought I was hallucinating,” the mother said, “But after a new round of tears, I realized that I was wide awake and I had indeed seen Wendy” (Theisen and Matera 2001, 130). Another, describing a friend’s “visitation” experience of her deceased mother-in-law, said, “At first my friend thought she was dreaming but quickly realized she was wide awake” (Wills-Brandon 2000, 60)-a confusion typical of a waking dream.
Some “visitations,” however, are reported as quite undreamlike, in the sense that they occur during normal daily activity. However, my own investigatory experience as well as research data demonstrates that apparitions are most apt to be perceived during daydreams or other altered states of consciousness. Many occur, for example, while the percipient is in a relaxed state or concentrating on some activity like reading, or is performing routine work. In some instances the person may simply be tired, as from a long day’s work. Under such conditions, particularly in the case of imaginative individuals, a mental image might be superimposed upon the visual scene to create a “sighting” (Nickell 2001a, 291-292).
Also, as indicated earlier, faulty recall, bias, and other factors can betray even the most credible and sincere witness. Consider, for instance, an anecdotal case provided by Sir Edmund Hornby, a Shanghai jurist. He related how, years earlier, he was awakened one night by a newspaperman who had arrived belatedly to get the customary written judgment for the following day’s edition. The man would not be put off, and-looking “deadly pale”-sat on the jurist’s bed. Eventually Judge Hornby provided a verbal summary, which the man took down in his pocket notebook. After he left, the judge related the incident to Lady Hornby. The following day the judge learned that the reporter had died during the night and-more importantly-that his wife and servants were certain he had not left the house; yet with his body was discovered the notebook, containing a summary of Hornby’s judgment!
This apparent proof of a visitation was reported by psychical researchers. However, the tale soon succumbed to investigation. As it was discovered, the reporter did not die at the time reported (about 1:00 a.m.) but much later-between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning. Furthermore, the judge could not have told his wife about the events at the time since he was then between marriages. And, finally, although the story depends on a certain judgment that was to be delivered the following day, no such judgment was recorded (Hansel 1966).
When confronted with this evidence of error, Judge Hornby admitted: “My vision must have followed the death (some three months) instead of synchronizing with it. . . .” Bewildered by what had happened, he added: “If I had not believed, as I still believe, that every word of it [the story] was accurate, and that my memory was to be relied on, I should not have ever told it as a personal experience.” No doubt many other accounts of alleged visitations involve such confabulation-a term psychologists use to refer to the confusing of fact with fiction; unable to retrieve something from memory, the person-perhaps inadvertently-manufactures something that is seemingly appropriate to replace it. “Thus,” explain Wortman and Loftus (1981, 204), “the man asked to remember his sixth birthday combines his recollections of several childhood parties and invents the missing details.”
Tales such as that related by Judge Hornby represent alleged “moment-of-death visitations” (Finucane 1984). In that story the reporter had allegedly died approximately the same time (“about twenty minutes past one”) that he appeared as an apparition to Judge Hornby, although, as we have seen, the death actually occurred several hours later. This case should serve as a cautionary example to other such accounts, which are obviously intended to validate superstitious beliefs.
Another type of alleged visitation comes in the form of deathbed visions. According to Brad Steiger (real name Eugene E. Olson), who endlessly cranks out books promoting paranormal claims, “The phenomenon of deathbed visions is as old as humankind, and such visitations of angels, light beings, previously deceased personalities and holy figures manifesting to those about to cross over to the Other Side have been recorded throughout all of human history.” Steiger (2000) goes on to praise writer and family grief counselor Carla Wills-Brandon for her “inspirational book,” One Last Hug Before I Go: The Mystery and Meaning of Deathbed Visions (2000).
Like others before her (e.g., Kubler-Ross 1973), Wills-Brandon promotes deathbed visions (DBVs) largely through anecdotal accounts which, as we have seen, are untrustworthy. She asserts that “the scientific community” has great difficulty explaining a type of DBV in which the dying supposedly see people they believe are among the living but who have actually died. She cites an old case involving a Frenchman who died in Venezuela in 1894. His nephew-who had not been present-reported:
Just before his death, and while surrounded by all of his family, he had a prolonged delirium, during which he called out the names of certain friends left in France. . . .
Although struck by this incident, nobody attached any extraordinary importance to these words at the time they were uttered, but they acquired later an exceptional importance when the family found, on their return to Paris, the funeral invitation cards of the persons named by my uncle before his death, and who had died before him.
Unfortunately, when we hear two other accounts of the reported events, we find there is less to this story than meets the ear. A version given by one of the man’s two children says nothing of his being delirious, implying otherwise by stating that “he told us of having seen some persons in heaven and of having spoken to them at some length.” But she had been quite young at the time and referred the inquirer to her brother. His account-the most trustworthy of the three, since it is a firsthand narrative by a mature informant-lacks the multiple names, and the corresponding funeral cards, as well as other elements, indicating that the story has been much improved in the retellings. The son wrote:
Concerning what you ask me with regard to the death of my father, which occurred a good many years ago, I recall that a few moments before his death my father called the name of one of his old companions-M. Etcheverry-with whom he had not kept up any connexion, even by correspondence, for a long time past, crying out, “Ah! you too,” or some similar phrase. It was only on returning home to Paris that we found the funeral card of this gentleman.
He added: “Perhaps my father may have mentioned other names as well, but I do not remember.”
It is hardly surprising that a man’s thoughts should, at the close of life, turn to an old friend, or that-having long been out of touch with him-he should have thought him already dead. (The individual reporting the case conceded that there was no certainty the friend had even died before the vision occurred.) Since the most trustworthy account is the least elaborate, lacking even the vision-of-heaven motif, it seems not a corroboration of the nephew’s hearsay accounts (Barrett 1926, 22-24) but rather evidence of confabulation at work.
In their book The Afterlife, Jenny Randles and Peter Hough (1993, 98-99) tell of a dying man who had lapsed into a coma: Then the patient became wonderfully alert, as some people do very near the end. He looked to one side, staring into vacant space. As time went by it was clear he could see someone there whom nobody else in the room could see. Suddenly, his face lit up like a beacon. He was staring and smiling at what was clearly a long-lost friend, his eyes so full of love and serenity that it was hard for those around him to not be overcome by tears.
Sheila [his nurse] says: “There was no mistake. Someone had come for him at the last to show him the way.”
But how did the nurse know it was “a long-lost friend” and not, say, Jesus or an angel? Indeed, how did she know he saw “someone” at all, rather than something-perhaps an entrancing view of heaven? The way the nurse makes such assertions-emphasized with words like “clearly” and “no mistake”-suggests she is speaking more of faith than of fact, and her belief is accepted and reported uncritically by Randles and Hough. In fact, the tale contains no evidence of a visitation at all.
Instead, it would appear to represent what is termed a near-death experience (NDE) in which a person typically “comes back” from a state close to death with a story of an otherworldly visit, perhaps involving an out-of-body experience, travel down a dark tunnel, and an encounter with beings of light who help him or her decide whether or not to cross over.
Susan Blackmore (1991b) describes the NDE as “an essentially physiological event” prompted by lack of oxygen, the structure of the brain’s visual cortex, and other factors. She recognizes that the experiences are hallucinations-albeit, seemingly, exceedingly real. And she points out that one does not actually have to be near death to have such an experience, that “Many very similar experiences are recorded of people who have taken certain drugs, were extremely tired, or, occasionally, were just carrying on their ordinary activities.”
Many of the DBVs reported by Wills-Brandon (2000) and others are similar to NDEs and are probably hallucinations produced by the dying brain. Some of the effects are similar because people share similar brain physiology. For example, the “tunnel” effect “probably lies in the structure of the visual cortex” (Blackmore 1991, 39-40). Other effects are probably psychological and cultural. Wills-Brandon (2000, 115) concedes: “I agree that when the dying are passing, they are visited by those who will comfort them during their travel to the other side. For a dying Christian, that might mean Jesus; a Buddhist may see Buddha. For others, an angel, a beautiful woman or Druid priest would bring more comfort.” But she rationalizes, “If I’m following a particular philosophy of religion, wouldn’t it make sense for me to be visited at the moment of my death by an otherworldly escort who is familiar with my belief system?” Perhaps, but of course the simpler explanation is that people see what their expectations prompt them to see.
And that is the problem with the anecdotal evidence for “visitations.” The experiencer’s will to believe may override any temptation to critically examine the occurrences. Some proponents of after-death contact adopt an end-justifies-the-means attitude. One (quoted in Voell 2001) states: “Whether any of the connections or feelings or appearances are true or not, I’ve finally figured out it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. If it has any part in healing, who cares?” The answer is that, first of all, people who value truth care. While magical thinking may be comforting in the short term, over time estrangement from rationality can have consequences, both on individuals, who may suffer from a lack of closure, and societies, which may slide into ignorance and superstition. That potential peril is why Carl Sagan (1996) referred to science as “a candle in the dark.”
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