Strange Encounters:
Near-Death Experiences and Birth Memories

By John A. Speyrer

On one day in the summer of 1994, my mailbox contained notices of two interesting upcoming conferences. One will be better known to readers of this newsletter than the other. That notice concerned the International Primal Association's convention which began at the end of August of that year. The second conference was to be held in Seattle during the month of June and was sponsored by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), who are publishers of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

The conference theme was "The Psychology of Belief.'' This was an apt theme since discussions were planned on various topics including, Alien Abductions, The Reliability of Memory, Conspiracy Theories and A History of UFOs. If the past conferences are any guide, the convention participants will spend their time critically and skeptically analyzing these subjects.

It would have been more rewarding if the committee, in studying how belief systems are formed and how memory cannot be relied upon, would also have examined what possible commonalties exist between the UFO abduction experience and another experience which all of us have undergone at our beginnings

Astronomer Carl Sagan gave the keynote address at the CSICOP conference last year. To avoid possible embarrassment, I am sure that no mention was made that Sagan had earlier proposed a theory to explain another bugaboo of the committee, the near-death experience. Dr. Sagan presented his theory in a book on neurology which he entitled Broca's Brain (1979). His hypothesis was that those having near-death experiences were actually re-living their peri-natal experiences. He goes further than this in proposing that all religious experiences and even scientific theories are analogous to the birth experience. But Carl Sagan was not the first to propose a more scientific and less mystical explanation of near death phenomena, which many have experienced while undergoing life-and-death traumas.

In 1969, Swiss Psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying. Her premise was that death is not the end of life, but rather a stepping-stone to another level of existence. She came to this conclusion after two decades of work with terminally ill patients. Her book detailed the experiences of individuals who "died'' and subsequently returned to life.

Dr. Raymond Moody, unbeknown to Dr. Kubler-Ross, was also doing research in this field and in 1975 published Life After Life. He did not purport to prove that life extended after death but reported the results of his investigations and asked readers to decide for themselves. He was impressed with the great similiarity of experiences undergone by people who had been near death. On pages 23-24 of Life After Life he listed the following hypothetical dying experience which he said was typical of his findings: (quoted with permission)

"A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself being pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval."

"After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notices that he still has a ``body'' but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving, warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before -- a being of light -- appears before him. This being asks him a question, nonverbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet, he finds that he must go back to the earth, that the time for his death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return. He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives.'' (my bold italics).

What is remarkable about this sequence of events is that it was also found by disparate investigators who studied cases in which individuals had suffered traumatic emotional events other than near-death experiences. These included experiences by people who claimed they had been abducted by UFOs and by those who had hallucinatory psychedelic drug reactions.1 In a study conducted by Alvin H. Lawson of California State University2 in which he compared testimony of four hypnotized persons who were asked to have an imaginary UFO abduction with the testimony of those who actually claimed to have been abducted, he found that the encounter experiences of both groups to be strangely similar.3 Why should hypnotized ``abductees'' who were requested to have imaginary UFO abductions report the same sequence of events as those who claimed they were actually abducted, and why should those who had drug induced hallucinatory experiences as well as those who have had near-death experiences also report the same sequence of events? It would seem that there is a seemingly generic universally common encoded memory in the brain which sequence is sometimes run-off when triggered by an intense traumatic experience such as being near death.

There is one event which everyone experiences which would seem to have most of the elements of Moody's encounter sequence. That event is: being born.

Let us examine some elements of Moody's recounted near-death experiences, which are italicized in bold in the quotation, followed by the birth sequence hypothesis parallels:

(1) A MAN IS DYING. For most of us, birth is the most severe physical trauma we will ever experience.

(2) THE POINT OF GREATEST PHYSICAL DISTRESS. The experience of dying, because of its similarities to birth, releases repressed birth memories.

{3) AN UNCOMFORTABLE NOISE, A LOUD RINGING OR BUZZING. This could be medical equipment in the delivery room which would be in operation, air conditioners, etc. which sounds would be in contrast to the relative quietness and muffled sounds of the uterine experience.

(4) MOVING VERY RAPIDLY THROUGH A LONG, DARK TUNNEL. This would be the movement of the neonate through the birth canal in the process of being born.

(5) HE FINDS HIMSELF APPROACHING A BARRIER OR BORDER. During the birth process the neonate's head is pushed forcefully against the pubic arch and could be interpreted as a barrier or border. The exit from the mother's body could also be interpreted as crossing a border.

(6) HE...FINDS HIMSELF OUT OF HIS OWN PHYSICAL BODY. The pre-natal environment could be considered by the fetus to be an extension of his own body. The departure from this watery environment to a dry air breathing environment could result in a depersonalization experience interpreted as being out of one's own body.

(7) HE WATCHES THE RESUSCITATION ATTEMPT. When the person who assisted at birth helps in getting the new-born to breath he may actually resuscitate the neonate.

(8) STATE OF EMOTIONAL UPHEAVAL. The trauma of birth is an ordeal which is emotionally upsetting to the child and even though not consciously remembered is nonetheless encoded in the infant's unconscious mind.

(9) HE NOTICES HE STILL HAS A 'BODY' BUT ONE OF A VERY DIFFERENT NATURE AND WITH VERY DIFFERENT POWERS. The new born child's body now reacts to gravity in a different way. He feels heavier out of the amniotic fluid environment of the uterus.

(10) OTHER COME TO MEET AND HELP HIM. Nurses, orderlies clean, dress and care for the neonate.

(11) A BEING OF LIGHT APPEARS BEFORE HIM. The brightness of the delivery room is in contrast to the dark uterine environment and the clothing of the hospital personnel, who helped with the delivery and care appear blindingly bright.

(12) HE FINDS HIMSELF APPROACHING SOME SORT OF BARRIER OR BORDER. The exit from the birth canal is almost always a barrier. In those rare cases when it is not so considered by the neonate it can be considered as a border where life begins to be a new experience.

(13) INTENSE FEELING OF JOY, LOVE AND PEACE. This experience might depend on the type of reception which the newborn receives after birth. The sufferings endured while being born are over and his repose is restful and peaceful after having endured the hardest ordeal of his life.

The subject's perception of these hypothesized birth events do not correspond to the typical birth-primal experiences of individuals in primal therapy, which are far more physically active than these encounter experiences listed. However, it would seem that Moody's subjects relived their birth on a different plane of experience than primal. It is almost universally true that it is traumas which are relived in primal therapy but often joyous primals are accessed. There is research which shows that experiences which are not traumatic are nonetheless encoded in the brain.4 The near-death experience (NDE) possibly could elicit a joyous "journey'' into death based on the data encoded in the brain at birth.

The hypothesis is that under certain conditions of severe stress, ones' brain-encoded birth experience is triggered, which sequence is experienced not in a primal fashion but in a symbolic dream-like semi-conscious state, with vivid imagery and intense feelings. Some may accept this hypothesis as adequately explaining the origins of Dr. Moody's encounter sequence, but it will appear bizarre and improbable to those who do not believe that one's birth experiences are encoded in the brain and can be retrieved under certain conditions. However, I believe that a tentative scientific explanation to explain an unknown phenomena is more reasonable than one based on mysticism or metaphysics.

Most authors on the near death experience do not agree with the "NDE as birth'' hypothesis. They feel that the birth model cannot explain the phenomena of near-death experiences. Those critics believe that newborn babies cannot perceive well enough or even remember well enough to re-experience their birth. The question is not whether one remembers one's birth, since re-living birth traumas does not involve memory as it is usually understood. Critics seem to ignore the most recent studies of investigators of neuroscience. They, however, do admit that the NDEs are not projections of the individual's religious beliefs, since believers as well as non-believers have the experiences. However, it does seem to be a valid criticism that the birth explanation for NDEs does not account for the meeting of dead relatives during the NDE.

Some of those who criticize the "canal'' analogy hold that it is a false comparison since they feel that the birth experience is better likened to a breaking through a barrier than through descending into a canal. They feel that the essence of the birth experience is being in one place and then being expulsed outside of that place.

But this view is incomplete since this analogy is not the way to view the similarity between the birth experience and the ``descending into a canal'' resemblance which occurs during an NDE. In this opinion birth trauma is not considered an essential part of the experience. The feeling is not one of being in the womb and then being on the outside of the mother's body. The birth experience can be better described by using the canal analogy because, for many there is much happening between leaving the uterus and having finally arrived outside of the mother. For many there is a timelessness to the ordeal coupled with space constriction which validates the idea of proceeding through an area where the fetus gets pummelled as he proceeds in the act of getting born.

As birth material comes closer to consciousness and is felt symbolically in dreams, invariably the feelings of uncontrollable movement and of constriction are dominant. For decades psychoanalytic interpretation of dream material has validated the notion of restricted gradual movement rather than experiencing the feeling of breaking through a membrane or barrier.

* * *


1. Numerous studies and books have been written investigating the phenomena of alleged UFO abductions. The latest (Encounters, 1994) is authored by Harvard psychiatrist, John Mack. In this book he recounts detailed abduction episodes of many subjects. He was less than forthright in stating that there was no explanation for the encounters. This is incorrect, as W. C. McCall of Anaheim California who has worked with Lawson (see third note) as a hypnotist is convinced that Mack's patients are re-living their birth experiences.

2. See Science News, Feb 2, 1979, p. 107 - "Close Encounters: All in the Mind?" by Joel Greenberg

3. In a book edited by Psychiatrist Thomas Verny (Pre and Peri-Natal Psychology: An Introduction}, on page 281, Lawson writes that ''...I discovered and articulated the birth/abduction parallels on my own in the course of prolonged study of CE-III cases and several series of hypnosis experiments with Dr. W. C. McCall, beginning in 1975.'' On the following page he goes on to write that, "By 1979 I saw these psychological processes shared with abductions extensive birth imagery...''

However in the previously cited article by Joel Greenberg in Science News (Feb 27, 1979), "Close Encounters: All in the Mind?" Lawson is quoted extensively, and no hint is given that he has developed or is developing a birth analogy theory for the varied experiences recounted. The only reference is to "some sort of [common] matrix in the mind.'' He writes that "the nature of the stimulus here is a very spooky thing.'' (p. 107)

Upon reading Lawson's article in Science News, it was immediately apparent that the similarities of the different experiences related to the birth process. In the letters section of Science News of March 17, 1979, a Dr. Charles Arnold also recognized the parallel and wrote, "The explanation I propose is that under hypnosis the trauma of a near death, drug-induced hallucinations, or a UFO encounter, the deep imprint of the birth sequence is replayed in vivid detail by the human mind. With only a little imagination, one can equate the events of the common sequence the events of the common sequence described in Greenberg's article with the events of birth.'' Dr. Arnold then proposed testing this hypothesis by analyzing ``existing case history files of individuals reporting one of these experiences...'' Such as, "natural vs. Caesarean birth, born with vs. born without sight, and born with vs. born without hearing.''

4. See the Journal of Mental Science (Canada), July 1955, pages 451-465, "The Role of the Temporal Cortex in Certain Psychical Phenomena" by Dr. Wilder Penfield. (A review of the article )

For other articles on this subject, see on this website, The Psychology of Mysticism

For an interesting short explanation on how near death experiences can be prevented in a medical surgery setting, see this short article by Dr. Douglas Fields

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