Culture

'I'-Sight: When the Blind-from-Birth Can Fully See During Near-Death Experiences

PJ-blind sight-1

One of the most handy, readable, informative books about near-death experiences (NDEs) is Jeffrey Long’s Evidence of the Afterlife. In it Long, a radiation oncologist, offers nine lines of evidence for why NDEs are real and not just dreams or hallucinations.

Among those nine lines of evidence, Long considers one of the strongest and most dramatic to be the fact that, during NDEs, blind people can see—including people blind from birth. People with that unfortunate condition do not see even in dreams. They know that vision exists, but can’t imagine what it is—as if someone had told you about some additional, unimaginable sense.

Yet, in NDEs, even blind-from-birth people see—in full, vivid detail. Long calls it “medically inexplicable.”

Probably the best-known case is that of Vicki Umipeg-Noratuk. Her story was first told in a 1998 study of blind people’s NDEs (and OBEs, out-of-body experiences) by Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper of the University of Connecticut. Ring, a professor of psychology, and Cooper went on to publish Mindsight, a book based on their study.

PJ-blind sight-2

Vicki Umipeg suffered severe optic-nerve damage at birth, leaving her totally blind. At the time of Ring and Cooper’s 1998 study, she was 43 and married. She had had two medically related NDEs, one at 12 and one at 22, and she told Ring and Cooper at length about the second one.

Working at that time as a nightclub singer in Seattle, she couldn’t find a taxi home, took a ride in a van with two inebriated customers, and was thrown out of the van in a serious, life-threatening accident.

In the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center, Vicki found herself

up on the ceiling watching a male doctor and a woman—she is not sure whether the woman was another physician or a nurse—working on her body. She could overhear their conversation, too, which had to do with their fear that because of possible damage to Vicki’s eardrum, she could become deaf as well as blind. Vicki tried desperately to communicate to them that she was fine, but naturally drew no response. She was also aware of seeing her body below her, which she recognized by certain identifying features, such as a distinctive wedding ring she was wearing.

As she says in the above video (which is drawn from this BBC documentary):

It was frightening because I’m not accustomed to see things visually because I never had before, and initially it was pretty scary.

Vicki went on to have a transcendent experience with classic NDE elements, as she describes starting at 2:00 in the video. You can judge whether it sounds like an authentic experience or a fantasy that her brain concocted.

PJ-blind sight-4

Vicki Umipeg-Noratuk was not the only one of Ring and Cooper’s blind subjects to report having sight during an NDE. Out of 21 who had had an NDE, 15 (including five who were blind from birth) reported having vision during it, three were not sure, and three said they did not have any.

But what does it mean to “see” when a person’s vision is totally impaired?

True, the same question pertains to sighted people who report visual phenomena during an NDE—especially those who were in a state of clinical death or deep anesthesia at the time and “should” have had no mental functioning, including visual functioning, at all.

But whereas skeptics insist that such NDEs are some sort of “dream,” Ring and Cooper emphasize that “there are no visible images in the dreams” of people blind from birth, and usually none in the dreams of people blinded before age five.

Instead Ring and Cooper posit a kind of transcendental awareness:

In this type of awareness, it is not of course that the eyes see anything; it is rather that the mind itself sees, but more in the sense of “understanding” or “taking in” than of visual perception as such. Or alternatively, we might say that it is not the eye that sees, but the “I.”

 And again:

we argue that the blind, like other persons reporting OBEs and NDEs, have entered a state of transcendental awareness, which confers access to a realm of knowledge not available in one’s normal waking state, but then are forced, again just like others, to translate their experiences into visual metaphors.

PJ-blind sight-5

And, again, Vicki Umipeg-Noratuk was not the only one of Ring and Cooper’s blind subjects to feel that, in her NDE, she ascended to another realm. “Otherworldly perceptions abound[ed]” in these people’s reports, and

they seem to take the form characteristic for transcendental NDEs of sighted persons: radiant light, otherworldly landscapes, angels or religious figures, deceased relatives, and so forth.

As Vicki told the BBC:

As I was approaching this area there were trees, there were birds, and quite a few people, but they were all made out of light, and I could see and, it was incredibly, really beautiful, and I was overwhelmed by that experience because I couldn’t really imagine what light was like….

Though having been denied one kind of vision, she still had full access to another kind.