In Near-Death Experiences, Blind People See

July 31, 2016

People who were blind from birth have had brushes with death in which they felt themselves leave their bodies and experience vision for the first time. For some, it seemed natural; for others, it was a confusing and shocking experience.

Many people experience this sensation of leaving the body during a near-death experience (NDE). A 1982 Gallup poll found that 15 percent of all Americans who had almost died (under widely varying circumstances) reported NDEs. About 9 percent reported the “classic out-of-body experience,” 11 percent said they entered another realm, and 8 percent said they encountered spiritual beings.

For blind NDEers, the visual perceptions add another level of mystery.

Some people say NDEs are hallucinations, though many who study NDEs refute this explanation. Hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, is one often-cited cause. Another is rapid eye movement (REM) intrusion—when the REM associated with dreaming during sleep happens while one is awake.

One of the researchers who disagrees with these explanations is Robert Mays, who has studied NDEs for about 30 years. He explained during a talk at the 2014 International Association for Near-Death Studies conference that NDEs are very different from the experiences usually reported under the conditions of hypoxia and REM intrusion.

Mays said: “NDEers almost always report that they have had a hyper-real experience that far outshines our ordinary, conscious experience—that they felt the NDE realm was their true home, permeated by unconditional love, and that they are no longer afraid to die.”

“These characteristic aspects are simply not present with hypoxia, REM intrusion, and so on,” Mays said.

Studies have shown that when blind people dream, they don’t see. Yet in NDEs, studies suggest blind people often see.

Studies have shown that when blind people dream, they don’t see. Yet in NDEs, studies suggest blind people often see.

For example, one study on how blind people dream was led by Amani Meaidi at the University of Copenhagen and published in the journal Sleep Medicine in 2014. They found that none of the participants who were blind from birth reported visual impressions in their dreams.

For participants who could see earlier in their lives, the more time that had passed since they had lost their sight, the less likely they were to report visual impressions in dreams.

A study of blind NDEers led by Kenneth Ring at the University of Connecticut in the 1990s found that 15 out of 21 blind participants reported some kind of sight, three were not sure if they had visual perception, and the remaining three did not see anything. Half of those who were blind from birth said they saw something.

The uncertainty of some may have had to do with the unfamiliar nature of vision for those who have never experienced it.

The uncertainty of some may have had to do with the unfamiliar nature of vision for those who have never experienced it, combined with other unusual qualities of NDEs. Even NDEers who are not blind sometimes have trouble explaining the experience, which seems to transcend ordinary life in many ways.

One man, blind from birth, told Ring that he found himself in a library with “thousands and millions and billions of books, as far as you could see.” Asked if he saw them visually he said, “Oh, yes!” Did he see them clearly? “No problem.” Was he surprised at being able to see thus? “Not in the least. I said, ‘Hey, you can’t see,’ and [then] I said, ‘Well, of course I can see. Look at those books. That’s ample proof that I can see.’”

Vicki Umipeg, whom Ring interviewed and who has also spoken of her experience in various media interviews, had an overall pleasant NDE, but did describe being suddenly able to see as “frightening.”

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