Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Once the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly happily fluttering around doing as he pleased. He suddenly woke up and didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. I was in a similar state of confusion when I started regaining consciousness after my stroke. But all through that period of haze, I remembered some dreams that I had seen during that period of unconsciousness:

  1. There  was a lighted candle near my bed. A  nurse periodically came to my room, looked at the candle and went away. The sense I  got was that she was checking to see if the flame had gone out which would signal my death.  She seemed to be saying, “Out, out, brief candle!"but the flame never went out.
  2. A large crowd seemed to be gathered for my funeral and my body was lying nearby. a large black bird was flying high in the sky and everyone was looking at it.  The sense I got was that I was not yet dead and that my death would be signalled by the bird flying away.Everyone was waiting for the bird to disappear but it never did.
  3. My body seemed to be lying on what looked like the moving belt of an assembly. The belt seemed to be moving towards what I felt was a furnace in an electric crematorium. (I have never seen an electric crematorium.) When I passed inside the furnace, I cringed at the prospect of getting roasted but the temperature never rose.

Memory is a very unreliable chronicler of events so much so that someone said that all autobiographies should come with a warning  "based on facts". My memory of the dreams could be even more suspect since they happened such a long time ago and they are after all dreams but I can assure you that they are "based on facts".

 I related them to Jaya after our communication protocol was well established. I then didn't dwell on them figuring that they would have been random images caused by  the firing of different parts of the brain due to the various drugs that were being given and the various noises and voices that I used to hear. The bullshit detection meter in my brain was off and it was concocting fantastic stories.

I later read about Near Death Experiences (NDEs) which seemed somewhat similar to the dreams I had had. NDEs have some things in common: there are accounts of a bright light (the candle in my dream was a light but it was not bright); there will be descriptions of passing through a tunnel (I suppose going into the furnace in the electric crematorium was like passing through a tunnel although the experience was so long ago that I don't remember the details). In US people having NDEs write books about it which top best-seller lists. Sam Harris examines one such book.

Oliver Sacks has written a book called Hallucinations which describes...you guessed it...hallucinations that people have in various situations - in the haze when falling asleep or waking up, under the influence of drugs (medical or recreational), sleep deprivation, when blind , epilepsy, migraine and also when near death. About NDEs, he writes:
Kevin Nelson and his colleagues at the University of Kentucky have presented evidence suggesting that, with the compromise of cerebral blood flow, there is a dissociation of consciousness so that, although awake, the subjects are paralysed and subject to the dreamlike hallucinations characteristic of REM sleep ("REM intrusions") -- in a state, therefore. with resemblances to sleep paralysis(NDEs are also commoner in people prone to sleep paralysis). Added to this are various special features: the "dark tunnel" is correlated,Nelson feels, with the compromise of  blood flow to the retinas (this is well-known to produce a constriction of the visual fields, or  tunnel vision, and may occur in pilots subjected to high g-stresses). The "bright light" Nelson correlates with a flow of neuronal excitement moving from a part of the brain stem (the pons)  to subcortical visual relay stations and then to the occipital cortex. Added to all these neurophysiological changes may be a sense of terror and awe going with the knowledge that one is undergoing a mortal crisis -- some subjects have actually heard themselves pronounced dead -- and the wish that dying, if imminent and inevitable, should be peaceful and perhaps a passage to a life after death.
A curious happening was that my physiotherapist asked me about a neurological condition called narcolepsy which I had never heard about that was included in the plot of a Tamil movie that he had just seen called Naan sigappu manithan. A couple of days later, I read about it in this book.

Here is Oliver Sacks on Fora.TV about his book. He had written an article about NDEs, OBEs (out of body experience)and prayers. There was an Intelligence Squared debate on life after death.

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