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Sunday, 17 January 2016

Hallucinations in Comas

     First of all, I had better tell you what this is not about: near death experiences (NDEs). Despite their variability, NDEs have an overall similarity. They consist of several stages in a specific order, the number of stages depending on the length of the experience: (1) an out-of-body experience, (2) a rapid movement down a dark tunnel, (3) a meeting with a Being of Light, whom most people identify with God in whatever way they conceive of Him, (4) a life review, which appears to be instantaneous, in which the person's life is rated against the criterion of love, and (5) finally, the coming to a barrier, before being sent back to the world. Generally, you have to be fairly near to death to have a near death experience. Dr Melvin Morse (Closer to the Light, 1991) compared 12 children who had required resuscitation with 121 children who had been critically (and I mean critically!) ill, but were never in any danger of dying, and 37 who had taken mind-altering medication. Most of the 12 test children had experienced at least one aspect of an NDE; none of the control groups had.
      However, there appears to be another, much more variable and much rarer phenomenon: having complex visions during periods of unconsciousness which, for want of a better word, I shall call comas, though that might not be the correct medical term. The ones you hear about are those which impact on the person's attitude to life, although they tend to be based on beliefs already held. Here are the few I have come across.

    The first case crosses the border between coma hallucinations and NDEs.
     Vietnam, 20th century. Ethnic Vietnam is narrower than it looks on the map. It is concentrated  on the Red River valley and the Mekong Delta, and a narrow strip along the coast. Inland dwell a number of minority ethnic tribes collectively known by the French word, Montagnards, or "mountaineers". One such Montagnard was Sau (rhymes with "cow"). In early adulthood he was baptized, and he became a formidable missionary to his own people, trudging hundreds of miles over the mountains and jungles, to become the patriarch of a large number of Christian villages.
     It was in the middle of this long campaign that he fell ill with typhoid fever and was carried to what the tribesmen called the "death room". For almost a month he lay unconscious, his loved ones expecting his death every day. Then, one day, much to their surprise he woke up, and asked for water - not to drink, but to wash his feet. A few days later he called his wife to his side and described his dream or vision, he knew not what.
     He had found himself on a highway thronged with Vietnamese of all classes and ethnicities, when he saw by the roadside a man standing beside a large wooden cross. His eyes were heavy with compassion. Although the crowd ignored the man, the latter called over a woman from the Raday tribe (a different one from Sau's), followed by a Raday man, and then Sau himself. Suddenly, the man's face lit up with an incredible splendour, after which a small door opened in the cross, out of which flared a brilliant light. Now the travellers at last noticed the man with the cross, but none could enter the door unless their names were called from within the door: first the man and woman originally summoned, and then Sau.
     He found himself in a boulevarde of almost blinding light, and more splendid that anything he had seen before. The two who had entered before him were now clad in dazzling white robes. "Here is your house," a voice told one of them. He also saw an unfinished house assigned to his brother, and another house with his name on the placard. Just then, a stern voice asked him, "Why are you in here?", for he was still in his old, threadbare clothes. "Look at your feet!" continued the voice, and he saw they were covered with mud. He realised his time had not yet come. Then he woke up. But after that, the material things of this life seemed like dross to him.
     This experience was described by Sau's biographer, Homer E. Dowdy in his 1964 book, The Bamboo Cross. You will note that this was more than a decade before Raymond Moody alerted the world to near death experiences with his book, Life After Life. However, I do not think it was a real NDE. For a start, he did not require resuscitation; he was probably not that near to death. Secondly, it doesn't have any of typical features of an NDE. It sounds more like the sort of visions received by Christian mystics while in an altered state of consciousness - except that, in this case, he was comatose.
     For what it was worth, it turned out that a man and a woman from the Raday church had passed away on the same day that he had the experience.

     The second example is exactly the reverse of the first. And although it was presented as an NDE, it certainly was not.
     Quito, Ecuador, late 19th century. A group of very foolish gringos decided to look for gold near the headwaters of the Santiago River, and about 1901 found themselves in a "collection of thatched huts known as Macas" containing a few renegade Jívaros and a single priest. The latter was not happy to see them, but when they indicated that they were only passing through, he pulled out all stops to help them. He also told them a story, which one of the gringos set down as he remembered it twenty years later.
     "I was living in a monastery in Quito, completing my studies so that I might become a cura [priest]. One day, I was taken ill and died. My death was a gift from God to enable me to learn the secrets of the souls of the damned. My body was sealed in the catacomb of the monastery for sixteen days, while I undertook a journey through Hell. There I beheld the torments of those of my friends and brother-friars who had sinned in this world and were suffering eternal torture. [Here he improved at great length on the "Divine Comedy."] When I awoke in my earthly body, I found myself entombed, but by the use of my feet, I fought my way to liberty and started life afresh, steadfastly determined to lead a righteous life."
     "Steadfastly determined to lead a righteous life!" The words have rung in my ears ever since ...
[Fritz W. Up de Graff (1921), Headhunters of the Amazon, seven years of exploration and adventure, page 318 of 1926 Cornstalk edition]
     Personally, I don't believe it. Just the same, I can give no other reason than my "gut reaction"; it doesn't sound right. But, to the extent that it is based on some real event, it was certainly not an NDE. Nobody can be clinically dead for sixteen days and then come back. I don't know what the catacombs of the monastery were like, but I presume the bodies were placed in niches, and I would assume in coffins. In my professional life I dealt with a soldier who woke up in a morgue in Vietnam and confounded the priest who had given him the last rites, so I wouldn't rule out the last part of the story. Perhaps he had suffered sixteen days of a severe illness, at the crisis of which he was presumed dead and placed in the catacomb. During that time, he may have experienced a vivid dream, which had grown in the telling over the decades until the final version was believed even by him.

     The following case is rather strange.
     North Africa, 5th century. Prior to the Muslim conquest, North Africa was a thriving centre of Christianity. And the greatest of all its theologians was St Augustine, whose writings continue to have an immense influence right down to this day. In 391 AD, he was ordained a priest at Hippo Regius, a Roman colony in Algeria, close to the border of what is now Tunisia, and served as bishop there from 395 till his death in 430.
     From our perspective, his most interesting tract is a letter entitled De Cura pro Mortuis ("On the Care of the Dead"), written about AD 422, in particular paragraph 15:
The same is true when people have such visions while in a state of unconsciousness even more profound than when they are asleep. For similar images of the living and the dead also appear to such people. But when they return to consciousness, the dead they claim to have seen are considered to have truly visited them, and those who hear about these things do not pay attention to the fact that they had also seen (while unconscious) similar images of living persons who were not present or were unaware of this. A certain man named Curma from the town of Tullium close to Hippo, a poor member of the curial class, barely eligible to serve as duumvir of that town, just a country man, became ill and lay unconscious and all but dead for several days. One could just feel a very slight breathing from his nostrils, indicating that he was barely alive, and this was all that kept him from being considered dead and then buried. He didn’t move a finger, did not eat anything, nor did he indicate with his eyes or any other bodily sense that he was touched by any feeling. Yet, when at last after a great many days he woke up, he said that he had seen many things as if in a dream. And the first thing he said after he had opened his eyes was, “Let some one go to the house of the ironworker named Curma and see what is happening there.” So some one went and found that the ironsmith had died at the very moment when the other had come back to his senses, and had, it could almost be said, revived from death. Then, as those who stood by eagerly listened, he told them how the other man had been ordered to surrender himself, while he himself was released; and that he had heard it said in that place from which he had returned, that it was not the Curma the official, but Curma the ironsmith who had been ordered to be taken to the place of the dead. In his dream-like visions he recognized others whom he had known when they were alive and saw the deceased being treated according to their various merits. I might perhaps have believed that he really had seen these very persons themselves if he had not in the course of this apparent dream of his also seen some who are still alive today, namely, some clerks of his district, by whose presbyter he was instructed while there to be baptized at Hippo by me, something that he also said had actually taken place. So then in this vision in which he afterwards saw the dead, he also had seen a presbyter, clerks, I myself, i.e. persons not yet dead. So why could he not be thought to have seen the dead in the same way as he saw us? – that is, that both the one kind and the other, absent and unconscious, were consequently not the persons themselves, but merely images of them, just as he saw images of various places? For example, he saw both the plot of ground where that presbyter was with the clerks, and Hippo where he seemed to be baptized by me. He certainly was not truly in those places when he seemed to himself to be there. For he did not know what was going on there at that time. Undoubtedly he should have known those things if he had really been there. Therefore, what he saw were not presentations of the things themselves as they really are, but the things were being represented by some type of images. Finally, after telling all the things he had seen, he narrated how he had also been led into paradise, and how, after he was released from there, he was told to return to his own family. “Go, be baptized, if you want to come to this place of the blessed.” He was then admonished to be baptized by me, and he replied that it had already been done. The one to whom he was talking then replied, “Go, be truly baptized; for what you saw was but a vision.” After this he regained consciousness and came to Hippo. As Easter was then approaching, he submitted his name among the others who had been properly instructed (competentes), together with a large number of others who we did not know personally. Nor did he bother to tell me or anyone else about his vision. He was baptized, and after the holy days he returned home. It was at least two years later when I learned of the whole matter. First I heard about it at the table of a certain friend we had in common, as we were talking about some such matters. Then I followed upon it and made the man tell me the story in person, with some trustworthy people from his town confirming what he said, both about his astonishing illness, how he lay all but dead for many days, and about that other Curma, the ironsmith, as I related above. They remembered everything about the events he was telling me, and assured me that they had at that time also heard them from his own lips. So, in the same way as he saw his own baptism, and me, and Hippo, and the basilica, and the baptistery – not the true realities, but some sort of image of these things —  he similarly saw certain other living persons, without those people being aware of it.
     We don't know how many years elapsed between Augustine's hearing the story, and his writing it down. However, he did hear it from Curma himself, in the presence of people to whom he had told it previously, and were able to confirm such details as his illness. Allowing for all due reservations, there still remain the details that the man was comatose, and while unconscious he dreamed he had been baptized by Augustine, and was then told to be baptized in actuality. I don't know what we can make of the other Curma, the ironsmith.

     Lest you think all hallucinations in comas revolve around religion, the next case should disabuse you.
     Cornwall, 1645. This event caused quite a bit of stir at the time, even in the midst of a civil war. Anne Jeffries was an illiterate girl who went into service with the Pitt family of St Teath, Cornwall at the age of nineteen. She was particularly interested in the stories of diminutive fairies common in the area, and used to go out at night looking and calling for them. Then, one day she was knitting in a little arbour near the garden gate, when she went into a fit. Carried back into the house, she remained ill for some time, but when she finally recovered, she related an incredible story.
    She told how she had heard a rustling in the undergrowth and, assuming it was her sweetheart, she called out to him. Then came a tinkling sound and a musical laugh, followed by the sound of the gate opening and shutting, and up came six little men all dressed in green, and very beautiful. One of them, sporting with a red feather in his cap, spoke lovingly to her. She reached out her hand, he climbed onto her palm (which indicates how small they were), and when she had lifted him onto her lap, he clambered up and began kissing her neck. The others followed. One of them put his hands over her eyes (how big was he?), and everything went dark. She felt herself swept up into the air, and when she opened her eyes again, she was in a fantastic fairyland.
     She must have shrunk, for she was now the same size as all the others, and clad in the same gorgeous clothing. The land was filled with temples and palaces of gold and silver, bright coloured birds and flowers, golden and silver fish, and magnificently clad people dancing, sporting, or strolling through the gardens. She was surrounded and courted by her six friends, but the one with the red feather made her his favourite. They managed to steal away together, when suddenly the five others broke in, followed by a loud crowd. Her lover drew his sword to defend her, but fell at her feet wounded. The one who had originally blinded her again put his hands over her eyes, and again she was swept through the air, and found herself on the floor of the arbour surrounded by her anxious friends. (If this is an accurate version of her account, then the whole experience must have taken place during a very short space of time. Traditionally, visitors to fairyland find that a year has passed on earth while only a few days have elapsed among the fairies, but in this case, the reverse appears to have occurred. Or perhaps the adventure was extended in her imagination during her subsequent illness.)
     Be that as it may, she allegedly returned with the powers of clairvoyance and healing, the first person healed being her mistress. She became very religious, while at the same time, people resorted to her for cures from as far afield as Land's End and London. She also appeared to be able to exist without human food. The son of the family, Moses Pitt reported that she forsook the family victuals and was fed by the fairies from harvest time to Christmas.
     Well, perhaps she got food from more mundane sources. However, because of her prophesies of the King's ultimate victory, she was arrested and committed to prison in 1646 by Justice John Tregeagle. He ordered that she not be fed, but it didn't seem to affect her at all. In 1647 she was detained in the house of the Mayor of Bodmin, and still not fed, and in the end she was released.
     The interesting aspect about all of this is how her description of the fairies and fairyland correspond to those of such writers as Shakespeare and Herrick, who apparently built on genuine folk traditions.
     The case was well documented, and even if some details were incorrect, it appears that her hallucinations occurred as a result of an unexplained "fit". I have seen some people attempt to interpret it as an abduction by UFO aliens, but there is really no resemblance between the two phenomena.
     [Source: entry "Jeffries, Anne" in A Dictionary of Fairies by Katherine Briggs, 1976. You can read some extra details here.]

     You will note that Anne Jeffries' case involved alleged paranormal powers as a result of commerce with what might be called a lower level of supernatural beings. This leads inexorably to another topic: throughout the world there are witchdoctors who claim to have received their powers from similar spirits - either in dreams or, less often, being struck unconscious by the said spirits. Probably in most cases the claim is bogus, but occasionally their folk beliefs may have produced an experience just like that.
     Mexico, mid-20th century. The Mexican equivalent of fairies are the aires (pronounced "eye-ress"), who live in caves, look and dress like miniature Indians, and appear to be related to pre-Hispanic rain spirits. Mexico is a hot bed of magic and witchcraft which the tourists never see. As a tourist myself, I acquired a small book entitled, A Guide to Mexican Witchcraft by anthropologists, William and Claudia Madsen, first published in 1969, with the tenth impression in 1992. They refer to a number of characters who claim to received their powers from the aires, or even higher spirits, but one of them stands out.
     Don Eusebio was the curandero [healer] in the Aztec village of Tecospa. The authors apparently studied this village in the 1950s, for they wrote about it, and mentioned him, in an earlier book published in 1960. He was famous throughout the whole of the Milpa Alta area for being able to cure "ghost fright" and "cave air", a malady inflicted by the aires, whose symptoms are "gout, paralysis, tendon contraction, red skin pustules, rheumatism and chills."
     Don Eusebio was destined from birth to become a curandero. He received his curing power from rain dwarfs, who came to him one night during a storm. Lightning struck his house and knocked all the inhabitants unconscious; however, everyone except Don Eusebio recovered quickly. As he lost consciousness, the rain dwarfs kidnapped his spirit. When his body hit the floor his limbs became rigid and his teeth started grinding. Soon he went limp, as though he were dead.
    The dwarfs forced his spirit to accompany them to their caves, where he saw many little people and a great variety of crops. The little people told him they would not let his spirit return to his body until he agreed to become a curandero. He refused, but they beat him until he gave in. Then the dwarfs presented him with a wooden staff, three curing stones, and a spirit wife.
     All right, we only have his word for it, and he has a vested interest in boosting his reputation with an invented story. However, it is the next paragraph which is significant.
    His spirit wife lives in a cave with other rain dwarfs. She is invisible to everybody except Don Eusebio and the dwarfs. If he had refused to marry her she would have killed him. The children of this marriage live in the cave with their mother. Don Eusebio has not been allowed to have sexual relations with his human wife since he became a curandero. When he tried to sleep with her one night, he had an attack and fell on the floor. The rain dwarfs gave his spirit a severe beating, so now he concentrates all his sexual energy on the spirit wife. The marriage of a curandero and a rain dwarf lasts for eternity.
     All this suggests that he really believes this version of events - either that, or his wife is party to an elaborate hoax, and they have been very careful. (There would have been no effective contraceptives in the village in the 1950s, and probably still aren't.)

     So here we have five cases of hallucinations in comas. One might be tempted to call them dreams, but they possess too much of a consistent plot and too little of the ever-changing surrealism of a genuine dream. The fact that they all involved supernatural elements might be simply fortuitous ie it ensured that the person's life was changed, and that the experience was recorded. Are there any others of a more mundane nature?

1 comment:

  1. I spent two weeks in a coma in 2013. I remember blacking out and then experiencing vivid hallucinatory dreams that I was able to remember when I came to. On waking up I felt extraordinarily surrounded by a loving world and reborn. An interesting experience all in all.