Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Near death with Gary Braver's "Tunnel Vision"

HALLIE: I've always been fascinated by the phenomenon of the "near-death experience" -- people who see themselves hovering, out of body, over the operating table, able to watch dispassionately as surgeons try to revive them. Then they wend their way through a tunnel toward a bright light. Only to be wrenched back into their bodies and survive to tell about it.

I've always wanted to use it in a novel, and now Gary Braver has beaten me to the punch with his new thriller "Tunnel Vision." His eighth novel, it tells the story of a young man, Zack Kashian, who experiences near-death after an accident while riding his bike on Boston streets. From the book:


In a fraction of a second, Zack was suddenly looking down from someplace above, seeing himself lying crumpled across the curb with his head at the base of the pole and his bike on its side, the front wheel at a crazy angle. In that sliver of awareness, he knew he was viewing things from an impossible perspective.


Months later, Zack emerges from a coma that no one expected him to wake up from and finds himself surrounded by a team of neuroscientists who are all too eager to use his experience to show that heaven is real.

Gary is launching "Tunnel Vision" twice. At Stellina’s Restaurant (47 Main St. Watertown) June 23, 6PM

and at Brookline Booksmith (279 Harvard Street, Brookline), June 30, 7PM. But we're getting a preview here at Jungle Red.

Gary, how did you get interested in near-death experience?

GARY: I’ve never had a near-death experience myself, unless you consider a few English Department meetings. But I’ve always been fascinated with the NDE phenomena, because it relates to one of the two greatest mysteries of human existence—where we came from and where we ultimately go. And since I’m a lot closer to the latter than the former, I decided to write about NDEs.

The claims of dying and coming back to life go back to Plato. Since the 1970s (when the term was coined), a 2001 Gallup poll indicated that some 10 million Americans claimed to have experienced life beyond the grave. A similar poll in England showed that 7 in 10 people believed NDEs happened and constituted evidence of an afterlife. Likewise, scores of books have been written about NDEs by people who suffered clinical death and claimed to have left their bodies, feeling a great sense of tranquility and love, and passed down tunnels into celestial light where they met spiritual beings including dead relatives, Jesus, and God.

So, I came up with the idea of scientists putting subjects into near-death comas to determine if there is anything to all such claims.

HALLIE: Did you talk to people who'd experienced it?

GARY: Yes, and most talked about two things—One, out-of-the-body experiences, seeing themselves from above in operating rooms, for instance; and two, the overwhelming feeling of tranquility and unconditional love. A few people went so far to claim that they felt the presence of God and a great sense of unity with all life.

Of course, I also read dozens of accounts (some in NY Times bestsellers) of people claiming to have passed into celestial light and encountering dead relatives and Beings of Light such as saints, Jesus, and God. One woman told me that her dead mother urged her to go back to life even though she wanted at the moment to remain with her mother’s spirit in heaven. Fascinating!

I also spoke to people who considered themselves spiritual and religious and asked them to describe their sense of higher powers and beliefs in the afterlife. I got a lot of interesting insights from those interviews.

HALLIE: Did you talk to people who consider NDE, as do some of the characters in your book, compelling evidence for life after death?

GARY: Yes, and by people who are religious. And what I learned from interviews and my readings is that near-death experiences are strongly conditioned by a person’s religious and cultural upbringing. Although the central features of NDEs are universally present due to basic human biological and neural systems, the specific imagery and interpretation is determined by the cultural beliefs of the individual. Thus a Christian may see Jesus; a Muslim may sense the presence of Mohammed; a Buddhist may see Siddhartha, a Hindu may see Krishna, etc. Such patterning strongly suggests that NDEs are a matter of consciousness and not metaphysics.

This raises the question if atheists have NDEs and what they experience. Research has shown that religious orientation is not a factor in the likelihood or the depth of the near-death experience. People who have no belief in the afterlife still have NDEs.

All of my books are “high concept” science-thrillers. And finding God is about as high as it gets. In fact, one might discern a progression in the core concepts of my last five novels: Elixir: Develop an anti-aging drug; Gray Matter: Develop a procedure that turns “slow” kids into geniuses; Flashback: Develop a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease; Skin Deep: Get that supermodel’s face you’ve always wanted. Tunnel Vision: prove there’s an afterlife. Do you see a trend the older I get

HALLIE : Indeed I do! (And I can't wait to see where you go from here.) How do scientists explain the experience?

GARY: Pure neurobiology. From what I’ve read, at death the brain shuts down, causing optical centers to affect a tunnel-like perception in the mind; serotonin and endorphins secrete into the bloodstream, making the victim feel a preternatural calm and well-being; and other buffering chemicals produce hallucinations of dead relatives as well as Jesus, Mohammed, the Virgin Mary, and God, depending on one’s cultural conditioning.

Also, neuroscience reveals that some people are truly “spiritual”—that they are wired to find God. We know this from tests on Carmelite nuns, Benedictine monks, Buddhist monks, Indian fakirs, etc. whose brain activities were monitored by fMRI machines while in self-induced “spiritual” trances. The results showed the same rare signature neuro-electrical patterns in areas of the parietal lobe not found in “normal” people. In the book I call this parietal sector the “Godlobe.” In fact, at one time I considered calling the book The Godlobe.

By the way, NDEs originate from these same neuro-mechanisms that produce hallucinations as well as visions of Virgin Mary, dead grandmothers, space aliens.

HALLIE: Did working on this novel change your thinking?

GARY: I still don’t know if there’s an afterlife, but the older I get the more I’m in favor of one.

Many religions promise an afterlife—heaven or hell. They preach that our souls or spirits depart the physical world at death and move into a transcendent state. Hardcore secular science, however, says that death is final, that consciousness ends with the termination of the body. Tunnel Vision brings these two views head-to-head. A surprise twist at the end of the book I think will satisfy both sides of the debate.

HALLIE: I like that - I guess I'm in favor of an afterlife, too. If only!

Gary will be checking in today. Please share your thoughts. Near death experience: neurobiology or theology?


  1. Wow Gary, this sounds like a fascinating book! Love the Godlobe! Do you have a sense that that part of the brain can be developed? Because folks do report conversion experiences later in life, right?

    and what side of the debate does your character fall on?

  2. What a great idea for a book Gary! After my brother passed away, when I was 21, I read every single book on Near Death Experience -- it was fairly new then. Until I realized I was actually trying to prove there was an afterlife and you can't really prove these kinds of things.

    But I still think its a fascinating experience, no matter what the explanation;


  3. I have a dear friend who literally saw and talked to her brother after he died. It was very comforting for her -- very scary for those of us hearing about it. I ended up reading all about NDE then, too.

  4. Yeah, it's hard to dispute when so many people report the same thing..and very comforting, I can say here in the privacy of JRW, to think so.

    Did anyone say--yeah, I had a near-death experience, and it was TERRIBLE?

    I love it, Gary, that you're taking something so timeless and making it contemporary.

  5. Is the experience biological or mystical? I wonder what I'd find out in your book. I experienced a NDE when I was sixteen. I was in rebellion and rejecitng religion. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and acceptance, and it did change the way I looked at life and death. Death was no longer frightening.

  6. Hi, Roberta,
    Some people maintain that the brain, like a muscle, needs stimulation to keep active. However I’m not sure about this rarely configured node in the parietal lobe. In “normal” “non-spiritual” people that sector of the brain is the same area where visions are created—of dead relatives, the Virgin Mary, and space aliens. And stimulation of that area creates a lot more. However, not sure one would like that area “developed.” I can barely cope with reality some times, let alone Martians and Granny.

  7. Hi, Jan,
    Sad story about losing a brother so young. But I know exactly what you mean. My interest in NDE claims was more hopeful than intellectual. Whatever the truth, it confirms my belief that the human mind is the most wondrous creation in the universe—so much so, I hope it goes on.

  8. Wow, Pauline - that sounds amazing.

  9. Hi, Hallie,

    I’m sure it was gratifying to her, though creepy for the rest of us. Not to make light of your friend, but I once chatted with a dead older brother, but I think that had to do with what I was drinking at the time. I’m an only child.

  10. Hi, Pauline,
    That experience you had about death no longer being frightening is one of the overwhelming characteristics reported by NDE victims. People report that they “know” they’re dead and don’t want to come back into life. One woman wrote in one book I researched that the spirit of her dead mother urged her to go back to life, to be with those she still loved and who needed her. Very touching. And talk about a conflict! In Tunnel Vision, I tried to fall in the middle—natural or supernatural. I would be suffering my own tunnel vision to do otherwise. Hope you like where it finally falls. Thanks.

  11. Gary, a book that made a tremendous impression on me was Connie Willis's Passage. Have you read it? So many thoughtful layers on this subject.

    I'm so looking forward to reading yours. And I love the concept of the Godlobe. Wow.

  12. Gary, this is so fascinating. And what a great premise for a novel. I'm not particularly religious in the orthodox sense, but I'm a biologist by education, and I've always thought that the world--and humans in particular--was too wondrous to be entirely random.

    Can't wait to read your book!

    Oh, and I did, by the way, have a "conversation" with my grandmother on the morning of her funeral. It was one of the most lucid experiences I've ever had, and is still fresh after almost thirty years. Brain chemicals? Hmmm.

  13. Gary, this is a fantastic topic for all us baby boomers out here. I too love reading about it especially since my father and sister both had NDE. I can tell right now that there will be many questions for you when I moderate your panel at Crime Bake! And you know I love all your books!

  14. Hi, Rhys,
    To be honest, I bought PASSAGES when I first started outlining this one and had to stop out of fear of becoming too influenced by it. She is such a good writer; and now that Tunnel Vision is done, I’m going to read it. Thanks for the reminder.

  15. Hi, Deb,
    Brain chemicals or something else, if that conversation was nurturing and consoling for you, it makes no difference. And hope you enjoy the book. There are some conversations across the divide in it you may find interesting.

  16. Hi, Ruth,
    Thanks, you’re more than kind. And looking forward to our panel. But I must say that after doing all the research on the book, I now have more questions than answers.

  17. Gary, did you by chance read up on the research of Susan Blackmore when you worked on the book?

  18. Hi, Michael,

    I’m impressed you know about her work.

    Yes, Susan Blackmore’s 1991 article in Skeptic got me going by providing me with much material to draw from as well as a mindset that informed some of the positions in Tunnel Vision. Her writing is lucid without being didactic; logical without being dismissive of NDEs as just biology. Overall, she has high appreciation of the wonders of the brain and the mind and what they are each capable of. Thanks for your good question.