Blinded by the Light? : Tales of near-death experiences--from visions of God to meeting Elvis--fascinate millions of us. But as the stories increase, so does the criticism.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lightning shot through the telephone and into Dannion Brinkley's body, welding the nails in his shoes to the nails in the floor--and sending his soul on one of the most bizarre near-death sojourns ever recounted.

According to his best-selling book, "Saved by the Light," Brinkley traveled to a luminous crystal city where he met 13 silver-blue spirit beings, learned of calamities in store for the Earth and saw his entire life flash before him.

Or so the story goes.

For decades, Americans have been mesmerized by the tales of modern-day Lazaruses like Brinkley. They've bought millions of books about the afterlife, watched a litany of the ex-dead on talk shows, and devoured countless back-from-beyond tales in the media.

Some are so eager to hear about the hereafter that they seem to be blinded by the light. Despite the best shots from critics, they still give the benefit of the doubt. Even when things seem doubtful indeed.

Brinkley says his life review covered "at least 6,000 fistfights" that he had between fifth and 12th grades. That averages out to two brawls a day, nonstop for eight years, making Brinkley the Wilt Chamberlain of schoolyard pugilism.

He also says he was a Marine Corps sniper during the Vietnam War, dispatched to Cambodia and Laos to assassinate enemy officers and politicians. But military records show that Pfc. Brinkley was never a sniper, never saw combat, indeed never left the United States during his 18 months in the service.

He was a truck driver stationed in Atlanta.

Brinkley declines to offer any evidence of overseas duty, saying the government is covering up his record because it is classified. But several sources inside and outside the military (including ex-Marines involved in the same covert operations Brinkley claims a role in) say his tale is full of holes and that the so-called secret files are all public.

But his story isn't the first to be challenged.

Ever since Dr. Raymond Moody, a psychiatrist, coined the term "near-death experience" in 1975, the popular assumption has been that all such reports are remarkably similar and provide startling evidence for a hereafter.

Scratch beneath those flat EKG lines, however, and the stories are a veritable twilight zone of inconsistencies. Some near-death voyagers claim to have met God--but a few saw Elvis or Groucho Marx, researchers say. Others get to heaven not through the famous "tunnel" but aboard ghostly taxicabs, ferries that cross the River Styx, or spangled cows.

Even children--often touted as the best source of unbiased information--commonly return from "death" claiming they were greeted in the other world by living teachers and Nintendo characters instead of deceased relatives.

There also have been psychic slip-ups. In the late 1970s and early '80s, for instance, re-mortalized adults around the globe kept telling researchers of divinely inspired forecasts of a coming apocalypse. The near-unanimous date: 1988.

Adding to the uncertainty are credibility problems with some of the near-death experts themselves.

Moody, whose "Life After Life" book launched the phenomenon, now holds seances using mirrors and 15-watt light bulbs. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, another pioneer, has said she is a reincarnated disciple of Jesus and can travel out of her body. And "Embraced by the Light" author Betty J. Eadie, who is Mormon, raised eyebrows by printing one version of God's comments about abortion for readers in Utah, then revising the passage when her book began circulating elsewhere.

Meanwhile, scientists and other critics continue to hammer away at near-death evidence, offering down-to-earth medical explanations for the mystifying visions. And even some prominent near-death believers are reluctantly beginning to agree that these trips are just vivid tricks of the mind.

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No one disputes that unusual things transpire at the border between life and death.

Plato recorded one of history's earliest resurrection episodes: a slain soldier who came back to life after leaving his body and ascending toward heaven. And Pope Gregory the Great compiled resuscitation reports in the 6th Century.

Modern near-death visionaries include Ernest Hemingway, polar explorer Richard Byrd, Carl Jung and Elizabeth Taylor, who told her tale to Oprah.

"I used to think that when you died, you just checked out into the darkness," says Dr. Melvin Morse, a Seattle pediatrician who writes books and scholarly papers about children's near-death reports. "Now I'm not sure."

The question, of course, is whether the visions are real.

If people actually are entering another dimension, write parapsychology researchers Karlis Osis and Erlandur Haraldsson, "we should expect all patients to see essentially the same thing."

To be sure, there are some striking similarities. Beings of white light, feelings of peace, and indescribable colors and sights ("the world split . . . (and) everything was silver . . . like diamonds and stars") turn up repeatedly.

Many also report strange buzzing sounds, aerial views of their lifeless bodies and eerie replays of their entire past, like "images from film sprung loose in a projector."

But there also are some hard-to-explain differences, Morse says.

Whereas American near-death survivors are typically sent back by God because "it's not your time yet," India's afterlife visitors are more likely to be told there was a "clerical error."

The terrain of heaven also varies wildly--from gardens, forests or cattle-filled pastures in some accounts to clouds, computer rooms or castles in others. A Texan saw barbed-wire fences in the afterlife; Micronesians describe large, noisy cities with cars and skyscrapers.

Kenneth Ring, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut and a co-founder of the International Assn. for Near-Death Studies, reconciles the contradictions by suggesting that the next world has as many topographies as this one, and that departed souls enter it at different locations. Others argue that the spiritual realm simply defies description, forcing visitors to fall back on words that reflect their culture or upbringing.

But the discrepancies don't end with physical layouts. The very nature of the afterlife has been drastically altered in recent years.

"Gone are the bad deaths, harsh judgment scenes, purgatorial torments and infernal terrors of medieval (near-death records)," writes Carol Zaleski in "Otherworld Journeys" (Oxford, 1987), a comparison of modern and ancient post-mortem visions. "In today's upbeat near-death literature . . . the being of light communicates, but never excommunicates."

Even more curious: Sometimes the being of light is Elvis.

Moody has chronicled at least two such sightings. In one, a Nebraska teacher who had met the singer briefly in real life encountered him again when her heart stopped during gallbladder surgery in 1979. "Hi, Beverly, remember me?" the slimmed-down King reportedly asked as he stepped from the light.

But Ring says it's unfair to take "the most extreme, exotic cases . . . and use them to cast doubt on the rest (because) 98% of near-death visions really (are) similar."

Morse, on the other hand, insists that near-death visions are "very dissimilar . . . very idiosyncratic."

Backing up that view is Zaleski, a Smith College religion professor whose research in the field is widely regarded as among the most thorough and objective.

Considered closely, she writes, the similarities between modern and medieval afterlife stories are impressive--but so are the differences, so much so that "we can no longer insist that (near-death visions) paint a true picture of what occurs at the (end) of life."

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But believers are not easily dissuaded. They reel off story after story of mysterious psychic phenomena and electrical disturbances said to accompany the near-death experience. Could a mere hallucination cause that? they ask.

For instance, Atlanta cardiologist and near-death author Michael Sabom says patients who report out-of-body journeys were able to accurately describe conversations and medical procedures that took place during their "deaths."

Such incidents can seem spooky, says Dr. Douglas Lyle, a Laguna Hills cardiologist. But there is a possible physiological explanation: "The brain is obviously still alive and receiving (sensory) input" after the heart has stopped. "It's kind of like someone sending you e-mail when your computer is off and you don't know it's there until you turn it on."

Other near-death tales seem harder to dismiss, such as the Hartford Hospital patient who reportedly saw a red shoe on the roof (a janitor later retrieved it), or the blind person who supposedly described colors and other visual details in an operating room.

"It's all anecdotal," Sabom concedes, "so you can't consider it proof. But when you get enough of these cases together, you have to wonder if something is going on."

Even a few critics admit to being stumped by such reports.

Yet the evidence for near-death paranormal powers remains shaky at best. Two studies have found that patients' "out-of-body" accounts of what happened in the operating room were wrong. So were the 1988 Armageddon forecasts hyped by Ring and others.

A few hospitals have placed signs in their cardiac units--with nonsensical messages visible only from above--but so far nobody has returned from death claiming to have floated up and seen one.

Some say they discover psychic abilities after a near-death trip. Barbara Harris of the International Assn. for Near-Death Studies writes: "My bio-energy field . . . affects electronic equipment. Car batteries are sometimes drained when I'm around . . . street lamps blow out as I walk past."

So widespread are such reports among afterlife veterans (and, notably, among alleged UFO abductees) that when the group proposed its first conference in 1981, some feared the collective psychic energy would spark an electrical and emotional meltdown. Speculation ran rampant, recalls president Nancy Evans Bush: "Perhaps we should have backup generators in case the lights blew, or spiritual emergency trauma teams for emotional storms. Perhaps the entire room would vibrate."

Ten conferences later, nothing extraordinary had happened.

"Where's the documentation?" asks Richard Abanes of Rancho Santa Margarita, a Christian researcher and author of "Embraced by the Light and the Bible" (Horizon, 1994). "There's a lot of stories about people who supposedly have psychic powers after their experience, but no one has ever taken them into a laboratory setting to test it."

Which brings us back to Dannion Brinkley. His 1994 book claims that the beings of light in his near-death journey correctly foretold dozens of world events, including the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 1986 radiation leak at Chernobyl. Unfortunately, as noted by the Sunday Times of London, visions of the future are "traditionally revealed before they happen rather than afterwards, thereby making them more convincing."

Still to come, says Brinkley: a 1995 nuclear disaster in Norway and a U.S. economic collapse by 2000.

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One of the most intriguing discoveries about near-death experiences is that people don't have to be "dead" to have them.

Morse writes of two miners who thought they talked with deceased relatives and saw heavenly realms while trapped underground for a few days. Otherworldly visions also turn up in studies of mountaineers who survive falls, prisoners of war and people held hostage by bank robbers, says Dr. Ronald K. Siegel, a professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences at UCLA.

"The tunnel, the light, the feelings of floating or flying . . . they're all very common," Siegel says. The trigger seems to be "some form of sensory isolation and life-threatening stress."

Scientists call it the fear -death experience, says Abanes: "I had one myself in 1980." While being robbed at knifepoint and beaten, "it was like I could see what was happening from outside my body. . . . My whole life flashed before me."

In other instances, fear has nothing to do with it. The Houston Chronicle ran an entire article on people who have near-death visions for no apparent reason. One man was "walking out of my greenhouse after tending some plants (when) all of a sudden . . . I was out of my body and on the other side of the room."

He and others in the article apparently saw the same light and felt the same euphoria and sense of mystical knowledge as reported by people who technically died. Indeed, a 1985 survey of International Assn. of Near-Death Studies archives found that only 10% of the visions had any connection to actual "clinical" death.

Drugs--including LSD, hashish and the anesthetic Ketamine--also can induce near-death-type sensations, Siegel says.

So can electrical stimulation of the brain. Sixty years ago, Dr. Wilder Penfield, a neurosurgeon, poked around the right temporal lobe of some epileptic patients and discovered that they would hear heavenly music, relive their pasts in 3-D and have out-of-body visions. Similar experiments continue.

Morse suggests that the right temporal lobe--which he calls "the God sensor of the brain"--is the source of near-death experiences.

Siegel adds: "The (visions are) very concrete, very vivid . . . (and) very powerful . . . (but they're) happening in mental space, not physical space."

Not surprisingly, those who say they have visited the Other Side bristle at suggestions it was illusory. "Realer than real" is how they typically describe the event.

Siegel, however, says near-death experiencers are "mistaking the vividness for truthfulness. . . . They're not aware that hallucinations can occur in a sober, waking state of mind."

But others argue that laboratory-induced hallucinations and afterlife visions are a breed apart. Also, they say, the hallucination theory fails to account for the overnight personality changes that occur, including greater zest for life, improved self-confidence, healthier eating habits and increased compassion.

Adds Morse: "These people aren't just saying they're different. They really are. We've documented it beyond a shadow of a doubt. If they said they give more to charities, we checked their tax returns."

That still doesn't prove anything, replies Siegel: "A lot of people who've taken LSD feel changed too. (So do) people who've fallen in love for the first time . . . or people who've been to Vietnam. . . . These are powerful emotional experiences and they change the way we see the world."

Well, sometimes.

Although near-death testimonials are full of proclamations that the experience reduces their desire for wealth and success, it doesn't seem to stop them from trying to cash in on the light.

Brinkley's manager, Melanie Hill, notes that several afterlife authors charge $7,000 to $10,000 an appearance on the lecture circuit. She calls such fees distasteful, but her own client isn't exactly a pauper. Brinkley clears $1,500 to $2,000 a pop on a schedule of one or two talks a week, she says (although he says many are freebies and that his annual income is just $18,000 to $25,000).

"Embraced by the Light" author Eadie, meanwhile, has incorporated herself. The former hypnotherapist's empire includes a free newsletter, an "Embraced by the Light: the Musical Journey" CD, and a charitable foundation set up to benefit Native Americans, says her assistant. Movie rights are still being negotiated.

Small wonder the field is getting increasingly competitive.

Brinkley upstaged Eadie by "having died not merely once but twice," notes the National Review. "And now we have 'Beyond the Light' by Phyllis Atwater, who has trumped Mr. Brinkley with a third trip to higher realms."

Even the dust-jacket blurb writers have run out of superlatives. Moody declared Eadie's story "the most profound and complete near-death experience." His praise for Brinkley: "the most amazing and complete near-death experience."

Amazing is an apt description.

Eadie, in addition to saying she revived from death after four hours--nothing short of medically miraculous--also asserts that when Jesus told her that she had to return to this life, she "made (him and the angels) promise that the moment my mission was complete they would take me back (to heaven). . . . They agreed to my terms." The National Review snickers at "this image of Mrs. Eadie negotiating the terms of her departure, with Jesus finally caving in to her demands."

Even the most sincere stories may not be airtight, Morse says. He has tracked a number of them outside the operating room and noticed that details change over time. Part of the problem, he says, is that Moody and most other investigators--by their own admission--ask leading questions in search of evidence to bolster what Morse calls their "New Age . . . political and spiritual agenda."

All of the research should be thrown out and redone, he says.

Until then, Morse basically sides with the skeptics. Sabom, however, offers a compromise stance: He thinks the visions are indeed some kind of foray to spiritual realms, but rejects the idea that they provide glimpses of heaven or hell.

That is a mystery that can never be settled, he says, because the only humans who really know what happens aren't coming back: "We can only resuscitate people, not resurrect them."

* Staff writer Paul Dean contributed to this story.

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