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I recently watched a testimony in which a blind-from-birth individual described two NDEs they had had in which they supposedly were able to see with 20/20 vision (inside the NDEs). The person explained that normally they only have dreams in terms of sounds, smells, touch, taste, but never with visual imagery, which made the experience of sight during the NDEs quite shocking to them. Is this something that has ever been medically documented, and if so, does it have an explanation?

UPDATE:

A video with an interview is available here. Title: Vicki Noratuk Blind Person NDE

I also found a journal article referencing this case. Title: Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind: A Study of Apparent Eyeless Vision, Kenneth Ring, Ph.D. Sharon Cooper, M.A. University of Connecticut. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 16(2) Winter 1997. 1997 Human Sciences Press, Inc.

In the article, the authors put forward Eyeless Vision and Transcendental Awareness as a possible explanation for these sorts of cases, but I don't know if this hypothesis has any merits from a scientific standpoint.

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I gather from the chat comments that this question is really about the scientific credibility of reports of visual experiences in the congenitally blind during NDEs. I cannot find any such reports in the scientific literature.

The Ring & Cooper (1997) study (re-reported in Ring & Cooper, 1999; Ring, 2001) is the only apparent exception. Other reviewers (eg, Long, 2014; Ilic et al, 2023; Beauregard, Trent, & Schwartz, 2018) seem to concur that this is indeed the only such study published. Thus, the question really comes down to the credibility of this single study.

For critical reviews of the study, see for example Irwin (2000), Fox (2003), and Augustine (2007). I'll also outline some of my own reasoning on this:

  • I would generally not make any strong conclusions based on a single unreplicated study. Multiple studies, a literature review, or a meta-analysis would be better.
  • This study is effectively self-published (the lead author Kenneth Ring was the chief editor of the journal it was published in). I would prefer an independent scientific journal.
  • The study was small for the conclusion in question (only 14 congenitally blind participants). It's therefore unlikely to have had sufficient power for firm conclusions.
  • The study quality was poor. It involved unstructured (read: easily biased) retrospective (read: unreliable memory) interviews (read: qualitative instead of quantitative) of carefully selected participants, with no hypotheses or controls, and using exploratory analyses.
  • All that said, the authors don't actually conclude that congenitally blind NDEs involve visual experiences anyway!

As summarized by French (2005):

Initial readings of such accounts often give the impression that the experience involves seeing events and surroundings in the same way that sighted people do, but closer reflection upon these cases suggests otherwise. As Ring (2001, p. 69) writes,

As this kind of testimony builds, it seems more and more difficult to claim that the blind simply see what they report. Rather, it is beginning to appear it is more a matter of their knowing, through a still poorly understood mode of generalized awareness, based on a variety of sensory impressions, especially tactile ones, what is happening around them.

Ring argues that casual readers may often gain the impression that such NDEs in the blind involved literally seeing events and surroundings but that this impression is based upon having to describe these experiences, no matter how they were originally coded, in linguistic form. Our language is based largely upon the experiences of the sighted and is therefore a ‘‘language of vision’’.

I personally find it incredulous that during their very first visual experience, congenitally blind people would be able to identify objects and persons with the same expertise as sighted people, and the authors seem to agree.

There is one more nail in the coffin of this study worth mentioning just for completion. Pseudoscience is subject matter that appears on the surface to be science, but actually fails to qualify as science. This paper contains several red flags for pseudoscience:

  • The study was funded by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, an organization focused on pseudoscience topics.
  • The lead author Kenneth Ring's career is largely focused on pseudoscience.
  • Wikipedia generally characterizes such NDE studies as pseudoscience.
  • The paper itself discusses pseudoscience topics and references other pseudoscientific sources.
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