How do the near-death experiences widely discussed in the popular press compare with the experience of dying envisioned by Bierce in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Present day near-death experiences, which are growing in incidence as techniques for resuscitation improve and become globally more widespread, most often involve a bright white light that shines in the center of one's vision as one's field of vision narrows from peripheral to tunnel vision. Often a sense of leaving one's body, which is commonly within vision below, is reported. Another common feature is a feeling of painlessness and cummunality (a gathering of people, well-known and otherwise) who collect to greet the person having the experience. 

As a side note, science has begun to identify the areas of the brain responsible for the out-of-body phenomenon, the light and the narrowing tunnel vision. Researchers have been able to stimulate these areas with currents from electrodes and replicate experiences of being removed from one's physical self, of light, and of narrowing vision. That these effects can be replicated in experiments may not necessarily mean that the phenomena don't have any unique qualities but, on the other hand, it may mean these are purely biological in nature. Yet one conclusion being posited is that the 18 percent of individuals who have the biological predisposers to have near-death experiences can expect to experience death in the same elating form as reported in near-death experiences.

Bierce's description of a dying experience matches contemporary near-death experience reports in a couple of regards. One is that independent activity is reported: in near-death, individuals may walk around in a paradisaical land, while Farquhar struggles successfully to free his wrists from their bonds. Farquhar feels "very comfortable" and sees a narrowing field of vision with light at the center while he sees his hands at the edges of this narrowed field of light. He may be said to have an out-of-body experience as he swims away and reaches his home while his body remains behind. These are particulars of how Bierce's description of Farquhar's fictional death experience corresponds to present day near-death experiences.

Then [the light] began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface—knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable. ... a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort!—what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light.

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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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