‘My life flashed earlier than my eyes’: a psychologist’s tackle what could be occurring


On the age of 16, when Tony Kofi was an apprentice builder dwelling in Nottingham, he fell from the third storey of a constructing. Time appeared to decelerate massively, and he noticed a fancy collection of photographs flash earlier than his eyes.

As he described it, “In my thoughts’s eye I noticed many, many issues: kids that I hadn’t even had but, associates that I had by no means seen however at the moment are my associates. The factor that basically caught in my thoughts was taking part in an instrument”. Then Tony landed on his head and misplaced consciousness.

When he got here to on the hospital, he felt like a special individual and didn’t wish to return to his earlier life. Over the next weeks, the pictures stored flashing again into his thoughts. He felt that he was “being proven one thing” and that the pictures represented his future.

Later, Tony noticed an image of a saxophone and recognised it because the instrument he’d seen himself taking part in. He used his compensation cash from the accident to purchase one. Now, Tony Kofi is likely one of the UK’s most profitable jazz musicians, having gained the BBC Jazz awards twice, in 2005 and 2008.

Saxophone player Tony Kofi

Jazz musician Tony Kofi.
Richard Kaby/wikimedia, CC BY

Although Tony’s perception that he noticed into his future is rare, it’s in no way unusual for individuals to report witnessing a number of scenes from their previous throughout split-second emergency conditions. In spite of everything, that is the place the phrase “my life flashed earlier than my eyes” comes from.

However what explains this phenomenon? Psychologists have proposed quite a few explanations, however I’d argue the important thing to understanding Tony’s expertise lies in a special interpretation of time itself.

When life flashes earlier than our eyes

The expertise of life flashing earlier than one’s eyes has been reported for nicely over a century. In 1892, a Swiss geologist named Albert Heim fell from a precipice whereas mountaineering. In his account of the autumn, he wrote is was “as if on a distant stage, my entire previous life [was] taking part in itself out in quite a few scenes”.

Extra lately, in July 2005, a younger girl referred to as Gill Hicks was sitting close to one of many bombs that exploded on the London Underground. Within the minutes after the accident, she hovered on the point of demise the place, as she describes it: “my life was flashing earlier than my eyes, flickering by way of each scene, each completely satisfied and unhappy second, every part I’ve ever performed, mentioned, skilled”.

In some instances, individuals don’t see a overview of their entire lives, however a collection of previous experiences and occasions which have particular significance to them.

Explaining life critiques

Maybe surprisingly, given how widespread it’s, the “life overview expertise” has been studied little or no. A handful of theories have been put ahead, however they’re understandably tentative and quite imprecise.

For instance, a bunch of Israeli researchers steered in 2017 that our life occasions might exist as a continuum in our minds, and should come to the forefront in excessive situations of psychological and physiological stress.

One other concept is that, once we’re near demise, our reminiscences abruptly “unload” themselves, just like the contents of a skip being dumped. This may very well be associated to “cortical disinhibition” – a breaking down of the traditional regulatory processes of the mind – in extremely disturbing or harmful conditions, inflicting a “cascade” of psychological impressions.

However the life overview is normally reported as a serene and ordered expertise, utterly in contrast to the form of chaotic cascade of experiences related to cortical disinhibition. And none of those theories clarify the way it’s attainable for such an unlimited quantity of knowledge – in lots of instances, all of the occasions of an individual’s life – to manifest themselves in a interval of some seconds, and sometimes far much less.

Pondering in ‘spatial’ time

An alternate clarification is to think about time in a “spatial” sense. Our commonsense view of time is as an arrow that strikes from the previous by way of the current in the direction of the longer term, by which we solely have direct entry to the current. However trendy physics has solid doubt on this easy linear view of time.

Learn extra:
Why accidents and emergencies appear to dramatically decelerate time

Certainly, since Einstein’s concept of relativity, some physicists have adopted a “spatial” view of time. They argue we reside in a static “block universe” by which time is unfold out in a form of panorama the place the previous, the current and the longer term co-exist concurrently.

The trendy physicist Carlo Rovelli – creator of the best-selling The Order of Time – additionally holds the view that linear time doesn’t exist as a common reality. This concept displays the view of the thinker Immanuel Kant, who argued that point shouldn’t be an objectively actual phenomenon, however a assemble of the human thoughts.

This might clarify why some persons are capable of overview the occasions of their entire lives right away. A great deal of earlier analysis – together with my very own – has steered that our regular notion of time is just a product of our regular state of consciousness.

In lots of altered states of consciousness, time slows down so dramatically that seconds appear to stretch out into minutes. This can be a widespread function of emergency conditions, in addition to states of deep meditation, experiences on psychedelic medicine and when athletes are “within the zone”.

The bounds of understanding

However what about Tony Kofi’s obvious visions of his future? Did he actually glimpse scenes from his future life? Did he see himself taking part in the saxophone as a result of by some means his future as a musician was already established?

There are clearly some mundane interpretations of Tony’s expertise. Maybe, as an example, he turned a saxophone participant just because he noticed himself taking part in it in his imaginative and prescient. However I don’t suppose it’s unimaginable that Tony did glimpse future occasions.

If time actually does exist in a spatial sense – and if it’s true that point is a assemble of the human thoughts – then maybe not directly future occasions might already be current, simply as previous occasions are nonetheless current.

Admittedly, that is very tough to make sense of. However why ought to every part make sense to us? As I’ve steered in a latest ebook, there have to be some features of actuality which can be past our comprehension. In spite of everything, we’re simply animals, with a restricted consciousness of actuality. And maybe greater than every other phenomenon, that is very true of time.

The Conversation

Steve Taylor doesn’t work for, seek the advice of, personal shares in or obtain funding from any firm or organisation that might profit from this text, and has disclosed no related affiliations past their tutorial appointment.

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