F is for Fata Morgana

ghost ship

A ghost story is only as believable as the teller, and few witnesses ring as true as crusty ol’ hardbitten sea captains.

This could be one of the reasons tales of ghost ships have been passed on for hundreds of years. Who could forget the Flying Dutchman?

As it turns out, those sailers were telling the truth. They were seeing ships that floated above the water, flickering in and out of view, or disappearing completely.

It just had nothing to do with ghosts.

Enter Fata Morgana. Ms. Morgana is a super mirage named after the treacherous fairy, enchantress, and half-sister of King Arthur. (Tarkabarka should like this reference.)

As the sun warms the air above the ocean, it creates a gradient of temperatures. The air closest to the ocean is still cool, but sitting above that is a layer of warmer air.

Light doesn’t necessarily travel in a straight line. When it comes in contact with two layers of atmosphere that are different temperatures (and therefore different densities), it bends and travels through the new layer at a different angle.

The rest of the effect is caused by how the brain works. When light reaches your eyes, your mind assumes it arrived there in a straight path between you and the object reflecting the light. So if light is bent on its way toward you, your brain will think the object is where it would be if the light’s path was straight. This explains why objects under water will appear to be in a different spot than they really are.

To create a fata morgana mirage, light reflecting from something in the distance, like a ship, bends downward as it passes through the colder, denser air near the surface of the ocean. Your brain places the object where it would be if the light came to you in a straight path—higher than it actually is. This bending effect can even work with the curvature of the Earth if conditions are right, which is why some fata morgana images can be refracted cities and ships from beyond the horizon.

Pretty cool, huh? However, those ships that turn up with mysteriously missing crews or that disappear completely? You’re on your own.

Scientific gobbledygook courtesy of Wired.com.

Have you heard of the mysterious Fata Morgana? Were those sailors seeing super mirages? What do you think?

D is for Deathbed Experiences

light tunnel

Deathbed experiences have been recorded for centuries.

One of the most famous modern cases is that of Maria, a migrant worker who had a severe heart attack. During the cardiac arrest, she floated out of her body and watched the medical team fight to save her life.

Eventually Maria drifted outside the hospital, where she saw a tennis shoe on a third-floor ledge. When she regained consciousness, she told Kimberly Clark, her critical care worker, about the shoe, providing many details, including the fact that one of its laces was stuck underneath the heel and its toe was worn. She begged her care worker to search for the shoe, and even though Clark was skeptical, she agreed.

Not only did Clark find a shoe matching Maria’s description in the exact location Maria had pinpointed, she discovered there was absolutely no way Maria could have seen it from her hospital window.

“The only way she could have had such a perspective,” said Clark, “was if she had been floating right outside and at very close range to the tennis shoe. It was very concrete evidence for me.”

Maria’s description of floating above her body is fairly common among accounts of deathbed experiences. Many people also describe traveling through a tunnel with a bright or white light at the end, being reunited with deceased family members who tell them it’s “not their time yet,” and overwhelming feelings of peace and love. Often the deceased person finds herself in a beautiful garden where the colors are unusually vivid.

The descriptions of deathbed or near-death experiences are remarkably similar, no matter what gender or race people are, or their level of education or religious beliefs. Researchers have found no relationship between religion and deathbed experiences. It didn’t matter if people were Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist, or agnostic.

Are these visions proof of life after death? Not surprisingly, scientists have developed many other theories to help explain them:

  • Lack of oxygen to the brain resulting in hallucinations
  • Abnormal activity in the temporal lobe of the brain
  • Heightened brain activity in moments when the brain should be impaired, such as during a cardiac arrest
  • Creative power of the mind

So far, all of these theories except the creative power of the mind have been disproven. For instance, when the brain is starved of oxygen, people become highly confused and have little to no memory, which is not the case with those reporting deathbed experiences. Patients with low oxygen levels do not report seeing a tunnel, a light, or any of the “typical” near-death visions.

The more studies that are done, the more the traditional belief that the brain is solely responsible for our thoughts and consciousness is challenged. Of course, not everyone believes. This site goes into great detail debunking almost every deathbed experience ever reported, including Maria’s.

If anything makes me question the validity of the deathbed experience, it’s the tendency people have to write books about it. I’m more apt to believe those who share their stories without the incentive of a publishing deal. (Clark published a book about her experience with Maria and has since been a fixture on the talk show circuit.) It’s almost impossible to find an extraordinary deathbed story without a book or movie deal behind it.

What do you think happens when we die? Do you think deathbed experiences are proof of an afterlife, or that science just hasn’t found the answers yet? Do you have a theory of what’s happening to someone who’s experiencing a near-death experience, or do you have one of your own to share?

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– With files from Salon