The ‘life review’—a kind of replay of past life events—is a shared phenomenon reported in near-death experiences (NDEs) and psychedelic-induced states, observable across various cultures and throughout history. My life has been marked by two such profound instances: a near-death encounter during a perilous whitewater rafting incident and a transcendent journey on a psilocybin mushroom trip.
In the throes of rapids that submerged me about like a ragdoll caught in a whirlpool, survival was an uncertainty, and time, in its peculiar fashion, seemed to stretch indefinitely. My life flashed before my eyes, not as a sequence of bland images or silent films, but as a collection of vibrant, detailed recollections. Every memory came alive with the emotions and sensations that I had originally experienced. It was an actual ‘life review.’
This phenomenon is not just a feature of my personal experience or that of modern narratives—it has deep roots in the mythologies and beliefs of various cultures. Ancient Egyptians depicted it in the ‘Weighing of the Heart,’ where the heart, symbolizing one’s life actions, was weighed against the feather of Maat, the goddess of truth. In Greek mythology, the soul, upon death, was thought to meet three judges in the underworld who evaluated one’s deeds during life.
The life review even echoes in the annals of Norse mythology, where the Valkyries, Odin’s warrior maidens, were believed to guide the souls of heroic warriors to Valhalla. Upon arrival, the warriors’ deeds, both honorable and dishonorable, were relived and recounted.
My second encounter with the life review unfolded in a drastically different setting: during a psilocybin mushroom trip. As the psilocybin took effect, I found myself revisiting past events. Yet, the perspective was new—I was experiencing them from the viewpoint of my family members. I deeply felt their joy, their anger, their pain as my own, providing an unprecedented level of empathy and understanding. This transformative journey didn’t just shine a light on the joyous moments; it also plunged me into the depths of my own darkness. It presented a holistic picture of my existence, starkly revealing the impact of my actions on those I hold dear. This exposure to both light and shadow fundamentally reshaped my understanding of myself and my relationships, providing a profound sense of perspective and empathy that has since remained a part of me.
This perspective shift aligns with the life review experiences in indigenous cultures, especially in shamanistic practices. Native American traditions, for instance, believe in the capacity of the spirit to journey outside of the body, offering unique vantage points to view life events. This ‘soul journey’ often brings deep insight and understanding, much like my experience under psilocybin’s influence.
Scientifically, this life review during psychedelic experiences has been associated with psilocybin’s impact on the brain’s default mode network (DMN), linked to self-referential thought. The decreased activity in the DMN could lead to ‘ego-dissolution,’ allowing a third-person perspective, similar to the life reviews.
These encounters with the life review phenomenon—be it in the face of death or in the throes of a psychedelic journey—have left an indelible imprint on me, leaving me with an amplified sense of empathy and a nuanced understanding of the interconnectedness of the human psyche. As our knowledge of such experiences deepens, I am convinced that it will pave the way for new breakthroughs in psychology and neuroscience, expanding our comprehension of the mind’s potential for empathy, growth, and transformation.
Continuing the exploration of the ‘life review’ phenomenon, we can also turn to the Eastern philosophical and religious traditions. In Hindu philosophy, the concept of ‘karma’ and ‘samsara’ encapsulates a form of life review. Karma, the law of moral causation, asserts that our actions in this life will determine our fate in future incarnations. Samsara, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, provides the stage for these actions to play out and be assessed. The Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s holy texts, refers to this process, suggesting that upon death, individuals are made to remember their past actions before transitioning into their next life.
Buddhism also proposes a similar concept with its teachings on rebirth and the ‘bardo’ – an intermediate state that a soul enters after death and before rebirth. Tibetan Buddhism’s “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” describes the bardo experience, where individuals review their past deeds, face judgments and undergo purification processes before their next incarnation. This life review aims to teach lessons and clear ‘karmic debts,’ facilitating spiritual growth and understanding.
It’s fascinating to observe how these ancient philosophies, often developed in isolation, converge on the concept of the life review. This widespread belief across time and culture suggests there may be something intrinsic and universal about this phenomenon. My personal experiences, though singular, resonate with these myriad cultural and religious narratives, further emphasizing the pervasiveness of the life review.
Looking back at these experiences, whether the life review was induced by a near-death situation or a psilocybin mushroom trip, they both offered profound and transformative insights into my past actions and their impacts. They highlighted the interconnectedness of human emotions, thoughts, and actions, and their ripple effects on our relationships and surroundings.
These life reviews, often challenging and overwhelming at the time, left me with an amplified sense of empathy and understanding that has persisted. These experiences opened up a broader perspective of my own life and those around me. They also hinted at the potential for personal growth and transformation latent within us all, waiting to be unlocked under the right circumstances.
As our collective understanding of these experiences deepens, I am hopeful that it will provide fresh perspectives and valuable insights into human consciousness and empathy. By combining personal narratives with cultural wisdom and scientific exploration, we may be able to advance our understanding of the human mind and its extraordinary potential for empathy, growth, and transformation. By recognizing the power of these experiences, we may find ways to tap into them constructively, using them as tools for personal development and as a means to foster a more compassionate and understanding society.