On the Origins of the Fear of
Death and Dying
In the Writings of Michael A. Persinger
and Others

by John A. Speyrer

God is the single most powerful human experience."
-- Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D.

"Without question . . . (the trauma of birth is) the
single most traumatic moment of our lives."

-- Alice Rose, Ph.D.

Michael A. Persinger, a neuropsychologist and professor at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, is perhaps best known for his writings on the God Experience. He has been interviewed on the subject of mysticism, on both television and radio, and is the author of a number of books and over one hundred articles on electro-magnetic radiation and its effects on the mammalian brain.

Dr. Persinger has theorized that the shifts in the earth's tectonic plates with resultant low-power electro-magnetic waves are the ultimate source of much anomalous phenomena which is usually the province of paranormalists rather than psychologists.

Persinger explains that his major interest is understanding the operation of the human brain - not in attacking religious beliefs. In studying this subject, he has proposed certain hypotheses relating to his work. One of them is in reference to the almost universal fear of death (See his book, Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs, Praeger, 1987).

Persinger's hypothesis is that the evolutionary process was both the cause of our ability to foresee our own death as well as producing a characteristic of our brain's temporal lobe which allowed us to negate or reduce this fear of death and dying. He believes that as our brain grew larger we became more intelligent and able to foresee the inevitably that one day we would die. Since the contemplation of our death was disabling, the temporal lobe gained the ability to quieten these existential fears.

According to Persinger, the concept of God, the belief in God, and the experience of God, are all closely related. Dr. Persinger uses the expression "God Experience" instead of the more prevalent "mystical experience." His term is more useful since it does not need a definition as most immediately understand the reference, while they might be unsure of the nuances of the meaning of mysticism.

Persinger writes that during the God Experience the experiencer "suddenly feels that he or she will not die. Instead, he or she will live forever." This certainty is directly related to the assurance the experiencer has that what was experienced was real and truthful. Dr. Persinger writes that after the God Experience the person is convinced that their spiritual self is separate from their body and will survive the death of their body. Religious activity and belief in God reinforce this belief.

Since all human brains are fundamentally alike, the ability to have the God Experience exists in all of mankind, although with varying degrees of ease of access to these experiences of wondrous closeness with the deity or with other spiritual entities.

The fear of death and dying, indeed, does diminish in one who has had the God Experience, but it also is reduced in those who have had other "spiritual" experiences. These include near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, deep experiences of death and re-birth in some forms of deep-feeling psychotherapies, entheogen (LSD, Ibogaine, etc.) therapy, participation in shamanic rituals and past-lives experiences.

Dr. Persinger might counter the claim of the non-uniqueness of the God Experience by contending that all of the above deep spiritual experiences involve the temporal lobe and related structures and therefore all would involve some element of the God Experience. I believe he would be correct.

If conditions are optimal, we all have this transcendental ability, he writes. However, some have more ease in having the God Experience than others. Micro-seizures, to which the brain's temporal lobe is subject, is the immediate cause of the God Experience. The author calls these mild seizures, temporal lobe transients (TLTs). These electro-magnetic waves can be brought about by conditions of extreme physiological stress and in the more susceptible persons, when conditions are optimal, can convince us that we have been visited by God, saints or other spiritual beings. Persinger believes that the ability to have these experiences should not be considered a disease or an abnormality.

Although not necessarily associated with grand mal or petit mal seizures, the temporal lobe epileptic patient population has been a fertile laboratory for the study of the neurological effects of lesions in this part of the brain. Temporal lobe epileptics are especially prone to having mystical experiences. Among them have included, Julius Caesar, Saint Paul, Mohammed, Pascal, Newton, van Gogh, Handel, and scores of others.

The source of the God experience is not from within the temporal lobe and its underlying structures. Rather, it is the key entry-point from whence other stored material in other parts of the brain may be accessed.

Accompanying the sense of experiencing God as being supportive is an accompanying and oftentimes lasting reduction in the fear of death. Persinger writes, "During the God Experience, the person suddenly feels that he or she will not die, but rather live forever as a part or subset of the symbol of all space-time."

Persinger believes that the older we get, the more fearful of death we become. With advancing age and lessened blood circulation, our temporal lobes more readily allow us to have the God Experience. After experiencing God in a mystical mode, most no longer anticipate, with numbing dread, the fear of dying. They confidently feel that they will live on after they die.

Referring to the elements which comprise the contents of our perceptions and emotions during the God Experience, the author writes:

"Old images of parental power blend with contemporary concepts of abstract gods in time and space. Pure affect, last felt during periods of absolute dependence and complete satiation within the crib, combine with feelings of cosmic meaning. The potent affect of the child converges with the intellect of the adult thinker. The limits of infantile perceptions expand to the universe's edge and the God-parent waits, somewhere, to bring intellectual warmth and to remove the anxiety of existence."

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". . . we may say that the fear of death begins at birth."
-- Nandor Fodor, The Search For the Beloved

Joseph C. Rheingold, M.D., in The Mother, Anxiety and Death: The Catastrophic Death Complex (1967), remarks that there are exceptions to the universal fear of death, such as "the person with a nontraumatic childhood experience." [p. 72]

In discussing the relationship between death anxiety and birth trauma, Dr. Rheingold, on the same page, writes, "Both Freud and Otto Rank regard the experience of birth as the prototypical anxiety. Freud's opinion underwent modification. . . . Freud later was to "take exception to Rank's thesis that anxiety of death begins at birth." However, Rank's analysis of birth trauma was to view it as a psychoanalytic separation anxiety rather than an existential anxiety. He accepts as true the belief that the human fetus knows nothing of death.

However, Rheingold believes that "The fetus and infant act as if they knew death. I regard it as an acceptable assumption that the process of birth contributes a universal factor to the fear of death, even in persons born by [caesarean] section, and that variations in the natural process help to explain individual differences in sensitivity to danger situations." [ ibid., p. 73. ]

He goes on to write,

"The more dystocic the parturition, the more intense or at least the more prolonged the nocieceptive stimulation of the fetus and presumably the greater the arousal of instinctual fear. . . . the same anxiety of death that disturbs pregnancy, interferes with the progress of labor, and gives rise to the destructive influence in the rearing of the child. (p. 73)

Even before we enter the world, differences in the anxiety potential are created by the variable degree of danger present during prenatal life and in the process of birth. . . . (A)t the very beginning the person is 'neurotically' engaged in a struggle for survival." (p. 74)

Despite his insightfulness, I believe that Rheingold misinterprets an instance, after a birthing, in which the mother implores her dead mother not to kill her. Dr. Rheingold interprets this as . . . the power of the death wish for the mother, with increase of fear of ". . . retribution of the dead mother." Rather than this being "a primitive idea . . . embedded in the mind" (Rheingold, op. cit., p. 97-98) of the birthing mother, it seems to me, rather to be the reliving of the birthing mother's own birth during which she came close to dying.

*   *   *   * 

Another psychoanalytic theorist who believed that death anxiety had its source in birth was Nandor Fodor. In 1949 he wrote, The Search For the Beloved. Based on dream interpretation, he concluded that birth traumas caused many types of neuroses, among them including a fear of death and dying. Fodor wrote,

Birth and death are interchangeable terms. Of life after death we cannot be certain, buit we know that we lived before birth in the pre-natal state. The change-over from pre-natal to post-natal life involves an ordeal as severe as dying. Hence the fear of death begins at birth and is based on a maelstrom of bewildering experiences that are covered by infantile amnesia but break through in nightmares or become converted into symptoms. (p. 383)

*   *   *   * 

Clinical psychologist Arthur Janov, discoverer of primal therapy (a large part of which may consist of re-living one's birth traumas), contends that the contemplation of our death is fearful because it dredges up memories of periods of time in our past when we came close to dying. These might be early infantile and childhood sicknesses or accidents, but are usually the repressed memories of near-death in our process of being born.

These repressed feelings may give rise to many seemingly irrational fears of heights and of the dark. Being claustrophobic, he writes, can often be traced to pressure in the birth canal and being unable to move. (Imprints: The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience, (1983)

*   *   *   * 

In writing about how the neonate can identify the birth process with death, clinical psychologist and primal therapist, Daniel Miller, Ph.D., writes:

"One may question whether the terror the adult experiences in going through a birth primal is experienced at all by the preborn infant, and there is no simple answer.

Nevertheless, it appears safe to say from innumerable experiences with persons of all ages that the biological patterns that are established by the withdrawal or threat of life support system remain very intact and are recoverable in fairly much pristine form as much as fifty and sixty years later.

Obviously, a word like "terror" is an adult form of identification which is applied later to birth's biologically patterned experience. The word "death" is likewise an adult way of identifying a response to a physiological event, the two together giving "terror of death" a not uncommon ego signification.

The preborn of course does not have the words, it only has the biological patternings which eventually give rise to the words."

From Birth, Death and Organic Energy in the International Primal Assn. Journal, Primal Community

*   *   *   * 

Another who traced the fear of death and dying in his patients, was British psychiatrist and obstetrician, Frank Lake. He found that many fears of dying as well as suicidal wishes had their origins in the birth process. Ironically, Dr. Lake found that the fear of dying by the fetus may be ultimately converted into a wish to die when further effort seemed hopeless and the physical and emotional pain became unbearable. Thus, the imprinting can be both a fear of dying and paradoxically -- a wish to die. See on this website, The Origins of the Fears of Death and Dying: The Thoughts of Frank Lake, M.D.

*   *   *   * 

In his article, On The Origins of Death Anxiety, Canadian primal therapist Réal Beaulieu believes,

the earlier the trauma, the more devastating its effects will be and the more the individual will be motivated by its force. For example, there must be an incredible motivational force or “charge value” behind the microsuicidal behavior of someone who is permanently afraid of leaving the house, for fear that something awful might happen out there.

Of course, this is assuming that there has been no relatively recent trauma, in which case the psychiatric community would label it a post-traumatic stress disorder (not aware that any major early trauma has post-traumatic stress consequences).

We could hypothesize that death anxiety motivates such a behavior, but where does that anxiety come from? Could it be from the pure intellectual knowledge that we are all going to die some day?

The answer is likely to be no.

*   *   *   * 

"Fear of death experienced by human beings is usually attributed to an
intellectual awareness of the life trajectory. Unlike animals,
humans know that they are mortal and that sooner or later
they will have to face the end of their biological existence.
(However,) . . . the roots of this fear are much deeper."
Stanislav Grof & Joan Halifax in The Human Encounter With Death.

Stanislav Grof, Czech-American psychiatrist and early researcher of the effects of LSD, under clinical conditions, believes as Persinger, that death anxiety can be assuaged by the mystical experience triggered by the use of psychedelic drugs or with other non-drug deep experiential therapies or spiritual exercises.

He also has stressed that re-living the birth trauma can be helpful in reducing death anguish. From the period shortly after the Second World War he used LSD in psychotherapy and also studied its uses with dying patients to help them confront their fear of dying. He writes that LSD psychotherapy helped many to relieve these incapacitating fears. (The Human Encounter With Death, Grof and Halifax)

When the use of LSD was prohibited in the 1960s, he and his wife, Christina, developed the non-drug technique of holotropic breathwork which provided many of the same benefits as LSD therapy in psychotherapy.

Dr. Grof believes that the birthing process during the phase when the cervix has not yet opened "is one of the worst experiences a human being can have." (The Cosmic Game: Explorations of the Frontiers of Human Consciousness).

The fetus remembers this agony of birth. He writes that it feels like complete annihilation. Because of this memory, Grof and Halifax feel that we have a "subliminal knowledge of what it seems like to experience death." This, they believe, is the real source of the fear of death and dying.

It is this unconscious memory of birth which the person retrieves when he is confronted with depressive ruminations of dying. Grof writes that "our memory of this event . . . remains psychologically undigested and unassimilated. Much of our later self-definition and our attitudes towards the world are heavily contaminated by this constant deep reminder of the vulnerability, inadequacy, and weakness that we experienced at birth. . . . When we are in the throes of birth memory, the impression of imminent doom can be very convincing and overwhelming." (The Cosmic Game)

Dr. Grof writes that his form of psychotherapy has an advantage as it works as an "inner radar" zeroing in and automatically bringing into consciousness those elements which need to be worked on by the client. This happens without any proding or uncovering of material by the therapist. This "inner radar" is also an oftentimes "automatic" function in the clinical use of psychedelic drugs and other forms of deep regressive therapies. What comes up to be resolved is what is needed to be resolved at that particular moment in time.

*   *   *   * 

Bonnie Randolph, (a registered nurse) in The Denver Primal Journal, explains how feelings of eternity endured during some aspects of our birthing process can

". . . cause a patient to become hopeless and suicidal. We in primal therapy, have found that all suicidal feelings arise from the individual's first confrontation with severe pain and near death from morbid conditions in the womb. It is not just the pain that plunges one into suicidal gestures but these infantile feelings that go with it; that is, the sense of timelessness, that the pain will never end."

She believes that feelings surrounding birth and death are closely joined and that being born is the closest one can approach death-like feelings until we actually die. She believes that this is because many of us came close to death during our birth and that the body retains the memory of trauma our nervous system experienced during birth. This memory is replayed when an event in our life matches the feelings we experienced during birth and that even traumas undergone during our early childhood can connect us to these blocked birth memories.

Randolph describes how those with a traumatic birth often act as though all encounters, decisions and behaviors are a matter of life and death. What these birth traumatized individuals are feeling is the body memory which was laid down during birth. She writes that, at that time the event was, in reality, a matter of life and death.

Such a person, might

. . . struggle with suicide through his life, like Ernest Hemingway -- holding a gun in his mouth every morning for years until he finally pulls the trigger. We've all seen people like Hemingway -- or more recently Freddie Prinze -- somehow bent on their own death or unusually frightened of it. They are difficult to help because the memory of their pain is buried so deeply in their nervous system, unknown to them, and in most cases, unknown to those who are trying to help.
-- Bonnie Randolph, Birth and Its Effects on Human Behavior, The Denver Primal Journal, Feb, 1978

*   *   *   * 

In Dr. Persinger's paper, On The Possibility of Directly Accessing Every Human Brain by Electromagnetic Induction of Fundamental Algorithms, he writes,
". . . (I)f the structure of the sonic field was modified to exhibit the complex pattern which was equivalent to biorelevant information such as "help me, I am dying," field strengths several orders of magnitude weaker, e.g., 30 db, could be sufficient. This single, brief but information-rich stimulus would evoke a response which could recruit every major cognitive domain."
-- Perceptual Motor Skills 80:791-799, June, 1995

During the past three years I have re-lived, hundreds of times in primal-type regressions, closeness to death in the process of my birth. Often, these early feelings are accompanied with much affect and with the verbalized expression of "help me, I'm dying."

Some of these traumatic feelings were of death in the birth canal, when the predominant feeling was, "help me, I'm dying." Those were not the only spontaneous feeling expressions I used during these painful birth regressions. Other feelings which also were also accompanied with deep emotion and tears included, "I can't get out." When the pain became unbearable, I pleaded, "Help me to die." Other feelings were of anger and fear.

So when I read of Dr. Persinger using that expression as an example of the informational content of an electro-magnetic wave structure, the words caught my attention. If this example he used was from a subject, the feeling origins of these words had to have some source -- perhaps that source was a repressed birth trauma of a death feeling triggered by the use of an electro-magnetic helmet.

Persinger relates the origin of the feeling expression to "a complex pattern equivalent to biorelevant information." Though perhaps plausible, my conjecture of its origins is purely hypothetical since other than personal experience, I have no information upon which I can base my belief that the example Dr. Persinger used in his paper was derived from a feeling verbalization of repressed death feelings from birth trauma.

Because of the ubiquituousness of birth trauma, it is possible, that in his work with the electro-magnetic helmet, Persinger had, unbeknown to himself (and his subject), elicited these very same repressed birth feelingst that I had experienced. It is also possible that the subject may have been reliving death-anxiety feelings from another repressed peri-natal, near-death experience such as, a near-drowning incident or a serious infantile or childhood illness. Of course, It is also possible that Dr. Persinger's choice of the phrase, "help me, I am dying," was purely a hypothetical example and not material elicited as a result of the use of the helmet on a subject.

The re-livings of traumatic births are quite common in a number of deep experiential psychotherapies. One, or perhaps more of his subjects, who had came close to dying at birth, might have begun to relive part of their birth trauma as a result of the helmet's stimulation of the temporal lobe and related structures.

In deep experential psychotherapies often what is accessed depends on the next feeling in line which needs to be felt. The feeling may also be determined by what is triggered or what repressed issues are uprooted and begin to become unblocked as one lives one's life.


Note: Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this article are from Michael A. Persinger's Neuropsychological Bases of God Experiences.

Also, on this website see the following material which relate to Dr. Persinger's work:

Neuro-Electromagnetic Fields, Osama bin Laden, and the Regressive Psychotherapies

Parents, The Image of God, and Mysticism: Reflections On Some Writings of Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D.

Book Review - Neuropsychology of the Bases of God Experiences by Michael A. Persinger

Return to the Primal Page's Birth Trauma Index