Carl Sagan’s ‘Amniotic Universe’

Carl Sagan's Amniotic Universe

It is as natural to man to die as to be born; and to a little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful as the other.  ~Francis Bacon, Of Death

“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”  ~Jesus Christ John 3:3

“Was blind, but now I see.”  ~John Newton, Amazing Grace

“Love lifted me.”  ~James Rowe, Gospel Hymn

Carl Sagan’s book, Broca’s Brain, is a collection of articles he wrote between 1974 and 1979.  I will be discussing the final chapter, titled The Amniotic Universe.  I originally read the article, in condensed version, in Reader’s Digest, decades ago.  I’ve just downloaded a copy of Broca’s Brain and, this time, read the unadulterated version of The Amniotic Universe.

Sagan draws speculative parallels between the birth experience (as outlined by Stanislav Grof’s 4 perinatal stages) and a number of various other facts related to: near death experiences (NDEs), Eastern and Western religions, psychedelic drugs (like LSD), limits on Einstein’s imagination, cosmological models and space exploration.  He argues that the birth experience is profound and stays with us as a vague, subliminal, memory that affects us in subtle ways.

The amniotic universe is, of course, the world of the womb – where every need is automatically taken care of.  This perfect environment, dark and stable, is dramatically different from the outside world.  Sagan thinks we might be recalling this embryonic period when we describe feeling “at one with the universe” during a spiritual experience, out-of-body experience, near-death experience or when under the influence of a psychoactive drug.

As birth approaches and contractions disturb the once stable womb, the fetus goes into heightened alert and might even experience something like fear or alarm.  This heightened state can last for many hours before the fetus finally experiences the outside world.  Here’s how Sagan describes it . . .

. . . The walls to which the amniotic sac is anchored, the foundation of the stable intrauterine environment, become traitorous.  The fetus is dreadfully compressed.  The universe seems to pulsate, a benign world suddenly converted into a cosmic torture chamber.  The contractions may last intermittently for hours.  As time goes on, they become more intense.  No hope of surcease is offered.  The fetus has done nothing to deserve such a fate, an innocent whose cosmos has turned upon it, administering seemingly endless agony.  The severity of this experience is apparent to anyone who has seen a neonatal cranial distortion that is still evident days after birth.  While I can understand a strong motivation to obliterate utterly any trace of this agony, might it not resurface under stress?

Sagan cites Stanislav Grof who hypothesizes that hazy and repressed memory of this intrauterine betrayal might “prompt paranoid fantasies and explain our occasional human predilections for sadism and masochism, for an identification of assailant and victim, for that childlike zest for destruction in a world which, for all we know, may tomorrow become terrifyingly unpredictable and unreliable?”  I guess this is sort of like the abandonment issues children often develop if one or both of their parents leave them.

Sagan goes on to describe the end of the birth process . . .

. . . When the child’s head has penetrated the cervix and might, even if the eyes are closed, perceive a tunnel illuminated at one end and sense the brilliant radiance of the extrauterine world.  The discovery of light for a creature that has lived its entire existence in darkness must be a profound and on some level an unforgettable experience.

And there, dimly made out by the low resolution of the newborn’s eyes, is some godlike figure surrounded by a halo of light – the Midwife or the Obstetrician or the Father.  At the end of a monstrous travail, the baby flies away from the uterine universe, and rises toward the lights and the gods.

Finally, “the child is blanketed or swaddled, hugged and given nourishment”.  Sagan believes the perinatal experience must have a “powerful influence on the child’s later view of the world” and suggests that perhaps the “striving, questing aspect of the human spirit would be absent if it were not for the horrors of birth”.

Grof’s 4 perinatal stages, referenced below by Sagan, are:

  1. The placid, peaceful, stage, floating in the womb
  2. When contractions begin but before the head penetrates the cervix
  3. The end of the birth process, after the head penetrates the cervix
  4. The brief period, immediately after birth, when the baby is inspected, cleaned, weighed and comforted

In the following passage, Sagan draws parallels to religion and the birth experience . . .

. . . Most Western religions long for a life after death; Eastern religions for relief from an extended cycle of deaths and rebirths.  But both promise a heaven or satori, an idyllic reunion of the individual and the universe, a return to Stage 1.  Every birth is a death – the child leaves the amniotic world.  But devotees of reincarnation claim that every death is a birth – a proposition that could have been triggered by perithanatic experiences on which the perinatal memory was recognized as a recollection of birth.  (“There was a faint rap on the coffin.  We opened it, and it turned out that Abdul had not died.  He had awakened from a long illness which had cast its spell upon him, and he told a strange story of being born once again.”)

Might not the Western fascination with punishment and redemption be a poignant attempt to make sense of perinatal Stage 2?  Is it no better to be punished for something – no matter how implausible, such as original sin – than for nothing?  And Stage 3 looks very much like a common experience, shared by all human beings, implanted in our earliest memories and occasionally retrieved in such religious epiphanies as the near-death experience.  It is tempting to try to understand other puzzling religious motifs in these terms.  In utero we know virtually nothing.  In Stage 2 the fetus gains experience of what might very well in later life be called evil – and then is forced to leave the uterus.  This is entrancingly close to eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and then experiencing the “expulsion” from Eden.  In Michelangelo’s famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is the finger of God an obstetrical finger?  Why is baptism, especially total-immersion baptism, widely considered a symbolic rebirth?  Is holy water a metaphor for amniotic fluid?  Is not the entire concept of baptism and the “born again” experience an explicit acknowledgment of the connection between birth and mystical religiosity?

In the next paragraph, Sagan summarizes his thesis that the birth experience plays a large part in religion, particularly successful ones . . .

. . .  The general acceptance of religious ideas, it seems to me, can only be because there is something in them that resonates with our own certain knowledge – something deep and wistful; something every person recognizes as central to our being.  And that common thread, I propose, is birth.  Religion is fundamentally mystical, the gods inscrutable, the tenets appealing but unsound because, I suggest, blurred perceptions and vague premonitions are the best that the newborn infant can manage.  I think that the mystical core of the religious experience is neither literally true nor perniciously wrong-minded.  It is rather a courageous if flawed attempt to make contact with the earliest and most profound experience of our lives.  Religious doctrine is fundamentally clouded because not a single person has ever at birth had the skills of recollection and retelling necessary to deliver a coherent account of the event.  All successful religions seem at their nucleus to make an unstated and perhaps even unconscious resonance with the perinatal experience.  Perhaps when secular influences are subtracted, it will emerge that the most successful religions are those which perform this resonance best. . .

. . . There is, of course, a great deal more to the origin of religion than these simple ideas suggest.  I do not propose that theology is physiology entirely.  But it would be astonishing, assuming we really can remember our perinatal experiences, if they did not affect in the deepest way our attitudes on birth and death, sex and childhood, on purpose and ethics, on causality and God.

Sagan also sees parallels between the birth experience and cosmology . . .

. . . Astronomers studying the nature and origin and fate of the universe make elaborate observations, describe the cosmos in differential equations and the tensor calculus, examine the universe from X-rays to radio waves, count the galaxies and determine their motions and distances – and when all is done a choice is to be made between three different views: a Steady State cosmology, blissful and quiet; and Oscillating Universe, in which the universe expands and contracts, painfully and forever; and a Big Bang expanding universe, in which the cosmos is created in a violent event, suffused with radiation (“Let there be light”) and then grows and cools, evolves and becomes quiescent, as we saw in the previous chapter.  But these three cosmologies resemble with an awkward, almost embarrassingly precision the human perinatal experiences of Grof’s Stages 1, 2, and 3 plus 4, respectively.

It is easy for modern astronomers to make fun of the cosmologies of other cultures – for example, the Dogon idea that the universe was hatched from a cosmic egg.  But in light of the ideas just  presented, I intend to be much more circumspect in my attitudes toward folk cosmologies; their anthropocentrism is just a little bit easier to discern than ours.  Might the puzzling Babylonian and Biblical references to waters above and below the firmament, which Thomas Aquinas struggled to painfully to reconcile with Aristotelian physics, be merely an amniotic metaphor?  Are we incapable of constructing a cosmology that is not some mathematical encrypting of our own personal origins?

Even Einstein isn’t immune to the birth experience . . .

. . . Einstein’s equations of general relativity admit a solution in which the universe expands.  But Einstein, inexplicably, overlooked such a solution and opted for an absolutely static, nonevolving cosmos.  Is it too much to inquire whether this oversight had perinatal rather than mathematical origins?  There is a demonstrated reluctance of physicists and astronomers to accept Big Bang cosmologies in which the universe expands forever, although conventional Western theologians are more or less delighted with the prospect.  Might this dispute, based almost certainly on psychological predispositions, be understood in Grofian terms?

I do no know how close the analogies are between personal perinatal experiences and particular cosmological models.  I suppose it is too much to hope that the originators of the Steady State hypothesis were each born by Caesarean section.  But the analogies are very close, and the possible connection between psychiatry and cosmology seems very real.  Can it really be that every possible mode of origin and evolution of the universe corresponds to a human perinatal experience?  Are we such limited creatures that we are unable to construct a cosmology that differs significantly from one of the perinatal stages?  Is our ability to know the universe hoplessly ensnared and enmired in the experiences of birth and infancy?  Are we doomed to recapitulate our origins in a pretense of understanding the universe?  Or might the emerging observational evidence gradually force us into an accommodation with and an understanding of that vast and awesome universe in which we float, lost and brave and questing?

And in the future, space travel might well be prompted by a subconscious ambition to “leave our mother” . . .

. . . Might this fact have some bearing on the almost mystical appeal that space flight has, at least for many of us?  Is it not a leaving of Mother Earth, the world of our origins, to seek our fortune among the stars?

When Carl Sagan wrote The Amniotic Universe, I’m not sure if the myth of alien abductions had been circulated yet.  Alien abduction was not a category of close encounters mentioned in J. Allen Hynek’s 1972 book, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry (made famous by the 1977 film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind).  So I think Sagan must not have yet been acquainted with the notion.  If he had been, I’m sure he would have included it in The Amniotic Universe.  Because alien abductions are uncannily similar to the birth experience (being bodily transported to a sterile, alien, place to be probed by superior beings in a brightly lit room), I think this is worthy of pointing out.  To me alien abduction is a neurological anomaly similar to spiritual experiences.

Related to this is “birth dreams”: deeply buried memories of our own birth.  They might be the cause of many of our nightmares.  These memories are usually repressed because they represent a terrifying experience.  The memories themselves are mostly nebulous, claustrophobic, panicky, feelings because our embryonic brains were not prepared to properly absorb and interpret the birth experience.

I can remember a nightmare that recurred frequently throughout my childhood and up to about the age of 22 or so.  For some reason, they stopped after that.  In the nightmare, I was trapped in a closet and being attacked by the clothes.  It may not sound that scary but the sensations that accompanied the imagery certainly were.  When I first read The Amniotic Universe, I immediately thought of those recurring nightmares and knew, without doubt, that they were subconscious memories of my birth.  If not for that personal experience, I might not have taken Sagan’s hypothesis very seriously.

So what do you think?  Is at least some of Sagan’s ideas meritorious?  Have you had birth dreams or spiritual experiences (I’ve had both)?   Ever had a close encounter of the fourth kind?  Share you experience or opinion below.

4 thoughts on “Carl Sagan’s ‘Amniotic Universe’”

  1. Interesting. Reading some sagan right now. I’ve often tried to recollect birth. What I think of is just an infinitely increasing consciousness with a painful snap out of solitude.

    1. Hi yungstunna,

      I think Sagan was on to something when he wrote Amniotic Universe. I think there IS a direct link between spirituality/religion and subconscious recollections of the birth experience. And your interpretation of “an infinitely increasing consciousness with a painful snap out of solitude” raises the question of when, exactly, does the brain start storing memories and attempting to interpret experiences. It apparently begins in the womb but at which fetal stage?

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