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The Doctors Studying Life After Death

Bruce Greyson, among the pioneering researchers to investigate near-death experiences, describes the profound and long-lasting effects that such encounters can have for the people who live through them

Shortly after graduating from medical school in 1973, psychiatrist Bruce Greyson was covering a shift in the University of Virginia’s ER. He was eating dinner when he got paged about a patient who had overdosed and, in a rush, spilled some spaghetti sauce on his tie. “I tried unsuccessfully to wipe the stain off my tie, and then just hid it by buttoning up my white lab coat so it wasn’t visible,” Greyson recalls. 

When his efforts to revive the patient were equally unsuccessful, she was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit, on the verge of death. Greyson broke the news to the patient’s roommate in the waiting room, while removing his coat in the sweltering summer heat, revealing the stain.

When he followed up in the ICU the next morning, the patient was awake but groggy. “She remembered who I was from the night before,” he tells me. Surprised and skeptical, he noted that she was unconscious and that wasn’t possible. “I was a brand-new intern, trying to act professionally, but I was stunned and confused by what she said,” Greyson explains. “She saw my confusion and then told me details about my conversation with her roommate, including seeing the stain on my tie.”

As someone who was raised in a “scientific household with no real spiritual or religious beliefs,” this event shook Greyson so much that it completely changed the course of what he thought would be a relatively straightforward medical career. Two years later, his colleague, psychiatrist Raymond Moody, finally coined a term for what he observed that night, a Near-Death Experience, or NDE, in his book Life After Life

Soon thereafter, enough other scientists, doctors and academics began reaching out to Greyson and Moody about NDEs that they held a conference at the University of Virginia, where Greyson is currently a professor emeritus of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences. From there, the International Association for Near-Death Studies was born and the foundation for the future study of NDEs was established — including the only peer-reviewed scientific journal on the topic. 

In the 40 years since The Journal of Near-Death Studies started publishing quarterly, Greyson and his colleagues have not only legitimized the concept of NDEs, they’ve uncovered a growing amount of evidence for life after death. 

What Do We Know About Near-Death Experiences

An NDE occurs when someone comes close to death, ”such as by having their heart stop,” explains Greyson, who recently authored the book After. In the past, doctors believed that if a person’s heart stopped for more than 20 minutes they were considered dead, but with advances in resuscitation efforts, some people can come back to life hours after they were considered dead. In those instances, anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of patients experience an NDE, or 5 percent of the general population overall, making it a relatively common experience that isn’t limited to religion or culture. 

During an NDE, people report an “intense feeling of peace and well-being, a sense of time slowing or stopping while your thoughts are faster and clearer than ever,” Greyson details. There’s a sense of leaving the body and watching the efforts to revive them, reviewing their lives in great detail, encountering deceased loved ones or spiritual beings and “finally coming to a border or point-of-no-return, with a decision to return to life.”

As a psychiatrist, the more compelling feature of NDEs isn’t the experience itself, but instead “the profound and long-lasting effects on experiencers’ attitudes, beliefs, values and behavior.” People who have them stop fearing death and walk away with a “firm belief that consciousness continues beyond death.”

Individuals who survive such close calls similarly become more caring, more compassionate and less materialistic, per Greyson. “These changes have been corroborated by others who knew the experiencers before and after the NDE, and long-term studies have shown that the changes don’t fade over decades after the NDE,” Greyson explains. Oftentimes, the details they reported defy explanation, such as seeing a deceased person who no one knew was dead yet, or learning details about how that individual died before anyone else. 

Sorting Through the Evidence of Near-Death Experiences

When Greyson and his team began publishing research on NDEs in the early 1980s, they were met with skepticism, and he understood why. But after publishing decades of studies, “NDEs have become accepted by most clinicians and taught in many medical and nursing schools,” he says. 

It’s worth noting that a lot of the research starts with anecdotes from patients, but most scientific research starts with uncontrollable observations, Greyson argues. Other limitations include that researchers cannot ethically stage near-death events on controlled samples, and when people are experiencing near-death events, they’re often unable to be examined to see what’s happening to their brains and bodies during such seemingly supernatural events.  

What’s important is that “we have enough cases to be able to find patterns, which allow us to look at how physiological events or psychological traits may play a role in bringing about NDEs, or how different aspects of NDEs lead to different aftereffects,” Greyson explains. For example, “we can place hidden targets in hospital rooms where people are likely to have cardiac arrests, to see whether those who later claim to have left their bodies can describe those targets.”  

What Do NDEs Tell Us About the Possibility of Life After Death

In everyday life, our brain plays a very necessary role in our thoughts, feelings and perceptions. But when the human body undergoes extreme trauma and the heart stops, the lack of oxygen severely limits the activity of the organ. “In some cases, no brain electrical activity can be detected at all,” Greyson adds. But again, at the same time, those people report that their “thoughts are faster and clearer than ever, their feelings are more intense and their perceptions more vivid. So it’s reasonable to ask whether our consciousness in some way can separate from the biological functions of the brain when brain activity dramatically slows or stops.”

In other words, we tend to believe that the brain is in charge of all of our thoughts and feelings, when NDEs suggest that there’s something about our minds or consciousness that outlives the rest of us. As wild as that may sound, it’s been documented many times over. “I wouldn’t say we have definitive proof, but we certainly have a lot of evidence that points toward survival of consciousness after death of the body,” and that “the brain and consciousness aren’t irrevocably linked,“ Greyson says.

Better Understanding Life After Death Is an Evolving Science

Although more research needs to be done on the psychological mechanisms that may influence NDEs, Greyson and his colleagues are sure of one thing: “A variety of studies have shown that they have nothing to do with mental illness or psychological disturbance.” 

Rather, NDEs are normal responses to highly unusual circumstances. And given the profound impact they can have on people who survive them, just the opposite may be true of their psychological health. They almost always describe it as “a pleasant, if not blissful, experience,” Greyson says. “Most experiencers sense in their NDEs that we’re all interconnected, like fingers on a hand, which leads to treating others with understanding and compassion.”

When it’s put like that, death doesn’t sound so scary after all.