Dr. Bruce Greyson, author of After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond, offers a scientific perspective of near-death experiences using his forty years of research and clinical experience. His lifelong journey to understand what happens with near-death experiences results in a book about dying, but also about life and living. In conversation with Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
Watch the video from this event and read the transcript below:
“My goal is to make you think about the questions and ponder the answers—not to make you believe any one point of view, but rather reevaluate how you think about life and death.”Dr. Bruce Greyson, After
“Dr. Greyson offers a highly knowledgeable, well-contextualized inquiry. He is not here to convert but to present his findings along with a variety of insights and themes…A bright, passionate journey through murky waters.” —Kirkus Reviews
“With a well-written and clear narrative delivered in layperson’s terms, this book chronicles Dr. Greyson’s incredible quest to learn all he could about near-death experiences, or NDEs…A must read.” ―Library Journal
“From a less authoritative source, these stories could seem mawkish or flaky. Told here with calm precision, and with a conversational flair, they are both absorbing and convincing. With so much evidence available for further investigation, the most vexing question now is not whether life continues in some form after we die, but why mainstream science is so resistant to the idea.” ―The Daily Mail
Thanks to our community partners for their help in sharing this event: the Division of Perceptual Studies at UVA
JANE KULOW: Hello, and welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
And thank you to the Division of Perceptual Studies at UVA for their help in sharing this event.
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Now I’m pleased to introduce today’s speakers. Dr. Bruce Greyson is the author of After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond. He is professor emeritus of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia, and he has been researching near-death experiences for forty-five years. You can learn more at BruceGreyson.com.
And Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a journalist with NPR and The Atlantic and an author working on her third book. She met Bruce when researching Fingerprints of God: On the Science of Spiritual Experience. You can learn more about BarbaraBradleyHagerty.com. Bruce and Barb, thank you for joining us for Shelf Life. Tell us more about After and near-death experiences.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Thank you so much. Let me just give a little background on my friendship with Bruce Greyson. Back in the fall of 2006, I attended a near-death experience conference at MD Anderson in Houston. And there were scores of people who had died and kind of come back to tell the tale. And I was writing a book, Fingerprints of God, and I was also researching a series for National Public Radio, where I worked. And I’ve got to tell you it was this kind of surreal experience. I mean, not only were their stories strange, but they had this outlook on life that was sort of otherworldly. So, I would say, “Okay, you’ve got a great story. Why don’t we meet here at three o’clock, and we’ll do a formal interview?”
And the person would say, “Yes, let’s just see how the universe unfolds this.” And I’d be like, “No, we’re going to meet at three p.m., please.” I have this sense urgency here. And they’d be like, “Oh, of course, as the universe wishes,” you know?
So, into this unfamiliar setting stepped, to my enormous relief, Bruce Greyson. He was the scientific rock star in the world of near-death experiences and a professor at the University of Virginia and a voice of reason and of science. And he really became my go-to person for anything spiritually weird.
So, his book is terrific. It reads like a novel, and you simply won’t be able to put it down. So, Bruce, let’s start at the beginning. How did you get interested in near-death experiences?
BRUCE GREYSON: Thanks, Barb, for that introduction. I was raised in a scientific household. My father was a chemist. We had no spiritual or religious traditions in our family to speak of. So as far as we could tell, the physical world was all there was. We never even thought to talk about anything beyond that. And when you died, that was the end, and that was fine with us. That’s just the way life was.
So, I went through college and medical school with that materialistic mindset, intent on being a medical scientist with that physiological mindset. And then in the first few weeks of my psychiatric training, I was asked to see a patient in the emergency room. And I was in the cafeteria at the time, a green intern—didn’t know what I was doing. And I was eating dinner, and my pager went off on my belt, and it scared the dickens out of me. So, I dropped my fork, and it splattered spaghetti sauce on my tie. I tried to wipe it off, couldn’t do that. So, I put on a white lab coat to cover it up. Very embarrassed by all this.
So, I went down to the emergency room, and the patient I was asked to see was out cold. I could not arouse her no matter what I did. But her roommate who had brought her in was waiting to speak to me down the hall in a different room. So, I went down there and talked to the roommate for about fifteen, twenty minutes. It was a sweltering Virginia evening in the late summer, and I was just sweating profusely. We had no air conditioning back in the seventies. So, I opened up my lab coat, inadvertently exposing the stain on my tie for about ten, fifteen minutes. I got information from her about the patient’s stressors in her life, what she might have taken, and so forth, and said goodbye to her, and noticed the stain was visible. So, I go quickly to button it up so no one else would see it.
I went back to see the patient; she was still out cold. So, we arranged for her to be admitted to the intensive care unit over night, and I would see her in the morning after she awoke. Well, the next morning when I went to see her, she was barely able to open her eyes. She was very groggy still from whatever she had taken. And I start to introduce myself, and she stopped me and said, “I know who you are. I remember you from last night.”
That kind of stunned me because as far as I could tell she was out cold. So, I said that to her. I said, “I’m surprised you remember me because I thought you were unconscious.”
She opened her eyes then for the first time and said, “Not in my room. I saw you talking to Susan down the hall.”
I couldn’t make any sense of that at all. The only way that could’ve happened is she had left her body and followed me down the hall. And as far as I could tell, I was my body. How can you leave it? So, I was kind of stunned at that. She saw my confusion and then started telling me about the conversation I had with the roommate: where we were sitting, what we were wearing. My questions, her answers. And finally, she tells me about the stain on my tie. It just blew me away. I didn’t know what to make of that. But I realized I couldn’t deal with my confusion. I was there to deal with hers. So, I kind of pushed my feelings to the side and focused on her—on her suicidal thoughts and so forth and just tried to help her as best I could.
In the next few days, as I tried to process what was going on there, I told myself since this can’t possibly be true, somebody must be playing a trick on me. Maybe the nurses colluded with her to do this. I couldn’t imagine that happening, but I couldn’t come up with any other answer how this could possibly be.
And it was about five years later that my colleague at UVA, Raymond Moody, wrote a book called Life After Life, in which he gave us the term near-death experiences and told us what they were supposed to be like. And I realized for the first time that this thing my patient had told me about was not just an isolated event, but it was part of a huge phenomenon. I still couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t make sense out of it. But that meant to me, as a scientist, you need to go towards it, not away from it. It’s not scientific to pretend something doesn’t exist when it obviously did.
So, I started trying to understand it. I started collecting other cases and tried to figure out how can we make sense out of this. And here I am, a half-century later, still trying to make sense of it.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: That’s wonderful. That’s a great introduction. What a kind of unnerving story that must’ve been for a young psychiatrist.
BRUCE GREYSON: Yeah.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: I can only imagine. You must’ve felt crazy. So, tell me. Can you just give us a sense of what are the characteristics of a near-death experience? Are there some commonalities?
BRUCE GREYSON: There sure are, Barb. We’ve now been able to collect stories from around the world: different religious backgrounds, different cultures. Not only Christian but Hindu, Buddhist, and even now several Muslim countries have been chiming in with cases. And we’ve also been able to collect stories from ancient Greece and Rome that were written down. And they sound just like the ones we have today. And the consistent features are a sense of leaving the physical body, having an overwhelming sense of peace and wellbeing—sometimes a sense of joy with that—having a sense of leaving the physical realm and going to some other realm or dimension that doesn’t seem to have space and time, and they often encounter a loving being of light there. And some people identify that as a deity. Others will not; they just call it a being of light. They may also encounter entities they consider deceased loved ones. They may go through a review of their entire lives, which is actually re-experiencing their entire lives. And at some point, come to a decision to return to life or are sent back against their will. And then for me as a psychiatrist, the most important thing is the way they’re changed afterwards. They consistently change in certain ways.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Well, why don’t we talk about that. That’s kind of interesting. How are people changed? Do they come back religious? How do they come back?
BRUCE GREYSON: Well, the most consistent thing they say is that they’re no longer afraid of death or of dying. And they say that they are more spiritual. And by that, they mean they feel intense connection to other people, to the universe, to the natural world, to the divine. And they see the divine in other people as well, and that makes them treat people better. They’re more compassionate. They’re more caring. They’re more altruistic in their behavior after that. They also become less invested in worldly things: material possessions, power, prestige, fame, competition. Not that they totally disregard those things. They live for the moment, as you found out at that conference in 2006. And they’re very much invested in the here and now, although they see it differently. So, they still enjoy good food and so forth, but they don’t feel addicted to them the way we often do. And when they lose something, that’s fine with them. They don’t mind. Because they’re not invested in this world. They can enjoy it while they’re here, but they really feel they’re invested in the other realm, whatever that is.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Wow, that’s fascinating. Can we go back to the physiology just for a second?
BRUCE GREYSON: Sure, sure.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: So, some people might say—people who take a more materialistic viewpoint—that all this stuff (the white light, seeing people you might’ve known, the feeling of peace, a lack of pain) is just what the body does—what the brain does—when it’s shutting down, when it’s losing oxygen. You know, this is just a normal phenomenon, and it doesn’t indicate anything other than the workings of the brain.
BRUCE GREYSON: Well, it is a normal phenomenon, and it is what happens when the brain shuts down. The question is is the brain shutting down causing this in some way, or is it allowing this to happen? Most people who thought about the brain causing this, thought about things like lack of oxygen to the brain. The problem with that is it doesn’t sound like what lack of oxygen does. If you lose oxygen, you usually become agitated, belligerent, frightened, confused, which is very unlike the typical calm, consistent near-death experience.
Furthermore, there have been studies done in the US, in the UK, and in the Netherlands where people have actually measured the oxygen content going to the brains of people as they are approaching death. And what they find is that those who report a near-death experience actually have better oxygen supply to the brain than those who don’t report near-death experiences (NDE). So that suggests that lack of oxygen isn’t causing the NDE—it’s kind of inhibiting it. Or maybe it’s inhibiting the recall of it. It may be that having better oxygen supply is necessary for remembering the near-death experience afterwards.
And likewise, people have thought maybe drugs given to patients as they’re approaching death are causing the NDE. And we find again that the more drugs people are given, the less likely they are to report a near-death experience.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: So, you think that—so it’s your opinion—I mean, it’s hard to prove anything absolutely—but it’s your opinion that in some ways this experience connects someone to something beyond the brain. That consciousness can operate without the brain operating.
BRUCE GREYSON: Right, right. I should say that there are some physiological hypotheses that we have not been able to test and can’t at this stage in our understanding of the brain. For example, there are suggestions that maybe some chemical produced by the brain under stress, such as when you’re dying, is causing these things. And there certainly are chemicals like endorphins that are produced in the brain. And there are speculations about other chemicals—a DMT-like chemical or a ketamine-like chemical that are produced in the brain under stress. We don’t know that happens, but we can assume it does.
The problem is these chemicals are usually produced in very tiny amounts for a very short period of time—you know, less than a second. And we don’t know where in the brain to look for it. Plus, if you think about what happens as someone is in a near-death crisis, no one is going to be able to sample what’s going on in the brain at that time. You’re trying to resuscitate them. So, it’s virtually impossible to test those hypotheses. They’re nice speculations, but there’s no way to really corroborate them.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Fascinating. So, Bruce, you talk not only about near-death experiences, but you also talk about out-of-body experiences.
BRUCE GREYSON: Right.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Can you just tell us what those are, and what they say about consciousness?
BRUCE GREYSON: Right.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Like your patient had an out-of-body experience.
BRUCE GREYSON: She did. She did. I have to say that I don’t trust that experience. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I wasn’t in a good frame of mind to really study that. I was trying to help her and try to calm myself down. So, I didn’t know to ask her questions about the near-death experience, and I wasn’t in a frame of mind to do that. But later on, I encountered many patients who had out-of-body experiences. And what this is basically is a sense of leaving behind or exiting the physical body and often looking down from some other perspective and seeing your physical body below you, which is often quite stunning for someone who first has this.
It happens in other situations besides a near-death experience, but it’s a part of many near-death experiences. And what is most impressive are the ones in which they report seeing things that are totally unexpected, that they couldn’t have guessed, and that were corroborated as being accurate.
Jan Holden at the University of North Texas looked at a hundred different cases of out-of-body experiences, most of which were during near-death experiences or NDEs that could potentially be corroborated by third parties. And she found that 92 percent of them were completely accurate. Six percent had a few errors, and one percent was wrong. So, it’s not just an isolated event, but the vast majority are accurate.
Let me give you an example. One fellow that I knew was a fifty-five-year-old truck driver. He actually worked for hospitals, driving things around. And he had crushing chest pain one day on his rounds, so he drove to the nearest hospital emergency room and was evaluated in the ER and found to have four of the vessels around his heart clogged. So, he was rushed to the operating room for an emergency quadruple bypass surgery.
And he later told me that, during the operation, he saw himself. He felt himself leave his body and looked down and saw the operation. And he saw the surgeon flapping his arms like he was trying to fly. Now at this point, I had been a doctor for about thirty years. And that was my reaction, Barb. Because I thought this has got to be a hallucination. This doesn’t happen.
But he insisted that he saw this, so with his permission—in fact, with his insistence—I met with his surgeon a few days later and asked him about this. And the surgeon, who is a very sober, reputable surgeon, said, “Well, yes, I did do that. I developed this habit of letting my assistants start the procedure while I put on my sterile gown and gloves. And then I walk into the operating room and watch them for a while. And I don’t want to risk touching anything not in the sterile field, so I place my palms flat against my chest where they won’t touch anything. And then I point things out to my assistants using my elbows, so I won’t accidentally touch something with my fingers. And he demonstrated just like Al did.” And it was an accurate observation that Al couldn’t have known about. And we have case after case after case like this.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: What does it say about consciousness, then?
BRUCE GREYSON: Well, in Al’s case, he was completely anesthetized. It suggests that some part of us that thinks and perceives—something we call mind or spirit or whatever you want to call it—the part of it that thinks can function when their brain is not fully functioning. And in fact, in some places, some people who have cardiac arrests where the brain is shutting down completely—completely deprived of oxygen—and there’s a flat EEG (their brain is not functioning), and yet they say their minds are functioning better than ever. So, it suggests that mind and brain are not the same things. We often think that they are the same thing. We’re told that the mind is what the brain does. Certainly, in medical school we’re taught that. And that appears to be true in everyday life. When you get intoxicated, you don’t think very clearly. When you get hit on the head or have a stroke, that affects your thinking. So, sure, the mind and brain are the same thing. But in exceptional circumstances like near-death experiences—and that’s not the only one—the mind and brain seem to separate somehow. And the mind seems to be functioning when the brain is not. And we have no idea how that can happen, but.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: I remember a conversation you and I had about people at the cusp of death, people who might have Alzheimer’s and had not been cogent for a long time. Actually, talk through what happens at the cusp of death and what does that tell us about this mind/brain issue.
BRUCE GREYSON: Yeah, yeah. This is something called terminal lucidity, and it happens in some people who have end-stage dementia, like Alzheimer’s disease, who haven’t been able to recognize family or communicate for months or years sometimes. And then they suddenly become completely lucid again. They recognize family and carry-on conversations. And the family may think they’re recovering, but you can’t recover from these diseases. You don’t regenerate your brain tissue from Alzheimer’s disease. And then shortly afterwards, usually within hours, the patient dies. And we don’t have a medical explanation for this at this point. And it certainly is not a common experience. Most people with advanced dementia die without ever recovering their functions.
But we did a study of the history of this in the medical literature, and we found over eighty cases recorded in the medical literature—sporadic cases here and there—of this type of thing, which we call terminal lucidity. Now NIH is calling it paradoxical lucidity because we just don’t have an explanation for it.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: This is a question from one of the viewers here. It says, “Could you speak about out-of-body experiences that child abuse victims experience, such as watching the abusive incident from above?” This is a trauma as well as nearly dying. This is a trauma.
BRUCE GREYSON: Right, right. This happens in a lot of abuse cases. It’s very common in people who are raped, that they have a sense of leaving the body. It’s understandable as a defensive reaction. Your body is being traumatized. Who wants to stay there? So, you leave. And it gives you a chance to escape the emotional pain and the physical pain. Because when you’re out of the body, you don’t feel what the body is feeling. So, you don’t feel the physical and the emotional trauma of it. So, it does happen in trauma that’s not necessarily associated with the approach of death.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Right, fascinating. So, are religious people more likely to have near-death experiences, or do they change their views, or do atheists suddenly believe in God? What happens in terms of religion?
BRUCE GREYSON: Good question. There is no association between how religious you are before the event and whether you’re going to have a near-death experience or what kind you’re going to have. And people from all different religions have the same type of NDE and atheists have the same type of near-death experience. They just may have different boxes to put the experience in. But most people come back from the NDE—the near-death experience—saying they are more spiritual but not more religious. And by that, they mean they don’t need to go to church to be in touch with the divine. And they feel equally at home in any house of worship of any denomination. And they typically say things like, “The being I met in my near-death experience was much bigger than the God I was taught about in church.” And they feel that the religions they were brought up in, no matter what it was, just doesn’t capture what they saw in the near-death experience. It’s a pale imitation of what was really out there. And I’ve heard this from people who were atheists as well.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Really? So, they come back as believing in another dimension? That life continues in some way.
BRUCE GREYSON: Right. Yes, in some type of divine being.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: And do Christians see Jesus and Buddhists—like, is there actually a correlation between what you believe and what you see?
BRUCE GREYSON: This is interesting because almost every near-death experience starts off by saying, well, there just aren’t any words to describe what happened to me. Words can’t possibly do it justice. So, then we researchers say, “Great, tell me about this.” So, we know we’re forcing them to distort the experience by putting it into words. And if there aren’t words to describe it, they have to resort to metaphors to describe what happened to them. And they often use metaphors that came from their culture or their religion. For example, people may see a warm, loving being of light, and a Christian may call that God or Christ, whereas a Hindu will not put that label. They may call it All That Is or a deceased loved one or just a being of light. And in fact, many people I’ve interviewed here in the US will say, “I’m going to call it God, so you know what I’m talking about, but it wasn’t like the God I was taught about. It’s totally different, but I’ve got to call it something.”
And likewise, they talk about other parts of the near-death experience like this. For example, many people report that to get from this physical world to the other realm, they had to go through a long, dark, enclosed space. And many people here in the US will say that was a tunnel—I went through a tunnel. Well, people in countries where there aren’t a lot of tunnels won’t use that word. They may say I went into a cave, or I fell into a well. And I interviewed one truck driver here who said, “I got sucked through this long tailpipe.” So, they use whatever metaphors come most readily to them to describe what happened to them.
So, yeah, the culture determines not what people experience but how they describe it to us.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Right, right. So how compelling are NDEs or OBEs for an afterlife that we continue after brain death? I mean, is this proof of God? Is it proof of heaven? Do you have any thoughts on that or anecdotes about that?
BRUCE GREYSON: Sure. As a scientist, I don’t say it’s proof of anything. There’s evidence suggestive of certain things. The fact that people say there aren’t any words to describe what happens, tells me that even if there is an afterlife, I can’t imagine what it’s like because it’s not like anything they’re saying it’s like. And they suggest that it’s something that’s beyond our language or even our brains to understand. So, if we do have an afterlife, I expect to be totally shocked by what happens there. It’s not something I can imagine right now. But some of the things they tell me are so strongly suggestive that it’s hard to not believe in some type of survival.
For example, many people report that in the near-death experience, they encountered deceased loved ones. Now that can be easily dismissed as wishful thinking and expectation. You’re going to die, so you want to be greeted by deceased loved ones, so you imagine seeing them. But there are a number of cases now, well documented, in which people saw in their near-death experience someone who was dead but who was not known to be dead at the time.
I published a study a decade ago with thirty of these cases. One of them went back to the first century. Pliny the Elder wrote about a Roman nobleman who had an experience like this. Where he had a near-death experience and encountered his brother, who was thought to be alive and turned out not to be alive.
Let me give you an example from someone that I met. It was a twenty-five-year-old technical writer admitted to the hospital with severe pneumonia and had repeated respiratory arrest episodes, where he couldn’t breathe. And he had one primary nurse who worked with him every day. She was about his age. And one day she told him she was taking a long weekend off and there would be other nurses substituting for her. So, during the weekend while she was gone, he had another respiratory arrest where he had to be resuscitated. And during that arrest, he had a near-death experience, and he found himself in a beautiful pastoral scene, and there to his surprise, his nurse Anita comes walking towards him. And he does a double-take and says, “Anita, what are you doing here?”
And she just kind of shakes her head and says, “Jack, you need to go back to your body. I want you to find my parents and tell them I’m sorry I wrecked the red MGB.” And then she turned and walked away.
He then woke up back in his body in the hospital bed. And the first time a nurse walked into his room, he tried to tell her about this. He had a vivid memory of the whole experience. And she got very upset and quickly hustled out of the room. It turned out that his nurse Anita had taken the weekend off to celebrate her twenty-first birthday. And her parents had surprised her with a gift of a red MGB. She got very excited, jumped in the car, took off for a drive, lost control of the car, and smashed into a telephone pole and died instantly just a few hours before Jack had his near-death experience. There’s no way he could have expected to see her in his NDE or known that she was dead. Certainly, no way he could’ve known how she died. And yet he did. So that certainly suggests that something about this nurse Anita had survived her death and was able to communicate with Jack.
How does that happen? I don’t know. This was just hours after she died. Does that suggest that maybe part of us lives on for a few hours after our body dies? Somebody suggests it’s like when you burp, and it remains there when you’ve left the room. It may be just like an echo of us. And yet, people have met in their near-death experiences deceased parents and grandparents who have been dead for decades, and they’re still able to communicate with them. So, this suggests that we do survive the death of our bodies.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: That’s fascinating. It’s hard to argue with these kinds of anecdotes. I’ve heard it said that when a scientist does like an experience—a case—like this, they call it a case study. And when they don’t like an experience like this, they call it an anecdote. But I think it feels like a case study because you’ve done so many of these.
BRUCE GREYSON: People do dismiss anecdotes as meaningless.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yeah, I know, but they’re pretty compelling too because they reflect our life stories.
BRUCE GREYSON: Right. And all of science starts with anecdotes. You start by collecting stories, and then from that, you see the patterns, and you develop hypotheses and test them. But it all starts with the anecdotes.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yes. So, I’ve got another couple of questions here, and I’m going to combine them. “Haven’t researchers been able to stimulate those same feelings of peace and euphoria in non-dying subjects?” That’s Bob. And then Andrew brings up the God helmet. And it’s been demonstrated that the original experimenters—you know about the God helmet, right?
BRUCE GREYSON: Yes, yes.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Test subjects, they told them what to expect and what they should feel. So, I guess the question is can you stimulate these feelings of euphoria or the feelings that you have with a near-death experience, and what does that say about their validity?
BRUCE GREYSON: Yeah, the God helmet was the brainchild of Michael Persinger at Laurentian University in Ontario. And he had a helmet that produced a magnetic field around the brain that he claimed could reproduce all the features of the near-death experience. He published a few papers on this, not in wonderful journals. But he published a few papers. And then a Swedish group with Pehr Granqvist came over to Canada and studied with Persinger and then went back to Sweden with one of Persinger’s own helmets. And they replicated his research. And what they found was that, if you didn’t tell the patients—the subjects—what to expect, they didn’t have a near-death experience, whether the helmet was turned on or not. On the other hand, if you told them what to expect, they did have near-death experiences, whether or not the helmet was turned on. So, it seemed like it was all suggestion and not the magnetic field.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: I actually put on the—
BRUCE GREYSON: On the other hand—
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: I was just going to say I put on the God helmet.
BRUCE GREYSON: Did you?
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yeah, I went up there, and I did this experiment. And he kept saying, “You’re just about to have one of these out-of-body experiences, one of these feelings of euphoria. And all I could think about was that I was sitting with this motorcycle helmet on with tissues in a set of goggles so I couldn’t see in a kind of smelly chair. That’s all I could think of. But I did not have any kind of sense of euphoria or a near-death experience.
But if you can manufacture these things, does that undercut the validity of this idea that there may be more—that they reach out beyond kind of the material world?
BRUCE GREYSON: Yeah, well people have tried to replicate the near-death experience with guided meditation or hypnosis and so forth, and they’ve not been able to do that really. The one exception that may be helpful is with psychedelic drugs. And there’s a group at Johns Hopkins University, Roland Griffiths’ group, that is using psilocybin. And it’s not just, “Here, take this tablet, and go home and have a trip.” It’s being in the lab all day long—by lab, I mean it’s a comforting environment. Low lights, good music, and someone there to help you process what’s going on. And they find that, with a small dose of psilocybin, people can have a mystical experience that has some of the features of a near-death experience. And the encouraging thing is that, in follow up a year later, these people report feeling much more spiritual, including having a pronounced decrease in their fear of death. So, it may be possible to replicate some of the features, including some of the aftereffects, of a near-death experience with psychedelic drugs.
Interestingly, some people are now using another drug, ketamine, to treat depression. And there are anecdotal supports (not corroborated by controlled studies at this point) that if you have a mystical experience with the ketamine, then you go on to have the anti-depression effect. If you don’t have the mystical experience, you don’t have the anti-depression effect later on. Interestingly, ketamine and psilocybin are totally different chemicals that work by different mechanisms in the brain. So, this doesn’t really tell us what in the brain can cause something like a near-death experience. It may be that something is happening in the brain to release its hold on the mind and that there are many ways of doing that, either by coming close to death or by taking one of these drugs that can somehow shut the brain. And there’s some evidence for that. People have done in the past decade some neuroimaging of psychedelic drug trips. We used to think that these drugs worked by stimulating the brain to hallucinate. But what these studies are showing is that the more mystical, elaborate experiences with drugs are associated with a decrease in brain electrical activity. So again, it’s the brain shutting down, getting out of the way, so the mind can function better than ever.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Wow, that’s fascinating. This is another question from Nikki, and it’s one I actually wanted to ask you about. And that’s about the negative near-death experiences. They aren’t all euphoria. Some of them are terrifying. Is that right? Can you tell us a little about those?
BRUCE GREYSON: Yeah, yeah. When we first started researching this in the late 1970s, early 1980s, we were totally relying on people coming forth and saying, “Let me tell you about my experience.” And all we heard were the blissful ones. Later, when we went to the hospitals and started talking to everyone who had a close brush with death, we stared hearing some unpleasant ones as well. Most people who have studied this suggest that between 1 and 5 percent of near-death experiences are unpleasant. However, because it’s so hard for people to talk about these, I suspect there are a lot more that we’re not hearing.
There were different kinds of unpleasant experiences, and some are hellish with fire and brimstone and demons. That’s a very small minority. And some are just being in a black void, with nothing to hear and nothing to see. Just your consciousness and not even a body. Just consciousness and nothing for eternity, which is terrifying for most Americans.
Interestingly, I’ve talked to people who were raised as Hindus who think this was heavenly. This was nirvana, this nothingness. But the vast majority of unpleasant experiences sound just like the pleasant ones, but they’re experienced in a frightening way. For example, they may feel themselves ripped out of their bodies and thrust down a tunnel, and they’re totally out of control, and it’s terrifying to them. And they’re fighting to get back into control. And for some of those people, they will at some point get exhausted by trying to fight it, and they will just surrender. And as soon as they do that, it becomes a blissful experience. So, it appears as if the terrifying part was the resistance to it and not the experience itself.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Fascinating. So, Bruce, it isn’t an indication about whether you’ve lived a good life or bad life?
BRUCE GREYSON: Not at all. I’ve talked to people who were serving life sentences in prison for murder who had a heart attack in jail and had a near-death experience. And they were typical blissful experiences. And I’ve talked to people who seemed to lead beautiful lives—saintly lives—who had unpleasant experiences. Which shouldn’t surprise us because we have records through the centuries of Catholic saints going through the dark night of the soul. They were presumably not bad people.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: That’s great. I want to ask you about suicide and what you’ve seen—what kind of experiences people have who try to commit suicide.
BRUCE GREYSON: Yeah, yeah. When I first heard that near-death experiences take away your fear of death, I was worried as a psychiatrist that was going to make people more suicidal if they hear about this. Because I had worked with people who had been contemplating ending their lives but were deterred by a fear of what would happen if they did that. And I was afraid if they heard nothing is going to happen, they would become suicidal.
So being in an academic center, I studied it. And I interviewed everyone admitted to the hospital with a suicide attempt. And I compared those who had a near-death experience as a result of the suicide attempt and those who didn’t. And what we found, to my surprise, was those who had a near-death experience as a result of the suicide attempt were much less suicidal than those who didn’t have an NDE. That seemed counterintuitive to me, so I asked them to explain that to me. And they said that, after the NDE, after the near-death experience, they had an awareness of the purpose of everything that happens in life. And they now see their problems not as something to run away from but as something to learn and grow from. And they were much more invested in engaging in life now. They said that when they lose their fear of dying, they also lose their fear of living. If you’re not afraid of losing your life, you tend to become much more invested. You jump in with both feet and try to enjoy life to the fullest. And even if it means taking some risks, that’s okay. So, you tend to get more out of life, and you enjoy it more, which makes you much less suicidal.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Wow. I think about the House episode where he tried to put a fork in the electric socket so he could experience a near-death experience. I like those aftereffects. I don’t think I’d like to go to the edge of death and back, though. That is a fascinating thing.
What would be the takeaways that you want us to know about these experiences and the kind of culmination of your half a century of work?
BRUCE GREYSON: Well, the first thing is that near-death experiences are tremendously common. That most studies done here and in Europe and in Asia suggest that about 5 percent of the general population has had a near-death experience. That’s one in twenty people. So probably someone in your family, in your classroom, in your workplace, has had a near-death experience.
Number two: all the evidence shows that near-death experiences are normal experiences that happen to normal people in abnormal circumstances. They have no relationship to mental illness. And we’ve looked at this in many different ways, and there’s absolutely no correlation between mental illness and near-death experiences.
Number three: NDEs have incredibly powerful aftereffects, both positive and negative, and they need to be addressed. Furthermore—
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Bruce, let me ask you. What kinds of negatives?
BRUCE GREYSON: Sure. Well, some people come back, and they’re immediately angry or sad about being back alive again. And they feel horrible about not being in that other realm. And it takes them awhile to get past that, and I found the best way to get them past that is to have them talk to other people who have had near-death experiences and have gone through the same process. But often, they make changes in their lives based on their new understandings—their new sense of values. And that can create havoc in their lives. That can create marriages breaking up, careers breaking up.
One fellow I knew was a police officer who bled out during surgery and had a near-death experience—a beautiful one. But when he woke up after that, he was totally changed. And he was sent back into the field, and he almost got his partner shot one day because he couldn’t fire his gun. The idea of hurting someone else, even if they quote deserved it, was just something he couldn’t do because he felt connected to someone else—to everyone else. So, he ended up having to leave the force, and he actually went back to school and retrained to become a teacher and was teaching high school.
And I’ve talked to military officers who had the same experience. They just couldn’t shoot after that. They had to change their careers. And time after time, I’ve heard this. People who were in cutthroat businesses who came back from the NDE thinking that it makes no sense to get ahead at someone else’s expense. And that didn’t work in their business.
It has caused a lot of havoc in people’s lives, and they need to work through those things. But—
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: But there’s a lot of good too, right?
BRUCE GREYSON: Yes, yes, yes. I should say that there are support groups for near-death experiencers. There’s about fifty of them in this country, and there are some all over the world. But there were other takeaways I want to mention also. One is that these near-death experiences, as we mentioned, strongly suggest that the mind and the brain are not the same thing. That although it seems that way in everyday life, in extreme circumstances they can seem to dissociate, which suggests that the mind is something—I don’t know—out there somewhere. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know how it relates to the brain. It would be much easier if the brain and the mind were the same, but that has problems too. No one has the slightest hint of an idea of a suggestion of how an electrical or a chemical process in the brain can create a thought.
So, the idea that the mind and the brain are the same is also something we don’t understand.
But if you believe that the mind and the brain are separate and the mind can function when the brain is shutting down, that opens up the possibility that the mind can continue to function after the brain has died. So, in other words, we can survive after death. And there are certainly, as we mentioned, several aspects of the near-death experience that suggest we do survive after death.
And maybe the most important takeaway is that near-death experiencers come back thinking that we are all interconnected, that you can’t really hurt someone else without hurting yourself, and you can’t help someone else without helping yourself also. Which boils down to the Golden Rule, which is a part of every religion we have. But near-death experiencers, for them it’s no longer a guideline you’re supposed to follow. It’s a law of the universe, like gravity is here. You can’t avoid it. And they say living the Golden Rule makes your life so much more fulfilling and enriching than it was before. And it’s just a beautiful way to live. And if everyone absorbed these lessons from a near-death experience, we’d live in a very different society.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: That’s a wonderful way to end, but I do want to ask you one other question, if that’s okay. And we’ve gotten a lot of questions which I haven’t gotten to, but can I just ask you how has your research changed you?
BRUCE GREYSON: Well, as I said at the beginning, I started off as a total materialist. And I can no longer believe that’s the way that the world is. That seems to be such a short-sighted way of looking at things. So, I don’t know what to think now. I think there’s definitely more than just the physical going on here. And in fact, the physical is not the most important part of us.
I went into this field thinking that we were going to have all the answers, and now I know we don’t even have all the questions. There are some questions that we just are not going to be able to answer. Our brains aren’t capable of understanding the answers. And that’s fine with me now. I’m perfectly comfortable now with the unknown. I suspect there probably is something after death. I have no idea what it is. But I’m willing to be surprised. I’m just more open to not dismissing anything out of hand as being obviously false because I’ve been surprised again and again by things that I thought were false and turned out to be 100 percent true.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Wow. Well, that’s a great way to end. And Bruce, thanks so much, and thanks to everyone who tuned in. Please consider getting Bruce’s book, which is terrific, as I said. It reads like a novel. You will love it, and it will blow your mind. You can get it at your local bookseller or VaBook.org, and you can also check out future virtual events and watch past events from the Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. Thank you. This has really been a lot of fun, Bruce. Thank you.
BRUCE GREYSON: Thank you, Barb. Are there still questions that we haven’t gotten to?
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yes, there are. Let me just go ahead. This one is pretty technical. Let me just read it. “Dr. Greyson, despite the lack of results from studies like Aware and others like itself, do you feel that the vertical perceptions corroborated by third parties elevate the NDE above being able to be reduced to solely a physiological experience?”
BRUCE GREYSON: A good question. I don’t see how they can possibly explain the accurate out-of-body perceptions on a physiological basis. Now the scientist in me says if this is true, we should be able to do an experiment to prove it. And that’s what the Aware study was. They went around to hospitals and placed hidden visual targets on a shelf in the corner of the room where they could only be seen if you were looking down from above. Now the idea was that when people had a cardiac arrest in one of these rooms, they might have an out-of-body experience and leave their bodies and identify this target. And the Aware study was the largest of these. There have been six studies published like this. Most of them have a handful of patients. This one, over two thousand patients, and they found nine patients who had something that had even a remote similarity to a near-death experience. Two patients had claimed that they left their bodies. One was not able to be interviewed later on, and the other one happened in a room that did not have targets placed. So, we have no evidence from this huge study that bears on the question. So, you can say, well, no one identified the target. On the other hand, nobody misidentified it either. We just don’t have an answer for this.
When I describe this study to near-death experiencers, they just laugh. They say, “How can you be so naïve?” If you’re out of your body for your first time, you’re looking at what’s going on with the body. You’re not looking around the room for some irrelevant target you didn’t even know was there. So why would somebody find a target and identify it?
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Right. Yeah, if someone is aiming a pistol at you, you don’t look at the curtains and decide what floral was on there. You look at the thing that’s important to you. That’s interesting. There is another one. Since these people are really interested in this, let me just go through a couple of the others.
BRUCE GREYSON: Sure.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: What do you think needs to happen for things like the work of the UVA DOPS—I don’t know what that is—to be more well known. Any comments on the Galileo Commission Report?
BRUCE GREYSON: Things like this. Several of us have written books in the last year or so that are getting out there and getting more publicity. But I think more public speaking, as we’re doing now, and more media attention to it. Most of our audience for the past—the Division of Perception Studies at UVA has been going on for fifty years now, carrying on this rigorous research. But we’ve been talking to other researchers, publishing in scholarly journals but not in the general public. And now we’re focusing more on outreach to the general public and more on the applications of this data—how we can help people with it. Not just how we can understand this phenomenon, but what good is it?
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: That’s fascinating. I’ll just finish with this one last question, which is—kind of two questions—any relationship to past lives. And one person said some NDErs experience a life review that includes scenes from what appears to be a previous life. What is your thinking on that?
BRUCE GREYSON: Yeah, there are a very few people who have a life review that seems to incorporate images from a past life. Usually, we can’t corroborate any of that because we don’t know where or when the past life was, and there aren’t specific details. However, I’ll say there are a couple instances where they came back with names and dates and with information that they shouldn’t have been able to know that we’ve been able to corroborate.
For example, one person remembered being a fighter pilot and was able to tell us the name of his copilot, and we were able to track down and verify that what he said was really true. So, I don’t know how to explain this. My colleagues at the University of Virginia have collected more than two thousand cases of very young children—age two, three, four, five—who claim to report a past life. And they’ve been able to verify these reports on a number of cases, which strongly suggests something that we don’t understand is going on. I think the usual models of reincarnation are too simplistic to account for all these cases. Some of them have anomalies, such as remembering the life of someone who died after the child was born. Say, six months after the child was born. There are cases where two children living today remember the same past life. So, these don’t fit any contemporary model of what reincarnation should be like. Certainly not the traditional models. But something is going on here.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: That’s the key phrase for today: something is going on here. And I think the universe is telling us to stop because we’ve run out of time, and we’re losing some of the internet connection. So, the universe is saying this has been a great talk, and Bruce, thank you so very much. And thank you, everyone, for joining.
BRUCE GREYSON: Thank you, Barb. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.