In fields of research devoted to unexplained phenomena, there are the researchers that everyone knows – because they get their face regularly on TV, write books, promote themselves on social media etc. – and then there is another group of researchers that rather quietly mine the coalface and avoid the spotlight…and often produce far more important work than the former group.
Dr Bruce Greyson is a member of the latter group. Intimately involved in research into near-death experiences (NDEs) since the late 1970s, it’s only just this month that Greyson has released his first solo book on the topic, After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal About Life and Beyond, at the age of 74. (He has co-authored/contributed to some other books, such as Irreducible Mind). This is no doubt partly down to his personality type (in the Acknowledgements he offers thanks to an individual for helping him to “understand my introvert’s reluctance to expose myself in writing”), but it also speaks to his devotion to the integrity and importance of his work – while he might have now only authored one book, he has published more than one hundred papers in medical journals, co-founded the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS), and for 27 years edited the Journal of Near-Death Studies.
TLDR: this is a guy who cares deeply about his research, and the human experiencers he studies, and isn’t out to make a quick buck. And that means too that he’s not here to make you feel warm and fuzzy about your particular beliefs: “In following the scientific evidence that has accumulated over the past several decades, and not promoting any one theory or belief system,” he notes at the start of the book, “I know I will disappoint many of my friends who may favor one or another particular view… [But] intellectual honesty demands that I avoid taking sides in this debate.”
So what does Greyson have to say about near-death experiences? After is as much about Greyson’s own journey of discovery as it is about near-death experiences themselves…but the genius of this approach is that his journey is the journey we must all take when trying to understand the phenomenon. He recounts his childhood growing up in a household that was scientific, not spiritual, and how that impacted his first encounters with near-death experiencers. Or, in the case of the ‘veridical NDE’ (a case in which a person near death apparently witnesses things they shouldn’t have knowledge about) of a patient, Holly, that he was involved with some 50 years ago, it might better be framed as how near-death experiencers impacted his scientific, non-spiritual outlook. In short, he was at a loss to explain it.
Thus the first seeds of his life work were planted, which sprouted once he came under the wing of Ian Stevenson, and worked with Raymond Moody – both pioneers in research into afterlife-related topics such as reincarnation memories and NDEs – at the University of Virginia in the late 1970s.
I’d become the director of the psychiatric emergency service at the University of Virginia when Raymond Moody began his training there in 1976. When Raymond’s book Life After Life, the first book in English to use the term “near-death experience” and the acronym NDE, became a surprise bestseller, he was quickly inundated with letters from readers who’d had such experiences. As an intern without the time to respond to all those letters, he turned to me, as his training supervisor in the emergency room, for help. And I was stunned to learn at that time that Holly’s experience, which had knocked me for a loop, was not at all unique. Raymond had interviewed other patients who claimed to have left their bodies and observed what was going on elsewhere, while they were close to death. That revelation grabbed my attention, and launched me on a journey to follow an evidence-based approach to NDEs. …The more I learned about them, the more they seemed to cry out for an explanation beyond the limited understanding of our everyday ideas about the mind and the brain. And those new ways of thinking about our minds and our brains open up the possibility of exploring whether our consciousness might continue after the death of our bodies. And that, in turn, challenges our concept of who we are, how we fit into the universe, and how we might want to conduct our lives.
For Greyson, “NDEs brought together medicine, the mind, and the thrill of scientific discovery I’d carried with me since childhood, a convergence of factors that would set the course for the rest of my career.”
Following chapters then approach various elements of NDEs through the frame of individual cases collected and recorded by Greyson through his career. Chapter 2, “Out of Time”, discusses the time dilation and speed of thought experienced by those close to death (with an interesting sidenote that some late 19th century descriptions of this effect as told by mountain climbers who had fallen might have partly inspired Einstein’s Theory of Relativity!). Chapter 3 explores the now well-known life review element of NDEs – Greyson notes a quarter of the participants in his research reported experiencing this, with half of those experiencing a sense of judgement, “most often judging themselves, about the rightness or wrongness of their actions”, while more than half “experienced these past events not only through their own eyes, but also from the viewpoints of others, feeling those other people’s emotions as well as their own.”
Chapters 4 and 5 outline Greyson’s attempts to bring science to bear on the problem of NDEs – such as his creation of the now much-used ‘Greyson scale’ to help compare NDE experiences (“the NDE scale is not a measure of how deeply an experiencer may be affected. It’s simply a tool that researchers can use to make sure they’re investigating the same experience”) – while continuing to present case examples to illustrate the points he is making. He also recounts the opposition he faced due to his interest in NDEs, from attacks by high-ranking surgeons on his journal papers, through to the threat of the loss of his job as a psychiatrist with the University of Michigan.
Chapter 6 returns to the topic of ‘veridical NDEs’, with Greyson telling of the ‘luck’ of having experiencer Al Sullivan come to him just as Greyson had decided to dig deeper into the topic (Sullivan was able to describe elements of his surgery that he should not have had knowledge of; Greyson was able to confirm this with his surgeon). On the flipside, Chapter 7 ponders whether NDEs can be explained by hallucinations or mental illness, and these two chapters then feed into a number of subsequent chapters that explore the difference between mind and brain, what happens at death, and whether near-death experiences are ‘real’ (spoiler: no definitive answer is offered).
From Chapter 13, the focus begins to shift more from the experience, to the experiencer. This mirrors Greyson’s own approach over the many decades of his research, of which he says his focus has shifted somewhat – what was once research completely devoted to ‘life after death’ has evolved as much into an exploration of ‘life before death’:
Much of the public interest in near-death experiences is related to the hope that they may tell us about life after death. And indeed, most experiencers are convinced that some aspect of us does continue after death. But they also consider of equal importance the lessons they bring back from their NDEs for life before death. The experience often gives them a new outlook on what makes this life purposeful and meaningful. I used the title After for this book to reflect this mixed focus. It refers to what happens to people after death – but also to what hapens to people in this life after an NDE. As I understand near-death experiences, they are ultimately not about death, but about transformation, about renewal, and about infusing our lives with purpose right now.
For those who would prefer scientists stick to understanding the phenomenon, rather than the people it affects, Greyson recounts a comment from the Dalai Lama that changed the way he looked at his research. Both Western science and Buddhism, the Dalai Lama argued, used observation, logical deduction and gave precedence to experience over belief. But Western scientists seemed to seek understanding about how the world works in order to change and control the natural world, while Buddhists seek understanding about the world in order to live more harmoniously with it. Greyson notes the comment affected him deeply, and changed the reason for doing his research from “What might we learn from these results about how the world works?” to “How might these results help reduce suffering in the world?”
And so in this last third of the book Greyson explores how experiencers are impacted by their NDE: by either heavenly or hellish experiences; how their encounters with “some kind of divine or godlike being” affected their religious/spiritual outlook; how having a vision of an afterlife affected the way they lived their life on returning; and how the changes in themselves inspired by their NDE were accepted – or often, not accepted – by those closest to them.
My assessments of what near-death experiences mean for how the mind relates to the brain and for what ultimately happens after death are based on decades of research, but they are only my opinions of what the evidence shows. Although I think I’ve got pretty good evidence to support my assessments, I know that some people may interpret that evidence differently and that new evidence may show I’m wrong. But there is one thing about which I am certain, about which the evidence is overwhelming – and that is the effect of NDEs on people’s attitudes, beliefs, and values. If you take only one thing from this book, I would want you to appreciate the transformative power of these experiences to change people’s lives.
Greyson’s research has found that those who return from an NDE feel the most important things in life are love and knowledge, and that experiencers report a heightened sense of purpose, increased empathy, awareness of the interconnectedness of all people, loss of addiction to material things, and a belief that all religions share certain core values. But he also found having those new values, along with an experience of a wonderful ‘other place’, was sometimes difficult for experiencers to reconcile with living in a modern world where many of those values are absent.
It isn’t until right near the end of the book where Greyson returns to the question of whether NDEs offer evidence for an afterlife of some sort – but he still notes that his opinion is simply the most plausible working model, to him, for now, and may be superseded by better understandings in future:
An answer to what happens after death may be beyond today’s scientific methods – or it may be just beyond our scienctific imagination… I don’t know whether some kind of continued consciousness after death is the best explanation for NDEs in which experiencers see deceased loved ones no one knew had died. But I don’t have any alternate explanation for the evidence. We may eventually come up with another explanation, but until then, some form of continued consciousness after death seems to be the most plausible working model.
Ultimately, Greyson says, he’s come to accept that we don’t have all the answers. “Uncertainty and ambiguity no longer scare me because studying NDEs has made me more comfortable with not having all the answers.” Instead, he notes, “Near-death experiences are beyond our control, and there is no reason to think that will ever change. But we can understand them and their after-effects. And the evidence we have so far suggests that understanding them better – including NDEs in our science and our medicine – can help reduce suffering.”
After offers some wonderful insights into the enigmatic phenomenon of near-death experiences, as well as into what meaning they might impart to both experiencers and the rest of us. But the book also tells us as much about Bruce Greyson as it does about near-death experiences: a serious, scientific researcher of deep integrity with a cautious but open-minded inquisitiveness, and care and empathy not just for the experiencers he interviewed for his lifelong research, but for all of humanity.