By one definition, skepticism is the doctrine that certain knowledge is unattainable. In that sense, psychiatrist Bruce Greyson is a true skeptic. “Science by its very nature is always a work in progress,” he writes. “Studying things that don’t fit our preconceived ideas is what often drives breakthroughs in science.”
As the world’s leading medical expert on near-death experiences (NDEs), Greyson has studied more than a thousand people who claim to have momentarily crossed over to the other side. He shares the results of his research in his new book, After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal About Life and Beyond.
S&H: How have the things you’ve learned from your NDE research changed the way you live your daily life?
Bruce Greyson: Working with near-death experiencers for decades has made me more humble about our knowledge. When I first encountered NDEs, I had a completely materialistic view of the universe and a solid faith that scientific research was giving us a complete and accurate picture of the world. But the more I studied NDEs, the more questions I had, and I came to appreciate the hubris of thinking we had all the answers.
The core of science, as of skepticism, lies in putting all your ideas to the test, and accepting that our models of our minds, our brains, ourselves, and our world are never completely accurate. They are just more accurate than our previous models, and no doubt less accurate than the models the next generation of scientists will come up with. Giving up the scientistic illusion, I’ve become more comfortable with not having to have all the answers.
Combining that comfort with ambiguity with the nearly universal sense among near-death experiencers that the universe is essentially permeated by love, despite the apparent conflict and suffering of our current, temporary situation, has also made me much less fearful of the perils of our earthly life, including death itself. Although I don’t know what (if anything) happens after death, I’m no longer anxious of worried about it.
Several of the people describing their NDEs in After tell of encountering earthly forms in the non-earthly context of the afterworld.
For example, they mention seeing things like meadows, green valleys, waterfalls, flowers, doors, and deceased relatives appearing in the same forms they occupied while alive. You offer a few possible explanations for this in your book, such as that these images are imaginary, that they are the brain’s attempt to make sense of real experiences that are beyond words, or that these are real places and beings presenting themselves in ways that will be familiar and comfortable to the person encountering them.
In your view, which of these explanations is the closest to the truth, or could it be something else entirely?
Most near-death experiencers say that words cannot adequately express what they encountered when they died, and yet we persist in asking them to tell us about their NDEs. So of course they have to resort to metaphors to explain to us what happened. So when they say they saw flowers or doors or angels, they are using words they think we’ll understand, even though they’ve already warned us that what they really saw can’t be put into words. I, therefore, take their descriptions of the NDE as coarse approximations of the ineffable entities and events they really experienced.
Have you been scorned by any members of the scientific community for your interest in NDEs?
Of course, I’ve had scientific colleagues who think my interest in NDEs is a waste of time. I understand that completely because I would have thought that also before I did my research. But the overwhelming evidence of the profound impact NDEs have on experiencers’ lives, a transformation of attitudes, beliefs, values, and behavior that does not diminish over decades, suggests that NDEs are important events that all of us, but particularly physicians, need to understand.
Not many of the commentators in this book discussed the possibility of reincarnation. Does any of the information you’ve collected shed light on that subject?
I included in After those concepts that recurred with some consistency in NDE accounts. There are indeed a few near-death experiencers who believe in reincarnation, and some who say that their life review included events from a past life, but I don’t think the few references to reincarnation in NDE accounts is consistent enough to shed any light on that subject. The little research that’s been done on the topic suggests that belief in reincarnation among near-death experiencers is about the same as it is among the general population who have not had NDEs.
Have there ever been times while you were collecting data about NDEs when you had difficulty looking past your personal biases and remaining neutral about the data or anecdotes that you were receiving?
Of course, all scientists—as all human beings—have personal biases, but we are trained to try to remain objective. I’ve found that the best way to guard against my personal biases unconsciously affecting my observations and conclusions is to collaborate with colleagues who have biases that contradict my own.
I recently found myself in a lengthy argument with a friend about the possibility that consciousness survives physical death. My stance was that there is no scientific evidence that consciousness originates in the brain. My friend argued that all brain functions are electrical impulses that can be viewed with medical equipment, and when one dies, that electricity ceases.
After addresses this issue well, but for those who haven’t read it, can you weigh in on what science can and can’t prove about the correlation between consciousness and brain activity, and what that might suggest about what happens to consciousness after death?
As far as we know at this point, it’s true that all brain functions are electrical or chemical, and are potentially measurable, although that may be impractical in some circumstances. And it’s true that electrical and chemical activity in the brain ceases very quickly after bodily death. But that doesn’t say anything about the relationship between brain activity and consciousness.
There is evidence that consciousness is associated with brain activity in normal circumstances: When our brains are injured or affected by drugs our consciousness suffers. But there’s also a lot of evidence that consciousness is not associated with brain activity in extreme circumstances:
- Elaborate psychedelic drug experiences are associated with decreases in brain activity.
- Some people in advanced stages of dementia who have lost consciousness paradoxically become lucid again when the brain deteriorates sufficiently just before death.
- Most NDEs include enhanced consciousness when the brain is seriously impaired.
The question is whether physical brain activity can create consciousness, and no one has ever shown any mechanism by which a chemical or electrical event can create a thought.
The evidence suggests rather that consciousness can function independent of brain activity, and that the brain serves to filter or interpret thoughts for the benefit of the physical body. But if consciousness can function without brain activity, then it potentially could continue after the brain dies.
Has your work in this area significantly changed your feelings about death? For example, do you still find it sad when someone dies, and do you fear your own death?
The most prominent and consistent effect of NDEs is to reduce or eliminate fear of death in the experiencers. Hearing that consistent message from thousands of experiencers over decades has changed my feelings about death. I don’t know what may lie beyond death, but I no longer have any fear of it or anxiety about dying. I do, however, still feel sad when loved ones die, not because I am concerned about their fate, but because I no longer have them around to relate to.