The Science of Near-Death Experiences. A Book Review by Antti Savinainen

Dr Bruce Greyson

After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond

Bantam Press, Great Britain, 2021.

Introduction

Scientific research on near-death experiences (NDEs) is very interesting from the point of view of Theosophy or any other spiritual worldview. NDE research has revealed many phenomena that have been described in Theosophical and Anthroposophical literature for more than hundred years. These include out-of-body experiences, life reviews at the gates of death, and transitions to another realm of existence, which Theosophy calls the astral plane. One might say that in this regard, “Modern science is our best ally,” as Master K. H. wrote in one Mahatma Letter (https://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/mahatma/ml-11.htm).

Here I will provide an overview of Dr. Bruce Greyson’s book After, which discusses some research that challenges the materialistic notion that consciousness is produced by the brain.

An Intriguing Incident

Bruce Greyson (1946–), a professor emeritus of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia, is one of today’s leading NDE researchers. In addition to regular psychiatric work, he has worked in the university’s Division of Perceptual Studies, which was founded by Professor Ian Stevenson, the pioneer of research on children’s past-life memories.

Greyson’s interest in NDEs began with an intriguing incident that took place about fifty years ago, when he was starting his career as a psychiatrist. Greyson was eating spaghetti when he was paged from the ward. Startled, he got some sauce on his tie. He placed a white lab coat on to cover the stain. He then hurried to help Holly, a young woman who had tried to take her own life. He found the sleeping Holly connected to a heart monitor, with a “sitter” watching her, as the protocol required. Holly had been unconscious during her whole stay in the ER.

After checking Holly’s condition, Greyson walked to the family lounge at the far end of the hallway to meet Holly’s roommate, Susan, who had found her and called an ambulance. Susan answered Greyson’s questions about Holly’s situation. Then he walked back to the exam room. Holly was still unconscious.

The next day, after Holly woke up, Greyson met with her. She immediately said that she knew who Greyson was because she had seen and heard the conversation with Susan. She also demonstrated that she knew what they had talked in another room quite far away. Holly also said she knew that Greyson had been wearing a striped tie with a red stain on it.

This event baffled Greyson, whose scientific worldview couldn’t explain Holly’s observations. He thought that it had to be a lucky guess or some kind of trick. However, he didn’t mention the incident to his colleagues or even to his wife. He didn’t consider NDEs as an explanation, because he knew nothing about them at the time.

Becoming an NDE Researcher

The first book on the NDE, Raymond Moody’s Life after Life, was published in 1975. Moody already had a PhD in philosophy when he started as an intern in the psychiatric emergency service at the University of Virginia, which was directed by Greyson at the time.

Moody introduced Greyson to the NDE phenomenon. Greyson was stunned to find out that Holly’s experience was not unique. This was a starting point of his career as an NDE researcher. Later, Greyson cofounded the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and edited the Journal of Near-Death Studies, which, for over a quarter century, has been the only scholarly journal dedicated to research on this subject.

Perhaps Greyson’s most significant scientific contribution is the Greyson NDE scale (although Greyson himself doesn’t use this name for it). The scale was developed (and later on validated statistically) to measure the depth of a near-death experience. The questions and scoring to determine the type of NDE are provided here: https://iands.org/research/nde-research/important-research-articles/698-greyson-nde-scale.html. Greyson notes that the scores are appropriate for comparing different studies addressing NDEs: it isn’t useful in dealing with individual experiences (a low score might still lead to life-changing spiritual transformations).

What Research Has to Say

Skeptics have suggested that the NDEs are just hallucinations, which arise as a reaction to the danger of dying. To address this possibility, Greyson discusses two studies interviewing cardiac arrest patients after their resuscitation. Those who had NDEs could accurately describe what happened to them during the resuscitation, whereas those with no NDEs couldn’t.

In addition, Greyson refers to a review article by Professor Jan Holden, which found 107 cases of apparently nonphysical veridical perception (only one detail not corresponding to “consensus reality” was enough to classify the perception as nonphysical). Of these, only 8 percent involved any inaccuracy: https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc799193/. One might expect some hits due to pure luck, but 92 percent is too high a success rate. Hence the hallucination hypothesis is not supported by available empirical evidence.

Could it be that the NDE can happen only to people with mental disorders? Many studies show that there is no difference between the NDE groups and the non-NDE groups in this regard. Interestingly, Greyson and other researchers have found out that NDEs can alleviate the anxiety produced by a life-threatening situation.

Psychological research has shown that it’s quite possible for memories to change over time. Does this happen to NDE memories in a way that enhances their positive features? Greyson used research to investigate this possibility. His longitudinal study, spanning four decades, showed that there was no change in NDE memories over that time.

On the other hand, the stability of a memory does not necessary mean that the event really took place. Could it be that NDE memories are imagined? Greyson was able to answer this question as well by using a memory characteristics questionnaire, which was designed to differentiate memories of real events from memories of fantasies and dreams. He found that the memories of the experience by people who had NDEs were like those of real events. In fact, Greyson goes on to say that their memories on the NDE were, in a sense, more real than those of real events, having more details, clarity, context, and intense feelings.

It is often stated that NDEs are caused by the lack of oxygen in the brain. This possibility has been empirically investigated in clinical conditions monitoring victims of cardiac arrest. People who had NDEs had at least as high a level of oxygen in the blood as people who had heart attacks without NDEs.

Some hallucinogens, especially ketamine, can induce experiences resembling the NDE, but ketamine has other effects, which are not observed in the context of the NDE. Greyson concludes that there is no evidence that NDEs are caused by hallucinogens.

Greyson highlights the life-changing aftereffects of the NDE. Typically, it brings about positive changes in the subject’s life: love for people, animals, and nature becomes an important value, whereas the pursuit of wealth and social status seems less important.

Although most NDE aftereffects are good, some people can face difficulties with loved ones who do not accept the subjects’ change in belief or lifestyle. Some NDErs can also have difficulties in reconciling their experience with their religious beliefs.

Even familiarity with NDE research can change one’s views of life. Greyson points to studies showing that fear of death decreased and compassion toward other people increased when the participants read about NDEs. These changes were also observable in a follow-up study, suggesting that the positive effects could be long-lasting. Indeed Greyson himself testifies that his NDE research moved his worldview in a more spiritual direction.

Final Thoughts

Modern neuroscience assumes that the brain produces consciousness, implying that there can be no survival of consciousness after brain death. Although this model certainly explains phenomena such as the effects of brain damage or alcohol, it seems to be inadequate for explaining the NDE. If the materialistic view is correct, NDE subjects should have no veridical experiences when the brain is not functioning—yet many do.

The origin of consciousness is still an unresolved scientific problem. Greyson proposes an alternative model: the brain is a receiver and filter, which enables the mind to operate in the physical world. If, for one reason or another, the brain doesn’t function normally, the thoughts and emotions “sent” by the mind cannot “pass through.”

NDE research strongly suggests that the mind can operate independently of the physical brain. Of course, this is not news to Theosophists, Anthroposophists, or other spiritually or religiously inclined people.

It’s important to note that scientific methods can be applied to any natural phenomenon; science is not a collection of facts but a process. Nonetheless, it’s remarkable that a nonmaterialistic model of consciousness can be proposed based on scientific research. This gives hope for a new emerging paradigm of science, which would have room for spiritual realities. I heartily recommend Greyson’s lucid book for anyone interested in what science has to say about the NDE.

Acknowledgements

I thank Richard Smoley for his careful editing. This review was published in Finnish in Teosofi 3/2021.

Antti Savinainen latest book is available here https://finna.fi/Record/lastu.1815148

Published by hermesrisen

writer, theologian and broadcaster, my work can be found at www.debbie-elliott.co.uk Colyn Boyce is co-editor for Hermes Risen and is a writer, photographer and all round good guy.

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