What do near-death experiences mean, and why do they fascinate us?

Near Death Experience

Near-death experiences are not a new phenomenon. Socrates had one, according to Plato; Pliny the Elder recorded another (in the first century); history is filled with examples of mountaineers falling from cliffs and experiencing bliss rather than terror. But we seem as enthralled now by their meaning as ever, and they continue to be sprinkled liberally across popular culture. Now read on as Dr Bruce Greyson talks about NDE and his book, After.

When Gregg Nome was 24 years old, he slipped into the churn beneath a waterfall and began to drown, his body pummelled against the sandy riverbed. What he saw there surprised him. Suddenly, his vision filled with crystal-clear scenes from his childhood, events he had mostly forgotten, and then moments from early adulthood. The memories, if that’s what they were, were vivid and crisp. Was he reliving them? Not quite. They came at high speed, almost all at once, in a wave. And yet he could process each one individually. In fact, he was able to perceive everything around him: the rush of the water, the sandy bed, all of it brilliantly distinct. He could “hear and see as never before,” he recalled later. And, despite being trapped underwater, he felt calm and at ease. He remembered thinking that prior to this moment his senses must have been dulled somehow, because only now could he fully understand the world, perhaps even the true meaning of the universe. Eventually, the imagery faded. Next, “There was only darkness,” he said, “and a feeling of a short pause, like something was about to happen.”

Nome recounted this story at a support group in Connecticut, in 1985, four years after the experience. He had survived, but now he hoped to understand why, during a moment of extreme mortal crisis, his mind had behaved the way it did. The meeting had been organised by Bruce Greyson, now a professor emeritus in psychiatry at the University of Virginia. (Some of the group’s members had responded to an ad Greyson placed in a local newspaper.) As Nome spoke, Greyson sat in a circle of 30 or so others, as if at an AA meeting, listening intently, nodding along.

Greyson had been hearing of events like these for years. A month into his psychiatric training, in the 1960s, he had been “confronted by a patient who claimed to have left her body” while unconscious on a hospital bed, and who later provided an accurate description of events that had taken place “in a different room”. This made no sense to him. “I was raised in a scientific household,” he says, over Zoom. “My father was a chemist. Growing up, the physical world was all there was.” He felt certain someone had slipped the patient the information. He also thought, “What does that even mean, to leave your body?”

I found myself in a meadow lit with this glorious, radiant light, like no light we’ve ever seen

For years, he tried to put the account behind him, but repeatedly he faced heady stories of people experiencing other-worldly events, either when they had been pronounced clinically dead or thought they were close to it, before being wrestled back to life. In the 1975 best seller Life After Life, the psychiatrist Raymond Moody, once a colleague of Greyson’s, labelled these episodes “near-death experiences”, or NDEs, a term that stuck. “It occurred to me for the first time that this wasn’t just one patient,” Greyson says. “It was a common phenomenon.” He became fascinated by the qualities of the episodes and the questions they raised, including perhaps the biggest of all: what actually happens when we die? “I plunged in,” he says. “And here I am, 50 years later, trying to understand.”

Greyson is 74 now. When we talk, he is at home in Charlottesville, Virginia, waiting out the pandemic in a pressed shirt and tie, kind and affable. Over the years, he has collected hundreds of near-death experiences, he says, either from people who, aware of his research, have volunteered their stories, or from patients who happened to have episodes in hospital. In those cases, Greyson’s process is nearly always the same: he sidles up to the bedside and gently withdraws information. “I ask: ‘What’s the last thing you remember before you blacked out?’” he says. “Then: ‘What’s the next thing you remember after that?’ And finally: ‘And what do you remember between those times?’” Not everyone reacts well to the questions; most people stare at him blankly. “But around one in five will say, ‘Well, you know, I thought I saw my father, who died 20 years ago,’ and I say, ‘Tell me about that’ – and I let them go…”

Greyson presents his research in a new book, After, which is bound by a series of case studies. The accounts are mystical, like those we know from TV and books, but there are common themes. After a bad reaction to anaesthesia, one patient recalled: “I found myself in a meadow, mind cleared, identity intact.” The meadow, she went on, was “lit with this glorious, radiant light, like no light we’ve ever seen,” and “a gentle, inner glow shone from each and every plant.” Most episodes involve similar feelings of wonder, mental clarity and bliss, Greyson says. Some people recall out-of-body experiences, or report travelling through a long tunnel; others meet entities they think of as God or Allah or long-dead family members; some feel time bend and warp, as though it were elastic. Once, a policeman who almost died during surgery asked Greyson: “How do you describe a state of timelessness, where there’s nothing progressing from one point to another, where it’s just all there, and you’re totally immersed in it?” Another person recalled: “The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria.”

It has been Greyson’s role as a psychiatrist to provide a space in which “experiencers” feel comfortable retelling often incomprehensible stories – though even when patients discover the courage to try, they can struggle to find the right language. “When I talk to near-death experiencers, one of the first things they say is: ‘I can’t put it into words. There’s no way to express this.’” A frustrated experiencer once told him that when he tried to recall events, “I always fall short.” Another explained it would be difficult to describe her experience because we live in three dimensions, and what she saw on the border between living and dying seemed bigger somehow. Greyson has found that sometimes people turn to painting or music to recall events, as if true meaning can be shared non-verbally. But even that’s insufficient. A subject once told Greyson that recalling his near-death experience was like trying “to draw an odour with crayons”, which is to say, basically impossible.

Dr Bruce Greyson

Kind and affable in a pressed shirt and tie’: Bruce Greyson. Photograph: Adam Ewing
Given that near-death experiences happen with limited warning, they are almost impossible to test. “We’re dealing with a very short space of time,” Greyson says. A swimmer is trapped underwater, a roofer falls from a ladder, a bystander, peering down at their phone, is struck by a car. In After, Greyson points out that his career has coincided with advances in brain-imaging technology, including the emergence of fMRI scanners, which help neuroscientists observe thinking in action. But equipment like that requires compliance: an appointment is made, a patient agrees to sit still. What happens when an experience occurs randomly, nowhere near a hospital? How do you capture a moment as fleeting and unannounced as the point of near-death?

When I ask Greyson why he decided to publish After now, after all these years, he explains that “we had to wait until we had enough knowledge about near-death experiences to be able to understand what was going on,” by which he means not that we know what NDEs are, but that advances in science have allowed us to rule out a heap of things they are not. “There are physiological hypotheses that seem plausible theoretically,” he says, but none have stuck. Are feelgood chemicals, like endorphins, released into the body at the point of peril, creating euphoria? Does the brain become starved of oxygen, prompting real-seeming fantasies? Do various areas of the brain suddenly begin to work in concert to create strange, altered states? Nobody knows for sure. “We keep thinking, ‘Oh it’s got to be this,’” Greyson says. “No, the data doesn’t show that. ‘Oh, this then?’ Well, nope, the data doesn’t show that, either.”

At the University of Kentucky, the neurologist Kevin Nelson, who, like Greyson, has spent years recording NDEs as a kind of academic side-gig, thinks of the experiences as “a blending of two states of consciousness – wakefulness and REM sleep – during a time of great physical or emotional danger,” and argues that many NDEs are “dream-like”, existing in a neurological “borderland”. (Fainting, he added, might bring about similar experiences.) Other researchers, including the late neurologist Oliver Sacks, have thought of NDEs as “extremely complex” hallucinations, an idea that, if nothing else, seems culturally accepted.

When Greyson mentions his research to colleagues, he receives “a variety of reactions, from, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ to ‘Oh, let me tell you about my near-death experience.’” To formalise NDE research in the 1980s, he developed a survey, the Greyson Scale, which has been translated into over 20 languages and is still in use. (Did you suddenly seem to understand everything? Did you feel a sense of harmony or unity with the universe?) And he has been published widely in respected medical journals. But he can have quirky ideas. In After, Greyson writes: “I take seriously the possibility that NDEs may be brought on by physical changes in the brain,” though he also accepts that the mind might be able to function “independent” of it. There have been reports of people experiencing near-death episodes while their brains are inactive, he says, and “yet that’s when they say they have the most vivid experience of their lives.” This doesn’t make sense to him. Partway though our conversation, he asks: “Are these the final moments of consciousness? Or the beginning moments of the afterlife?”

These kind of theories put Greyson on wobbly ground among neuroscientists, who mostly agree the mind to be a product of the brain. Of the afterlife, Nelson told me: “This claim is the most extraordinary in science, and there is no ordinary, let alone extraordinary, scientific evidence to support it.” (He added: “These are matters of faith.”) Sacks called claims like these “anti-science”. Daniel Kondziella, a neurologist affiliated with the department of neurology at Copenhagen University Hospital, told me that if “people are able to describe and report their experiences, even many years later”, then surely “they have been processed by the brain and stored in its memory centres.” (Like Nelson, Kondziella believes NDEs are somehow related to REM sleep.)

Greyson knows that events in near-death experiences are impossible to corroborate. “We can’t do research on a deity,” he says, drily. But still, he finds it tough to dismiss wackier theories, even if the data isn’t there. When I ask him what his current logical understanding is, he looks resigned. “It seems most likely to me that the mind is somehow separate to the brain,” he says, “and, if that’s true, maybe it can function when the brain dies.” Then he adds, “But if the mind is not there in the brain, where is it? And what is it?”

Near-death experiences are not a new phenomenon. Socrates had one, according to Plato; Pliny the Elder recorded another (in the first century); history is filled with examples of mountaineers falling from cliffs and experiencing bliss rather than terror. But we seem as enthralled now by their meaning as ever, and they continue to be sprinkled liberally across popular culture.

Last year, my four-year-old son and I watched Soul, the Disney film, which introduces the near-death experience to a new audience, very young people, and examines consciousness, the afterlife, and the imperceptible stuff that makes us us. (My son is convinced now that when we die we ride an ethereal, very cool-looking travelator toward a blinding light in the sky.) Often in these screen-based times, we are encouraged to celebrate narratives that promote living the “right” way, which tends to involve appreciating and accepting every moment for what it is, and mindfully placing experiences and relationships above the pursuit of power or prestige or material goods. (Broadly speaking, this is the plot of Soul.) Most of us do not live like that, not entirely, and yet we feel like we should, lest we waste our precious time on this planet. Which is why near-death narratives fascinate us, and why they persist as events of interest in the culture. They ask: “What would you do with your life, if you had another chance?”

To Greyson, the impact near-death experiences have on people’s lives has been his most surprising discovery. “I make a living by trying to help people change their lives,” he says. “It’s not easy to do. But here I’ve found an experience that, sometimes in a matter of seconds, dramatically transforms people’s attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviours.” Often, these changes persist over decades. In most instances, experiencers realise they are no longer afraid to die, which “has a profound impact on how they live their lives”, because “you lose your fear of life as well – you’re not afraid of taking chances.” Greyson sometimes asks people to describe their partners before and after an event, “and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, this isn’t the person I married; this is someone different.’” He adds, “They see a purpose in life they didn’t see before. I don’t know of anything else that powerful.”

I am convinced now, after doing this for 40, 50 years, that there is more to life than just our physical bodies

I ask for an example. “I’ve spoken to people who were policemen,” he says, “or career military officers, who couldn’t go back to their jobs, couldn’t stand the idea of violence.” I ask why. He says, “The idea of hurting someone becomes abhorrent to them.” He shrugs. “They end up going into helping professions. They become teachers, or healthcare workers, or social workers.”

I ask if Greyson’s research has changed the way he thinks.

“I don’t think it’s changed me in terms of my relationships with other people,” he says, “except it’s made me more accepting, more open to unusual ideas.” As a psychiatrist, he remains “aware of what it means to be psychotic”, but, he says: “I’m more accepting of unusual thoughts that aren’t crazy, and it’s made me much more conscionable with the unknown.

“I grew up without any kind of a spiritual background,” he continues. “And I’m still not sure I understand what spiritual means. I am convinced now, after doing this for 40, 50 years, that there is more to life than just our physical bodies. I recognise that there is a non-physical part of us. Is that spiritual? I’m not sure. Spirituality usually involves a search for something greater than yourself, for meaning and purpose in the universe. Well, I certainly have that.”

After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal About Life and Beyond, by Bruce Greyson


After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal About Life and Beyond, by Bruce Greyson


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