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Michael Tymn interviews Dr Bruce Greyson re NDE's


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Dr. Bruce Greyson Updates NDE Research

Posted on 10 May 2021, 9:06

When I interviewed Dr. Bruce Greyson in 2004, (below) I asked him how his research in the field of near-death experiences had influenced his beliefs concerning the survival of consciousness at death. I was not expecting him to say that the NDE proves survival, but I anticipated him saying something like “the NDE suggests that consciousness continues after death,” or words to that effect. However, Greyson seemed to be offended by the question and replied that his belief had nothing to do with his work as a scientist or as a physician.

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In an attempt to clarify my question, I asked him, in effect, if a scientist must forever sit on the fence and never have an opinion or belief. I further asked why so many scientists can commit themselves to a belief in biological evolution but not to survival. While the evidence for evolution may be very strong, I remarked, it does not appear to extend to “absolute certainty.”  Moreover, one does not have to be a “creationist” to be a skeptic with regard to the generally accepted belief in evolution. I was curious as to the degree of certainty a scientist must have before moving off the fence. Is his reputation as an objective researcher forever tainted if he deviates even slightly away from the mainstream worldview? If the evidence increasingly points to survival, doesn’t someone have to take the lead by coming off the fence?

“…Scientists explore the evidence for and against competing hypotheses, and derive tentative conclusions that a certain hypothesis is more or less likely than others, based on the data currently available,” Greyson responded to my concern. “Because science is based on empirical observation rather than revelation, our conclusions are always subject to change as new evidence accumulates. Sometimes a concept like evolution receives such overwhelming empirical support that we act as if it were proven; but even those concepts are subject to revision as we discover contradictory evidence. Although I think there is sufficient empirical evidence to make survival the most likely explanation for some phenomena, it has not been embraced by many mainstream scientists because we have much more work to do in eliminating, competing hypotheses and developing a plausible mechanism by something could survive bodily death.”

At the time of the 2004 interview, I visualized Greyson sitting on a fence that separates the survival school from the nihilism school, more or less straddling it with one foot planted firmly on the nihilist’s side of the fence and the other foot dangling on the survival side.  Although it wasn’t discussed in detail in that interview, I inferred from his answers, perhaps more from what he had to say in other writings, that he was more interested in the transformative aspects of the NDE – that is,  how it helped people better enjoy their earthly lives. But that left me wondering what it was that gave rise to the positive transformations of so many NDErs if not the recognition that this life is part of a larger life and the purpose that gave it.  To put it another way, if the survival aspect is not at the root of it, what causes the transformation? Were those experiencers who were transformed supposed to be happier and more fulfilled without pausing to think why?  Were they mere robots?  If it was because they now saw a purpose in life, was it a purpose with a humanistic/nihilistic outlook? If so, how did that view develop?

After reading Greyson’s recently released book, After, I now visualize him with one foot on the survival side of the fence and the other foot dangling on the nihilist’s side.  “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,” he writes in a concluding chapter. “But I don’t have any alternative 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.”

Greyson is professor emeritus of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. He was a co-founder of the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies.  He received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University in 1968 and his medical degree from the State University of New York in 1973.

During the early years of his research, Greyson struggled with the fact that NDEs “smacked of religion and folklore,” which was not consistent with his upbringing in a scientific household and without any religious indoctrination.

Early in his career, while on the staff of the University of Michigan, Greyson was told by the chairman of his department that he should stop wasting his time studying NDEs because they were just “anecdotes.” As Greyson points out, however, personal anecdotes have been the source of most scientific hypotheses throughout history. “Most research starts with scientists collecting, verifying and comparing anecdotes until patterns in these stories become apparent, and then from those patterns emerge hypotheses, which can be tested and refined,” he explains in the book.

He further explains that he is not taking sides with his materialistic friends or his spiritual friends. As he sees it, both views are plausible. “But neither of these ideas, while plausible, is a scientific premise – because there is no evidence that could ever disprove either of them. They are instead articles of belief.”  Whatever their source, he is convinced that NDEs “are quite real and quite profound in their impact, and are in fact important sources of spiritual growth and insight.” 

Greyson mentions a number of paradoxes emerging from his studies.  For one, there is the extra-ordinary thinking and perceptive abilities in NDE while the brain is impaired.  You’d expect just the opposite. One such ability is the life review, something experienced by a quarter of all those who participated in his 45 years of NDE research. The majority of those described the life review as more vivid than ordinary memories. Some reported that they reexperienced past events as if they were still happening.

Although many NDErs have been thought to be suffering from some kind of mental disorder, the evidence suggests, according to Greyson, that NDEs are not associated with mental disorders. He points out that people with mental disorders may lose their sense of meaning in life, feel more fearful, and become more absorbed in their own needs and concerns, but NDEs usually leads to an enhanced sense of meaning and a greater sense of connectedness with others.

The skeptics often point to studies suggesting that stimulation of certain parts of the brain can result in the sensation of leaving the body, as can seizures and certain psychedelic drugs.  “Despite the common belief among some scientists that unusual electrical activity in the temporal lobe, like that caused by epileptic seizures or stimulation, can provoke experiences like NDEs or out-of-body experiences, we didn’t find that to be true,” Greyson states, referring to his research at an epilepsy clinic.

The skeptics also claim that decreased oxygen in the brain is the cause of “hallucinations” reported by NDErs. However, Greyson’s research, which involved measuring oxygen levels in the people during medical crises, showed that NDEs “are associated with increased oxygen levels, or with levels the same as those of non-experiencers. No study has ever shown decreased levels of oxygen during NDEs.”  He further mentions that patients given medication report fewer NDEs than do patients who don’t get any medication.

Are people who report meeting deceased loved one during NDEs simply hallucinating? Greyson says he no longer jumps to that conclusion, although there is no way to rule out the influence of the experiencers’ hopes and expectations of meeting loved ones. However, some experiencers have reported meetings with people not known to have died, which conflicts with the expectations of a reunion theory. He tells of one case in which an experiencer reported seeing his 19-year-old sister, who told him he had to go back. The experiencer was unaware that his sister had been killed in an auto accident earlier that day.

One might infer from Greyson’s comments that the NDE is the only phenomenon offering evidence that consciousness survives death. As the renowned physicist Sir Oliver Lodge said, it is the cumulative evidence that convinced him.  The NDE research provides icing (I prefer chocolate frosting) on the cake – a cake well baked by Lodge, Frederic Myers, Richard Hodgson, and James Hyslop long before Dr. Raymond Moody gave a name to the NDE and before Dr. Greyson was born. If one is to fully appreciate the cake, he or she needs to do more than savor the frosting.  I was left wondering if Greyson is even aware of the research carried out by the pioneers of psychical research and, if he is, why he doesn’t see the cumulative evidence offering the same “overwhelming” evidence that is accepted by most scientists with biological evolution. Nevertheless, having read at least 50 books on NDEs over the last 45 or so years, I would rank this book at or very near the top of the list.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow Books.

Next blog post: May 24

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