The Brink of Death, with Dr. Bruce Greyson (S3, Ep10)

Near-death experiences may seem like the stuff of supermarket tabloids, but there are real patterns to what people report after coming close to departing this life.   Dr. Bruce Greyson has been studying near-death experiences  for decades and has stories to tell about out-of-body phenomena, that light at the end of the tunnel, and a near-universal finding of new meaning in life after coming close to death. Plus… a glimpse of what happens to your brain after death.

Phil Stieg: Hello, I’d like to welcome Dr. Bruce Greyson, professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia. Today he is going to expand our understanding of near-death  experiences. In his new book, “After” he draws upon his experience with over 10 individuals experiencing near death, or NDEs.  He vividly captures  and describes in detail what people perceive in their NDE and how it affects their lives through personal stories. Finally, he challenges us to understand the meaning of NDEs related to the mind and body as well as consciousness. Bruce, thank you for being with us today.

Bruce Greyson: Oh, thank you so much, Phil. I’m delighted to be talking to you today.

Phil Stieg: I’m going to start at the beginning, and this is the way you actually start the book “after”, in which you relay the stories of Holly, an individual that shows up in the emergency room. What happened and how did that affect you?

Bruce Greyson: As I started my psychiatric training, in the first few weeks, I was covering the emergency room. I was asked to see a patient who would come in with an overdose in the ER. I went down to see her, and she was unconscious. I could not arouse her, but her roommate had come in with her, and I talked to the roommate in another room about 50 yards down the hall to get some background on what the patient was going through, what she might have taken, and so forth. I went back to see the patient, and she was still unconscious. So we arranged her to be admitted to the intensive care overnight.

I went back to see her the next morning, and when I saw her, I introduced myself, and she stopped me and said, I know who you are. I remember you from last night. But that threw me because I was sure she was out cold. So I said something to her like, “I’m surprised. I thought you were unconscious when I saw you last night.” And she said to me, “not in my room. I saw you talking to Susan down the hall.

But that just stopped me right there. I couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. The only way she could have done that, as if she had left her body and come down to visit me. She saw that I was flustered, then went on to tell me about the conversation I had with her roommate, including where we were sitting, what the room looked like, what we were wearing. And she didn’t make any mistakes at all. I was – maybe frightened is too strong a word – but I was certainly disturbed by this. And as I tried to reflect on this next few days, I couldn’t make any sense of it at all. I convinced myself someone was playing a trick on me. I don’t know who or how, but this couldn’t possibly be true.

And it wasn’t until several years later that one of my colleagues at the University of Virginia, Raymond Moody, published a book called Life After Life, in which he gave us the term “near-death experience” and described what they were like. That was my first intimation, that these were not just crazy patients talking. This is something that happened to normal people all over the world.

Phil Stieg: Can you define so that everybody’s on the same page here what you mean by near-death experience.

Bruce Greyson: Sure, Phil. Well, it’s an experience that many people have when they come close to death or sometimes are pronounced dead, in which they have unusual experiences, like the sense of leaving their physical bodies feeling overwhelmed by incredible peace and well-being. They often feel like they encounter other entities that are not physically present, which they may interpret as being deities or deceased loved ones. They often tend to review their entire lives, and at some point, they come to a point of no return be how much they can’t keep going and come back. So they stop at that point and either they come back on their own will or they are sent back against their will.

You know, a lot of people complain that we’re just dealing with anecdotes. But of course, all science starts with anecdotes. You have to collect the data first, collect the raw stories, and then when you get enough of them, start looking for patterns that you can corroborate across religions, across cultures, and with NDEs across centuries. And then when you find the consistent patterns, you can develop hypotheses that can be tested. For example, are they due to expectation? Are they due to lack of oxygen to the brain? And so forth So we collect these cases and then try to find the data to support or disprove all these hypotheses.

Phil Stieg: I agree this is a very difficult thing to prove. But in that regard, how do you differentiate this from a hallucination? How do you know it’s different?

Bruce Greyson: That’s a great question. As a psychiatrist, I deal with hallucinations all the time. So, of course, that occurred to me, and there are lots of differences. The content of hallucinations are really different from person to person. You don’t see anything inconsistency. And yet near death experiencers, they tell the same stories across the globe. And going back through centuries. We have accounts from ancient Greece and Rome that sounds just like the NDEs we hear today.

Furthermore, people have perceptions in a near death experience from an apparent out of body perspective that are accurate and can be corroborated by other people present at the time. And you don’t have that in hallucinations.  What’s most important to me as a psychiatrist is the aftereffects on people. Hallucinations usually make people more introverted, more terrified of interacting, more fearful, and less inclined to explore what this is all about. Whereas near death experiences make people more outgoing, more caring about other people and a greater desire to explore this phenomenon.

Phil Stieg: As I was beginning in the book, I started questioning the reality of it for the reason being that it seemed like a number of the individuals that you encountered early on were either suicidal or drug related problems. So for me, it was they were just experiencing the after effects of the drug or there’s a reason why they were suicidal and they can have some ideation and confabulation and whatever.

Bruce Greyson: Right. I understand that, Phil. That’s where I started out, too. I went into this thinking this is a really strange phenomenon. We can’t explain it now. A lot of my colleagues said, just forget it. It’s a ridiculous idea. It’s just a weird thing. But as a scientist, I felt it’s my obligation to try to understand it. So I plunged into it, trying to study this, but fully expecting that I would find a simple, plausible materialistic explanation. This has got to be brain based. Everything we do is. So, of course, what’s the mechanism for this? And over the years, over the decades, I’ve sort of given up the hope that we are going to find a simple explanation for this.

Phil Stieg: So let’s get into the meat of it. What are the characteristics, the specific characteristics? What are the patients come back and tell you they’ve experienced with a near death experience?

Bruce Greyson: Well, the first thing is changes in the way they think. Their thoughts become faster and clearer and more logical than ever before. And this is in the context of a brain that’s impaired and sometimes, frankly, stopped. They often have a sense of time stopping or ceasing to exist. They often have a sense of understanding everything, and they have a sense of reliving their entire lives, often in a matter of seconds. And one of the most amazing things about this life review is that about a third of the people who have this describe events not just from their perspective, but from the viewpoint of other people involved in the experience. Let me give you an example of this. Tom was in his 30s when he had his near-death experience when a truck he was working underneath fell and crushed his chest. A number of very elaborate things happen in his NDE. But one of them was a life review. And he described for me as a teenager driving down the street in his truck, and a drunk man walked in front of his truck and almost hit him.

He jammed on his brakes, rolled down his window and started yelling at the man. And the man being intoxicated reached his hand in the window and slapped Tom across the face. And that was just too much for this hotheaded teenager. So he got out of the truck and started beating the man mercilessly and left him a bloody mess on the median strip, got back in his truck and then drove away.

Well, when he had his life review, he relived it through his own perspective, feeling the adrenaline rush and the rage, but also through the eyes of the drunk man, feeling the pain of the 32 blows on his face. Feeling his nose getting bloody, feeling his teeth going through his lower lip, feeling the humiliation of being beaten up by a teenager. And Tom came back from his NDE thinking, we’re all the same. We’re all this together. What I’m doing to him, I’m doing to myself. And that’s something I hear again and again from near death experiencers that they realize we’re all part of the same thing. You can’t live alone. We’re not Islands.

Phil Stieg: The ones that have been popularized, the NDEs that have been popularized appear always to have these out of body experiences. But you clearly indicate in the book that’s not 100% of the time.

Bruce Greyson: Right. Well, the thinking, the changes in thoughts are probably the most common. And also with that are changes in emotional state that people often feel intense peace and, wellbeing, sometimes outright joy, a sense of cosmic unity being one with everything, and a sense of unconditional love coming from using some being of light. A smaller number have what we call paranormal phenomena, for lack of a better word,  sometimes seeing future visions and a sense of being out of the body. And in many cases, they can report seeing things from outside the body that they shouldn’t have been able to see. I can give you an example of that as well. A fellow I knew in his mid 50s who was a truck driver, started having crushing chest pain one day on his rounds. So they rushed him to the operating room for a quadruple bypass surgery.

He later told me that in the middle of the operation, he rose up out of his body and looked down and saw his surgeon flapping his elbows like he was trying to fly. And when Al told me this, I started to laugh, because I’ve been a doctor for 30 years. At that point, I’d never heard anything like that. You sure don’t see doctors on TV doing that. So I said to him, I thought this was a hallucination coming from your anesthesia. And he said, no, I want you to talk to my doctor and confirm it from him. So I did. And his doctor sheepishly admitted to me that he had actually done this –   that he had developed this unique habit. He never saw anyone else do it. He would let his residents start the operation, and then he would go in with his sterile gown and gloves on and then watch them perform the operation at the beginning of it. And he placed his hands where he knew they wouldn’t touch anything that was non sterile, flat on his chest, and then point things out to them by wiggling his elbows so he wouldn’t touch anything with his fingers.  And he demonstrated exactly the way Al did. Now, I don’t know how I could have known about that unless he had actually seen it.

Phil Stieg: Well, you’ve changed my performance in the operating room. Now, I don’t do anything that can be remembered by the patient.

Bruce Greyson: And be careful about the jokes you tell in the operating room!

Phil Stieg: Exactly. And in your chapter that you got out of their minds. There was that story about Peter the Schizophrenic, where, as I recall it now, Satan was telling him to jump when he jumped. Then he experienced God.

Bruce Greyson: Yes. This was an undergraduate in the college who was schizophrenic and was hearing voices. He was not well medicated. And in response to what he thought was the voice of Satan, he climbed up to the roof of his dorm building and ended up jumping off the roof. And he told me that as he was falling, he heard the voice of God come to him, telling him that he was not Satan’s spawn, the way Satan was telling him, and that he was actually a child of God. And God wouldn’t let him die this way. And he ended up not dying.

And he described this to me and I said, no, wait a minute. You’re telling me you heard a voice that no one else could hear? That was Satan. And you know, now that was hallucination. And then you heard another voice that no one else could hear that you say is God? And you say that was real. What’s the difference? And he said, I can’t explain it to you, but God’s voice was more real to me than yours is right now the way yours is more real than Satan’s was.  I’ve heard that again and again from near death experiences that they can’t prove it to me, but there’s no doubt in their minds what’s real and what’s not real.

Phil Stieg: Are these NDEs influenced by our beliefs?

Bruce Greyson: Great question. It’s interesting because when you ask NDE-ers what happened, they usually start off by saying, I can’t describe it to you. There are no words for it. And then we say, great, tell me about it. So we know we’re forcing them to distort it by putting into words. So they end up using metaphors. And the metaphors that come to them are usually from their culture or from their religion. So while the experience itself is not influenced by our beliefs, the words they use to describe them will be. I’ll give you an example. People all over the world talk about encountering this warm, loving being of light. And people from a Judeo-Christian culture may say that was God, whereas people who were raised in a Hindu or Buddhist or Shinto culture won’t use that term.

I’ve heard again and again people describing things in metaphors and saying, but it wasn’t really like that, that’s just why you need to say. For example, many people describe the transition from this physical world, from their bodies to the other realm as going through a long, dark enclosed space. And here in the US, they usually say, I went through a tunnel, while people in other parts of the world that don’t have many tunnels won’t use that word. They’ll say, I fell into a well or went into a cave. And I interviewed one fellow here who is a truck driver, who said, I got sucked into a tailpipe.

Phil Stieg: I remember that.

Bruce Greyson: So whatever metaphors come to them or what they use and the metaphors are usually related to their culture.

Interstitial theme music

Narrator: There are stories that date back to ancient times of people at the brink of death.  But what happens in the brain when we actually cross over that line?

Music out

In this edition of This Is Your Brain – The Guided Tour, we take you to an intensive care unit,   where an 87-year-old man with a recent brain injury is experiencing epileptic seizures.

Sfx: hospital intensive care unit

A team of physicians is attempting to detect and treat his seizures by recording his brain waves using continuous EEG.

Several minutes into the recording, the patient suddenly suffers a massive heart attack.

Sfx: cardiac monitor “flatlines”

The patient had left strict instructions that he was not to be resuscitated, and so – with the consent of his family – he is allowed to die.

Sfx: hospital sounds fade out

As it happened, the EEG machine had been left running through the entire event.  For the first time in medical history, scientists had a complete recording of brain activity before – and after – death.

Researchers analyzing the 30 seconds before and after the heart stopped observed distinct changes in brain wave activity – especially in the so called “Gamma oscillations” which are associated with activities like dreaming, memory recall, and meditation.

To lead researcher Dr. Ajmal Zemmar, from the University of Louisville, this finding suggested that the brain may be playing a last recall of important life events just before we die, similar to the ones reported in near-death experiences.

Dr. Zemmar stressed that these findings are based on just a single case – a severely injured man suffering from profound seizures – and may not represent what happens in a healthy brain.  But if the findings hold up, they would challenge the previously held theory that brain activity ceases within 10 seconds or so of cardiac arrest.

Theme music

The team hopes to analyze more rare cases like this – if they can find them.  After all, it’s a research study for which so few people would be willing to volunteer…

Phil Stieg: So do you think that consciousness persists after death?

Bruce Greyson: I think so. I can’t say that I have conclusive evidence for that. I don’t. But from all the things that I’ve heard from near death experiencers, I think that is the explanation that’s most consistent with the data. I was about to say the most logical explanation, but I can’t say that I don’t know if the locks are behind this, but I’ve heard so many accounts of people encountering deceased loved ones in a near death experience. Now, of course, that can often be dismissed as wishful thinking and expectation. But we also have people who see in their NDE people who are dead but were not known to be dead, which kind of takes expectation off the table.

I can give you a great example of that. There’s a fellow I knew who was around 25 at the time who was hospitalized with severe pneumonia. And his primary nurse, who worked with him every day, told him one day she’s going to take a long weekend off. She was about his age. They had been flirting a little bit.

And while she was gone, he had another respiratory arrest, had to be resuscitated and had a near-death experience during that time. And he found himself in a beautiful pastoral scene. And there, to a surprise, this nurse, Anita, comes walking towards him. So he says, “Anita. What are you doing here?”  And she said, “you can’t stay here with me. You need to go back. And I want you to look up my parents and tell them that I love them, and I’m very sorry I wrecked the red MGB.”  And then she turned and walked away.

It turned out that this nurse of his had taken the weekend off to celebrate her 21st birthday, and her parents surprised her with a gift for red MGB. She got excited, jumped in the car and took off her drive, lost control, hit a telephone pole, and died instantly not too long before his near-death experience.

Now, there’s no way he could have known that she had died or expected it or wanted to see her. And certainly no way he could have known how she died, and yet he did. So I don’t know how to explain that unless you assume that somehow the spirit or some part of Anita was still able to function and communicate with the patient.

Phil Stieg: 90% of the people that have these NDEs, however, describe, and for lack of a better term, like they said, a godlike figure. So you, being raised in a scientific family somewhat skeptical about this, how did you deal with that and has it changed your perception of afterlife?

Bruce Greyson: Well, I don’t know really what to make of the idea of a deity, because my NDE-er friends insist it’s real. You need to believe in it. But I don’t know what it is. I think what they’re telling me is the metaphorical way of describing it, not the literal description of what they experienced. So I don’t know what it really is. Some will put it in a very anthropomorphic term by saying that was God. Others will describe it as the force from Star Wars, the thing that holds us all together. So some people describe it as our individual lives are like waves in an ocean, and we’re separate from the ocean with structure for a little while and then fade back into the ocean. And the ocean is God.

Phil Stieg: The other thing that I find utterly amazing is how these NDEs change everything. Their attitudes towards death or lifestyle changes. Describe that.

Bruce Greyson: Well, as a psychiatrist, that’s the most important part of the experience for me. People consistently have the same aftereffects, whether they are positive or negative experiences. And they describe changes in attitude. And most consistently, they talk about no longer being afraid of dying. When I first heard this as a psychiatrist, I worried, is that going to make people more suicidal if I tell them about this, that death is something to be afraid of?

And we did a study of people who were admitted to the hospital with a suicide attempt and compared  those who had a near death experience as a result of the suicide attempt and those who didn’t. And paradoxically, those who had a near death experience were less suicidal afterwards. And when I asked them to explain this, they said things like, I still have the same problems, but now I see the meaning and purpose in everything that happens to me. And I see that my problems are not something to be run away from, but something to be grappled with. And I can learn from them. And they also say that if you lose your fear of dying, you also lose your fear of living because you’re not afraid of losing your life.  So you become much more risk taking. You jump in with both feet to everything. You enjoy life a whole lot more.

They also describe a sense of increased spirituality. And they now believe that we are all interconnected, that there is something greater than us, something you can call divine. And they change their lives. They become much more altruistic in their behavior. They tend to volunteer more. It can create tremendous difficulties in their lives

Phil Stieg: Well, the one story that I really like, though, is Mickey from the Mafia. You got to tell that story.

Bruce Greyson: Yeah. This is a fellow who worked for the Mafia. He was part of the family and he had a heart attack and was thought to be dead. And when he came back, he was totally transformed. Before this, he vividly described to me how he used to abuse people. One of his jobs was collecting prostitutes for visiting dignitaries, and he would just treat them like garbage. And after his NDE became very compassionate trying to help people, he ended up working as a counselor for delinquent boys, this type of thing. He just no longer cared about the things he cared about. Before his girlfriend was girlfriend, she complained that he no longer cared about things of substance, meaning money, flashy clothes. In my naive ideas, I thought once you’re part of the family, you don’t get out of it. But they were happy to let him go. He was no use to them at all.

Phil Stieg: A cute story.  Last question – when you die, where do you think you’re going to go?  Are you going to see light? Are you going to feel happy?  What are your personal feelings about this?

Bruce Greyson: Boy, that’s the question, isn’t it? Because I think what these people are telling me are metaphors, I really don’t know what to make of it literally. I do think on the basis of all this evidence that there is something after death and that after I die, I will experience something that is not frightening, that is pleasant. I don’t know what it is.
And if I am wrong, then I won’t be alive to know about it. So…

Phil Stieg: Dr. Bruce Greyson, author of the book “After.” Thank you so much for spending this time enlightening us on near death experiences, how it changes people’s lives when they come back and how we might actually be able to use what we’ve learned from those experiences to affect other people’s lives. Thank you for being with us. .

Bruce Greyson: Thank you so much, Phil. It’s been a delight talking to you.