An Interview with Dr. Bruce Greyson on Near Death Experiences: Part 1

The first part of an interview with a secular, materialist scientist who studies near-death experiences.

In the second episode of a two-part series near-death experiences (NDEs), Dr. Michael Guillen interviewed Dr. Bruce Greyson, the Chester Carlson Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia, on the subject. I wrote about the first episode in which Michael Guillen reviewed evidence that NDEs are “real”.

They really happen, and they happen all over the world, in all cultures of the world, and going back in time. We have enough data to indicate that they are a real phenomenon with certain characteristics that can be studied in the data.

In his second episode focusing on NDEs, Dr. Guillen, an astrophysicist, interviewed Dr. Greyson, who has studied NDEs for decades with scientific rigor and published many articles in peer-reviewed journals. I have linked the 40-minute conversation here:

Guillen began by asking for a definition of near-death experience. Greyson defined them by saying they are “profound, subjective experiences” that people have when they are on the threshold of death.

Characteristics include a sense of leaving the physical body and an overwhelming sense of peace and wellbeing. They sometimes include an experience of leaving this physical realm and an experience of some other dimension or realm. People often describe encounters with other entities they interpret to be deities or divine beings. They often involve a review of their own lives in detail, and many of them conclude with a decision to return to life or being “sent back” against their will. 

Dr. Greyson speculates that the experiences suggest some sort of intermediate state between life and death. All of this may seem particularly unscientific, though.

These conclusions seem like the stuff of pseudoscience or metaphysics, but Dr. Greyson grew up in a scientific household with a materialistic worldview. He had no spiritual or religious familiarity. His background is science, and he still admits that he is more comfortable with a materialist mindset in which the physical world is all there is and everything else is simply fantasy.

Dr. Greyson’s has been trained and works within a scientific framework, but he no longer dismisses NDEs as fantasy. Something happened in his life that caused him to spend the last 50 years studying the phenomenon to try to make sense of it.

Greyson explained to Dr. Guillen that the change happened after he was finished with medical school. He was working in an emergency room and was responsible for the care of a drug overdose patient.

She was unconscious, and he was not able to arouse her. During the evening, the patient’s roommate asked to speak with him, so he walked her down the hall into a private room where they talked.

The patient eventually roused from her unresponsive state. She was still drowsy and groggy when Dr. Greyson introduced himself to her. To his surprise, she said she knew who he was. When he commented that he thought she was asleep when he talked to her the night before, she said, “No, not in my room. I saw you talking to my roommate.”

She claimed to have left her body, to have floated down the hall, and to have listened to the doctor’s conversation with her roommate. Greyson didn’t know what to do with her claim, and brushed it off. As far as he was concerned, a person was her body. “How can you leave your body?”

He was thinking she was playing a trick on him or something. She sensed his confusion, then, and preceded to tell him about the conversation.

Her experience made no sense to him, so he focused on the task at hand at trying to help his patient and put it out of his mind. He didn’t think about it again until years later when a colleague at the University of Virginia published a book, Life After life, by Raymond Moody

The book brought to mind his drug overdose patient and the things she said to him. He realized that his patient’s experience was not an isolated incident or a fantasy. It was consistent with a pattern of experiences that millions of people around the world have had, and it was real.

He could not make sense of it in the context of his worldview, but he says he had to acknowledge that it was happening. As a scientist, he became curious and began to study the phenomenon. He says, “Fifty years later I am still trying to understand it.”

In the final part in this mini-series of articles on NDEs, I will summarize some of the findings and observations Dr. Greyson makes from the 50 years of studying NDEs. Dr. Greyson I promise, regardless of your leanings, scientific, religious, or otherwise, you will find the things he has learned to be interesting.

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