I have done two articles on Dr. Michael Guillen’s treatment of near-death experiences (NDEs) based on his podcast, Science + God with Dr. G. Dr. Guillen is an astrophysicist who taught physics at Harvard and earned his degrees from Cornell University under the tutelage of men like Carl Sagan and Fred Hoyle.
He is no slouch when it comes to science, and his beloved science led him to question the materialistic worldview he assumed to be true. As his worldview expanded with the quantum entanglement of scientific discoveries that pushed those once fixed boundaries, he continued on a journey that eventually led him to faith in a Creator, God.
Dr. Guillen’s current interest in NDEs is understandable. It didn’t take much convincing for Dr. Guillen to determine that NDEs are real, but his interviewee in episode #48 of the podcast, Dr. Bruce Greyson, the Chester Carlson Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia, was not as eager, initially, to explore them. He didn’t have room in his own materialistic worldview for NDEs, but the curiosity of his scientific mind propelled forward.
Dr. Greyson has studied NDEs, now, for about 50 years, and the data he has accumulated is significant. In this second article on the interview of Dr. Greyson, I want to begin with the question posed by Dr. Guillen to Greyson: whether the near-death stories people tell are “all over the map”? Greyson did not hesitate with his response:
“They are not all over the map. There are similarities in what people tell us, not only between different individuals but between different cultures and religions. A lot of people tell the same stories. We find near-death experiences from people in Ancient Greece and Rome that sound like they could have happened yesterday.”
The consistencies have been categorized over many years by researchers. They have examined the different types of NDEs and tried to correlate them with environmental factors, such as lack of oxygen and over-stimulation by drugs. Greyson says, however, “We don’t find any correlations at all.” His conclusion from these analyses is that categorizations according to environmental factors “don’t mean anything”.
For these reasons, Greyson treats all NDEs as the same phenomenon. He says the same types of phenomena seem to occur regardless of who has experienced them. Gender, ethnicity, cultural background and religiosity (or the lack thereof) don’t seem to factor into it. “Atheists describe the same things as Catholics do,” says Greyson.
It isn’t the differences, but the common outcomes, that intrigue him as a psychiatrist. He says, the most interesting thing to him is the effect NDEs have on the experiencers.
Dr. Greyson says, “I make my living trying to help people change their lives, and it’s very difficult to do.” The NDE experiences that take a few seconds or a few minutes at most “totally transform someone’s attitudes, beliefs, values, and behavior. That’s a powerful experience.”
Dr. Greyson says that the data shows that NDEs are a universal phenomenon. He won’t speculate whether NDEs indicate some universal reality, something universally going on with physical bodies, or something that is a universal psychological trait. He says, “We don’t know the answer to that.”
As Greyson continues with the interview, it is evident that his scientific training and the skepticism familiar to his materialistic worldview guide him forward with caution. He is not quick to speculate, but he is candid about the things that appear to be evident from the volume of data.
Dr. Greyson described a particular case in which a patient, who was under deep anesthesia with his eyes taped shut described highly unusual things the surgeon who operated on him did in the operating room. When Greyson interviewed the surgeon, the patient’s observations were corroborated, explaining the highly idiosyncratic movements he made.
Inexplicably, the patient described them accurately, but the patient couldn’t have known about them by conventional means – under anesthesia with his eyes tapped shut. You can hear the details if you listen to the interview at about the 15-minute mark.
Dr. Greyson says that he has documented case after case after case of similar phenomenon. Other researchers have documented the same kind of evidence. One doctor in Texas, for instanced, examined 100 similar incidents in which people who who went through NDEs described details under circumstances that offer no conventional explanations. Those details checked out to be accurate in 92% of the cases; only six percent (6%) involved some mistakes; and only one percent (1%) were wrong about the details.
Dr. Greyson says, “Any one story is an anecdote and isn’t proof of anything.” Large amounts of data are necessary to establish to establish evidence, and only then the data has evidential value if it demonstrates a high degree of consistency among the experiences.
“Once you have a large enough database”, says Greyson, “you can start developing hypotheses.” You can explore whether the NDEs are related to a lack of oxygen in the brain or to drugs given to patients, and so forth.
The hypotheses developed on the consensus, materialistic worldview, however, do not bear out. Dr. Greyson and his fellow researches have developed and tested many such hypotheses, but the data contradict every one of them, he says.
For instance, the more oxygen people are given, the more likely people are to report NDEs. Oxygen deprivation does not explain them. The more drugs people are given, the less likely they are to report NDEs. Drug inducement does not appear to trigger them.
Greyson also notes that most people who have NDEs have difficulty expressing what they experienced. They can’t put it into words. They use metaphors that come readily to their minds, which often seem to be influenced by culture or religion, but they find those metaphors inadequate.
People might use the word, “heaven”, to describe what they experienced, but they are quick to say, “I don’t mean the heaven I was taught about in church.” They might describe an encounter with an “living” entity they call God, but they will say it was different and larger than the God they imagined from what they were taught.
The vast majority of people describe a blissful experience. About one percent (1%) to five percent (5%) of the people relate an unpleasant experience. Only a very small percentage of those negative experiences are described like the prototypical view of hell with fire and brimstone. Greyson observes that those prototypical experiences are usually described by people raised in a culture that might expect them, but not from anyone else.
A larger percentage of the negative experiences are described as a black void. No light. No sound. Nothing to relate to for eternity. A terrifying experience to many people, but some Hindus and Buddhists experience the same thing and consider it a blissful experience.
“The vast majority of these unpleasant experiences sound just like the blissful ones, but they experience them in a terrifying way.”
Dr. Greyson observes that many people who experience NDEs unpleasantly are people who have a hard time letting go of control. They fight against it, try to get back into their bodies. They often describe getting exhausted and finally surrendering.
“As soon as they surrender, it becomes a blissful experience for them.”
Dr. Greyson finds no correlation at all between “good” people having pleasant experiences and “bad” people having unpleasant experiences. Greyson says that people in prison serving long sentences for horrible crimes are more likely to have pleasant experiences, just like most other people. Some people who lead seemingly exemplary lives, on the other hand, have frightening experiences.
The white light that people commonly recall is most commonly described as “living”, not a static light like a lightbulb. The vast majority of NDEs do not happen in an operating room (which might explain the experience of a white light). People describe the white light as a living being that radiates light, warmth, acceptance, and unconditional love, and they feel protected by the light, says Greyson.
Dr. Greyson grew up in a nonreligious household with a materialistic view of the world. Dr. Greyson says considers NDEs to suggest that some part of us lives on after the death of our bodies and of our brains, but he doesn’t know how to make sense of that. He says,
“We usually think that the mind is what the brain does. All of our thoughts, and feelings, and perceptions are created by the brain. In a near-death experience, that doesn’t seem to the case.”
Greyson says, “The brain and perception seem to separate in NDEs.” Similarly, some people who have end-stage dementia seem to contradict the common paradigm as well. People who haven’t been able to recognize family or communicate for years suddenly become lucid in the hours or days before they die; inexplicably, they recognize family and carry on conversations.
The findings like the ones described in this brief article cause Greyson to wonder about the consensus view of the brain and mind:
“If the brain isn’t creating the mind, what is the mind, and where is it?”
“The alternative explanation, that the brain creates the mind can’t be explained either. We have no hint of an idea about how a chemical or electrical event in the brain can create a thought.”
Dr. Greyson says he hears stories from people repeatedly who seem to have experienced a separation of their minds from their brains. Frequently, people say they encounter deceased loved ones in the near-death experience. Greyson acknowledged that these stories are easy to dismiss as wishful thinking triggered by a desire to see loved ones at the point of death.
Greyson says, however, that we have many documented cases in which people “met” deceased people in their near-death experiences who were not known at the time to be deceased. Thus, there would be no expectation to meet them at the point of death.
As an example, Dr. Greyson referenced a 25-year old technical writer suffering from severe pneumonia in the hospital. He had been resuscitated from repeated respiratory arrests. One of the young nurses who worked with him was his favorite, Anita. She told him she was taking several days off and would see him when she returned.
Not long after she left, he had another respiratory arrest, was resuscitated, and had a near-death experience in the process. The experience included a beautiful pastoral scene where he encountered Anita walking toward hm. He asked, “What are you doing here?” She said, “This is where I am now, but you can’t stay here. You have to go back, but I want to to tell my parents, ‘I am sorry I wrecked the red MGB.'”
He had complete recall of the NDE after being resuscitated, and he asked the attending nurse about it. She became very upset, started crying, and left the room.
It turns out that Anita had taken the weekend off to celebrate her 21st birthday. Her parents surprised her with a red MGB as a birthday gift. While driving it for the first time, she lost control of the vehicle going down a hill, crashed into a telephone pole, and died instantly.
Greyson says, “There is no way he could have known that. There is no way he could have expected her to die, and certainly not how she died, and yet he did.” He says, “We have story after story like that we just can’t wish away, and we can’t explain.” From this story and the many other stories that he has studied, Dr. Greyson concludes,
“There is some about us that continues after we die.”
Greyson says we would expect memories of NDEs to change and become muddled over time like many memories do, especially of traumatic experiences. He has tested possibility by going back to people he interviewed in the 1970’s and 1980’s and comparing notes of their current memories with the notes from the initial interviews. Greyson found there is “absolutely no difference”. The memories of near-death experiences do not change over decades.
Greyson has tested memories of NDEs on a scale developed by Marcia K. Johnson to distinguish memories of real events from fanciful memories. (See, for example, Memory and Reality) Dr. Greyson had people recall the memories of a near-death experience, a real event from that same time, and a fantasy. He found that the memories of the NDEs rated like the memories of real events, not fantasies.
Similar studies were conducted by a team in Belgium and a team in Italy, and they came to the same conclusions. The Italian team also measured the brain waves of the people remembering the NDEs, real events and fantasies. The brain waves of people remembering NDES looked exactly like the brain waves of people remembering real events, but they did not look like the people remembering fantasies
When put to the question. Dr. Greyson says he cannot conclude whether heaven and hell actually exist. He says most people who have NDEs experience something more akin to heaven. Some will even say that this life is hell compared to what they experienced.
He is quick to say that these descriptions are only metaphors, and not facts that can be tested. Greyson says,
“The vast majority of people who have a near-death experience say that there is something after death, and and it is something that is not to be afraid of.”
At the same time, Greyson adds that he is not certain, himself, that there is life after death.
“I am still a skeptic. I am not totally convinced of anything, but I think the evidence suggests that we do survive, something about us survives death, and experiences something that is pleasant, something that is not to be afraid of.”
As a psychologist, Dr. Greyson naturally has had a concern that learning about the pleasantness of NDEs may cause people to want to commit suicide. The concern led him to study whether any correlation exists between NDEs and suicide attempts. He compared people who had NDEs after a suicide attempt and those who didn’t.
He found that a clear correlation exists, but it isn’t what he feared. The who people who had a near-death experience were much less suicidal afterwards than the people who didn’t have a near-death experience.
It seemed counterintuitive to him, so he interviewed the people who had a near-death experience following a suicide attempt. He says, “Basically what they said is that, if you lose your fear of dying, you also lose your fear of living.”
if you lose your fear of dying you also lose your fear of living.
People who have a near-death experience are no longer afraid of taking chances, of plunging into life and living as fully as they can because they are no longer afraid of losing their life. It frees people to enjoy life, to see the meaning and purpose in things, and to be fulfilled in what they do in life. This is the outcome Dr. Greyson has noted in “experiencer after experiencer” in the 50 years he has been studying NDEs.
As a clinical psychologist, Greyson is primarily interested in how NDEs affect people. Future researchers will likely gain more expertise. They may find overlaps with other mystical experiences. In 50 years, though, Dr. Greyson says he has “only scratched the surface”.
Dr. Greyson remains skeptical of making speculative statements about NDEs, but he is clear that the evidence suggests at least two things: 1) the mind seems to be more than simply projections from a physical brain; and 2) life seems to continue in some aspect, some aspect of people seems to continue, beyond the death of the physical body. Without background or familiarity with religion or metaphysical things, he goes little further than those conclusions.
As a Christian who believes a supreme spiritual being and life after death, I find NDEs interesting, though the data doesn’t necessarily corroborate all that the Christian faith suggests. Perhaps, God is larger than what He appears to be in the Bible. Perhaps, we just don’t understand what is going on. I will leave you with one Scripture, though, that I read n my daily reading today:
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.James 2:26 CSB
The Bible suggests that the body does not live without “the spirit”. The “spirit” apparently, then, animates the body, and the spirit is, perhaps, what lives on without the body. In this light, I think of 1 Corinthians 15 in which Paul discusses physical bodies and spiritual bodies. I don’t have time to get into those things now, but I have written about them before. (See God’s Order for Living Beings, Human Beings and His Grand Design; At the Curve of a Waterfall: Matter Flowing Through Us; and The First Fruits of Another World for examples.)
I believe that many of my fellow Christians will be disappointed where I end here, but I have to conclude this article. It’s already long in the tooth. I am also ending where the interview ends.
I appreciate the scientific, skeptical orientation of Dr. Greyson. Doing science demands a skeptical orientation. Science is also limited, by definition, to discovering the facts pertaining to the natural world. Science may be incapable, therefore, of telling us much beyond the parameters of the natural world. The best it can do, perhaps, is to suggest what lies beyond it.
I write this more for my friends who are dogmatically wedded to naturalism/materialism, who believe that the universe consists of nothing other than matter and energy, who don’t allow for the possibility of reality other than the natural world.
There is much that we do not know, and the things we do know have a way of pushing the boundaries back on our assumptions. If we are honest, we see that science does not have all the answers. A good scientist remains open to what the facts bear out.
“A person of faith”, on the other hand, should be just as candid and just as honest. We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know anything other about God and the reality of what we call “God’s kingdom” and “spiritual things” than God chooses to reveal to us.
I believe I can say this, however: NDEs make no sense on a purely naturalistic/materialistic worldview at this point. They fit much more comfortably in a worldview that holds that something exists and that reality extends beyond matter and energy.
Perhaps, we aren’t even capable of knowing much more in our finite state. Christians and scientists have good reason to remain humble and open. I will end with this statement that I heard someone say today about people who have encountered Christ:
For Dr. Greyson, the psychiatrist, he makes a similar statement about NDEs: He knows they are powerful because of the way they change people.