An Interview with Dr. Bruce Greyson on Near Death Experiences, Part 2

If you lose your fear of dying, you also lose your fear of living.

A woman dies and her spirit arises.

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.

Continue reading “An Interview with Dr. Bruce Greyson on Near Death Experiences, Part 2”

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.

Continue reading “An Interview with Dr. Bruce Greyson on Near Death Experiences: Part 1”

Are Near Death Experiences Real?

I recently listened to episode #47 on the podcast by the Dr. Michael Guillen in which he explored the latest scientific research on near death experiences (NDEs). Michael Guillen is a former Harvard physics professor. You can listen to the half hour episode through Spotify at this link:

I have written on the research by Gary Habermas on NDEs. I chased down a rabbit hole to follow the NDE of an atheist. I also did a candid piece on what NDEs prove and what NDEs do not prove. My fascination with NDEs continues in this article with some of the basic conclusions Dr. Guillen notes from his look at NDEs.

He acknowledges from the start that scientific study of NDEs provides few clear answers. Even defining something as seemingly simple as death has become more difficult, rather than simpler, over time. We have gotten so good at reviving people that people we once thought were dead have been brought back to life.

Most people today define death synonymously with brain death. When brain activity ceases is when death is declared. Even patients who cease brain activity, however, sometimes go on living in fashion. Circulation and breathing may continue, the body may continue to regulate temperature, and the body may continue to excrete urine and feces for instance.

Determining the exact time of death is not an exact science. Dr. Guillen calls death “the ultimate mystery”. Death has been the focus of poets, writers, prophets, and scientists for centuries. For millennia, civilized societies have built elaborate rituals around death and the hope of life after death. Recent scientific studies have begun to shed some light on death.

Continue reading “Are Near Death Experiences Real?”

What Near Death Experiences Prove, and What They Do Not Prove

What if reality consists of more than the natural, physical world?

I am interested in peoples’ stories. I can trace my interest in personal stories to my own experience of becoming a Christian and my own spiritual journey. I have found much common ground with other people who have had similar experiences. The story of spiritual journey (a “testimony”) is part of the fabric of the evangelical Christian tradition. The testimony is a test of sorts of the authenticity of the journey, of a real encounter with God that we call being “born again”.

A testimony is the most personal evidence for the existence of God for the person who claims to be a Christian, but it isn’t evidence in a scientific sense. It’s evidence that is easily discounted by the naturalist who relies only on science and empirical, measurable and falsifiable evidence.

It can also be problematic for the Christian community. There is a certain social, group pressure – unintended, or not – for every Christian to have “a testimony”. The more dramatic the better. The person who was “always a Christian” may feel a tinge of self doubt. The person whose story does not line up with more “typical” testimonies may feel out of step.

Personal stories are subjective, and the subjective nature of them engenders some natural and warranted skepticism.

Don’t get me wrong. The intimate and private nature of a personal experience with God is exactly the most compelling thing about it. Like the woman at the well who told everyone of her encounter with Jesus – “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!” (John 4:4-30) – the intimate and highly personal nature of the experience is what makes it so meaningful and convincing.

But personal encounter, ultimately, is meaningful and convincing mainly to the one who experiences it. It can’t be empirically verified, and it doesn’t carry the same weight with other people who don’t have the same intimate connection to the personal details.

Personal experiences are not bound by logical, rational or empirical factors. If we rely on personal experiences, especially to the exclusion of more “scientific” analyses, the highly subjective and personal nature of personal experiences can led a person down some questionable rabbit holes. We probably all know people who have been so influenced by their own personal experiences which, unchecked by some objective analysis, have led them onto some strange and questionable paths.

For the Christian, that objective analysis is Scripture, doctrine and tradition. For each religion, that objective analysis is some combination of that religion’s scripture, doctrinal corpus and tradition, and for the naturalist, that objective analysis is empirical evidence, proven theory and scientific analysis.

This is where NDEs get interesting. Continue reading “What Near Death Experiences Prove, and What They Do Not Prove”

On the Near-Death Experience of an Atheist and Speculation on Its Effect

Whatever our experiences, our beliefs often win out. Our beliefs are not always divorced from what we want to be true, though they may be (by the same token) disconnected from reality. 

The subject of near-death experiences is a deep rabbit hole I have come to find out. I have listened to a number of testimonies recently of people who have had near-death experiences. Trying to make some sense of them led me to look up what Gary Habermas has to say about them. Habermas has been involved in the research of near-death experiences (NDEs) for a couple of decades.

This blog piece follows a summary of what Habermas says about NDEs. (See Habermas on Near-Death Experiences) I am picking up here where I left off about the near-death experience of the famous atheist, Sir Alfred Jules (AJ) Ayer, that is self-described in the article, What I Saw When I was Dead. This piece explores beyond the suggestions Habermas makes (that NDEs may be influenced by worldview) and gets behind the public persona of Ayer after his NDE.

To the extent that Ayer is “arguably the most influential 20th century rationalist after Bertrand Russel“, his encounter with a seemingly irrational near-death experience is interesting indeed.

Continue reading “On the Near-Death Experience of an Atheist and Speculation on Its Effect”