Is death the end of our existence – or is there something more? Humans have pondered the question for eons. Excitingly enough, dismissing the idea of life after death gets increasingly harder. A huge contributor to this is NDEs.
In this ConnectIONS Live webinar, Bruce Greyson explores the fascinating topic of near-death experiences (NDEs), and what they can teach us about the continuation of consciousness. Bruce is an MD and Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences. He’s also an author, co-founder, and President of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, and Editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies.
He was raised in a “hardcore science family,” as he states it. As a physician, he witnessed NDEs and the profound healing effects they could have, which sparked his curiosity about the topic.
His book After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal About Life and Beyond covers his nearly 50 years of research into the topic from a scientific perspective.
The challenges with researching Near-Death Experiences
NDEs can offer an interesting glimpse into what happens after physical death. About 11 minutes in, Bruce explains NDEs as vivid, hyper-real experiences many people have on the threshold of death, or when they’ve been pronounced dead and resuscitated. These experiences often end up being deeply meaningful for the person having them.
But researching NDEs comes with its challenges:
- Biased samples: Due to the highly personal nature of NDEs, and the lack of a scientific model for how they work, it’s hard to tell if an individual experience is representative of NDEs in general. It may also be that those with positive experiences feel more motivated to explore the topic and participate in research.
- Ineffability: Trying to describe an NDE in words is like trying to explain love in human language. Research participants explained it as “trying to draw an odor with a crayon – no matter how many crayons you have, you just can’t do it.”
- Cultural influence: Because of the ineffability mentioned above, the most accurate way of describing NDEs is by using metaphors. Metaphors are inevitably colored by the cultural and religious background of the research participants. These differences need to be considered when gathering results. That said, many accounts describe a similar warm, welcoming light, though some call it God and others “a bright light” or love.
- Fear of exposure: Some people avoid sharing their stories for fear of being ridiculed or judged.
- Inconsistent protocols: When this work was initiated in the 1970s, most researchers worked independently in institutes that didn’t encourage this type of work. There was little collaborative effort, so the questions asked differed across institutes, making it harder to compare results.
Near-Death Experiences: Are they real?
Around 16 minutes in, we encounter the next major challenge: Are NDEs real in an objective sense, or just hallucinations?
Skeptics dismiss NDEs as biologically explainable hallucinations. However, this argument goes against the science of a dying brain, as we shall see shortly.
What’s striking about NDEs is that despite the different metaphors used, the underlying experience described looks similar across cultures. NDEs are often described as “realer than real.” They can be considered objectively real as thousands of experiences display consistent patterns across cultures and epochs.
Besides, the memories are stable over time. While memories of other events tend to fade with time, experiencers of NDEs can often describe the event with remarkable accuracy decades after it occurred.
Around the 19-minute mark, Bruce shares how he recently tracked down study participants he first interviewed in the 1980s. His question was: would the memories be blurred, or would they still be able to recount their experiences with the same accuracy? The latter turned out to be true. Unlike memories of most life events, participants could share their experiences with the same vividness as almost 40 years earlier.
Features of Near-Death Experiences
Twenty minutes in, Bruce uncovers some cross-cultural features of NDEs:
- Changes in thinking: Experiencers report rapid thought, timelessness, and life reviews – not just through their own eyes, but the eyes of others involved. Also, revelations or how previously confusing situations got crystal clear.
- Changes in feeling: Feelings reported across the boards are joy, peace, cosmic unity, and divine love. However, in 1-5% of the studied instances, feelings of terror and unpleasant experiences were reported. This seems to happen when the experiencer tries to fight the NDE and refuses to surrender. Potentially, this is more common among people with a huge need for control. When releasing control, the experience often turns blissful.
- Paranormal (noetic) phenomena: Among these were reported vivid senses, out-of-body experiences (OBEs), visions of the future, and extrasensory perception (ESP).
- Otherworldly phenomena: The sensation of entering another realm, encountering mystical beings or spirits, and perceiving a border that they weren’t allowed to cross.
Physiological explanations proposed by skeptics
These are some commonly used rational explanations of NDEs:
- Oxygen deprivation
- Brain chemicals
- Brain electrical activity
- REM intrusion
However, as we shall see, none of these are valid:
- Lack of oxygen to the brain causes fear and panic. Most reported NDE cases are serene and peaceful. Negative emotions are rather felt when the experiencer returns to their physical reality. Besides, measures have revealed that people who report NDEs have richer oxygen supplies to the brain than those who don’t.
- A higher prevalence of drugs has been proven to cause less frequency of NDEs.
- Brain chemicals like endorphins or substances similar to ketamine or DMT have been theorized to cause NDEs. But these compounds are produced in such tiny amounts during short amounts of time, and wouldn’t be able to explain the rich and detailed NDEs.
- Abnormal electrical activity in the temporal lobe is sometimes considered a biological explanation for NDEs. But nothing in patients with temporal lobe seizures is similar to NDEs. Furthermore, in experiments where the temporal lobe has been stimulated, people report bizarre physical sensations – but not the noetic phenomena typical to NDEs.
- Regarding REM: Some people who experience NDEs are on drugs. Drugs suppress the REM state, so this cannot be an explanation of NDEs.
The list of common “rational” explanations goes on, and Bruce has an argument for each objection. For example, expecting to see beings is a poor argument for instances when atheists have had NDEs. Many times, after encountering beings or even deceased loved ones during the experience, these people started to believe in something bigger.
In fact, meeting a deceased loved one seems to be a common occurrence happening in 30-40% of the cases reported! Expectations aren’t a valid argument, as there are stories where NDE:ers have met people in their lives they didn’t know had passed away, and only after the experience got informed about their passing.
Furthermore, there’s no connection between PTSD or mental illness and NDEs.
The aftereffects of a Near-Death Experience
Around 31 minutes in, Bruce shares about the common aftereffects. We’ll look at some different categories:
- Attitudes: Many people overcome their fear of death and are reported to take more risks than before and live life to its fullest. “When you lose your fear of dying, you also lose your fear of living”, as Bruce explains. Interestingly, people who had an NDE after a suicide attempt got less suicidal upon awakening. People often become more compassionate, caring, and altruistic.
- Spirituality: Atheists can start to believe in something bigger. There’s a deep realization that we’re all one, we’re all fingers of the same hand. That’s why many NDE-ers feel it’s impossible to ever hurt another being again, as they get how much pain that’s inflicting on themselves. Other reported feelings are being more connected to the universe and to others, and valuing life more than before.
- Behavior: NDE-ers display changes in career, lifestyle, and addictive behaviors. Those who were criminals or had a violent career (such as being in the military) before the event often quit, because they can’t imagine hurting someone else. Many shift to professions where they’re in service of others, such as teaching. Addictions have been cured instantly. People become less concerned with material objects and more involved in relationships.
- Challenges: The most challenging part with an NDE is often not the experience itself, which often is reported to be blissful. Instead, it’s the return to the human form and others’ reactions. People can feel sadness or anger when they’re “back in the body”. They can also feel judged, as other people either expect them to be saints and enlightened after the experience or consider them crazy.
How Near-Death experiences support consciousness outside of the brain
The materialist view is that “the mind is what the brain does.” But as NDEs prove, the mind can function perfectly even when the brain is severely impaired.
The fact that many NDEers have met relatives that are long gone from Earth suggests that the essence of us lives on in some form.
Other phenomena that support the idea of consciousness being separate from the brain are terminal lucidity and psychedelic experiences. It has been shown that the deeper the psychedelic experience, the less the electric activity in the brain. It seems like psychedelics temporarily “turn off” the brain so the mind can expand and experience enhanced states of consciousness.
A theory is that the brain is not the generator of but the filter of consciousness. This can be illustrated with a radio analogy: you tune in to the channel you wish to listen to, and filter out all other channels. It makes sense to assume the brain works like this since our eyes and ears function in a similar way. As Bruce states in his book: “The brain is the organ of attention to life.”
NDEs seem to take us to an elevated state of consciousness. The reason we’re in a baseline state of consciousness in everyday life is that it’s needed for survival: to find shelter, food, and mates.
Remarkable cases: Spontaneous healing and knowing details of a close one’s recent death
Some stories make it hard to doubt the validity of NDEs as proof of consciousness being separate from the brain. Around 48 minutes in, Bruce shares a remarkable story about a man who had an NDE following severe pneumonia. He had been at the hospital for a while and was attended by a young nurse.
When the man had the NDE, the nurse had taken the weekend off to celebrate her birthday. In the experience, much to his surprise, he met his nurse. She said, “You can’t stay here. I need you to go back. I want you to tell my parents that I’m sorry I wrecked the red MGB.” Upon waking up, he found out that his nurse had passed away during the weekend – in a car crash with her red MGB.
Reports of spontaneous healing during NDEs exist but are relatively rare. One famous example is Anita Moorjani, an Indian woman with aggressive lymphoma. Her family was told there was nothing to do and that they should prepare for her passing. She experienced an elaborate NDE. Upon waking up, the doctors couldn’t believe what they saw: all the tumors were gone! There’s also a story about an HIV-positive man coming out of an experience testing negative for HIV.
About 45 minutes in, Bruce shares a summary: NDEs are common and normal. As mentioned, the exact number of experiences is unknown due to resistance to reporting, but it’s believed to happen to 10-20% of people who have cardiac arrest. This amounts to 5% of all people!
There are profound aftereffects on attitudes, beliefs, values, and behavior that need to be integrated and dealt with properly. One positive effect is that the fear of death often plummets sharply. When people have less fear of dying, they also get less afraid of living, and may get the courage to follow the dreams they previously put off. They act as a light flash in a dark night: before, you’re in the dark. During the experience, there’s a flash of light revealing everyone you didn’t see before. Afterward, you’re back in the dark – but the memory of what you saw stays with you, changing your life.
NDEs suggest that the mind can function independently of the brain and also beyond death. During human life, consciousness can be seen as a wave of the ocean – it appears to be temporarily distinct. Upon death, this wave merges back to the ocean.
An NDE reveals that even as a wave, you were part of this ocean all along. A comforting insight.