by Michael E. Tymn|
A pioneer and still a leading researcher in the area of near-death experiences, Bruce Greyson, M.D., now serves as the Carlson Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia. He received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University in 1968 and his medical degree from the State University of New York in 1973. Over the past 30 years, Dr. Greyson has had more than 60 scientific presentations at national and regional conferences, received nine research grants, and published more than 90 articles in scholarly journals. He has served as editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies for the past 22 years. Your editor recently put some questions to him by e-mail.
Exactly when and how did you become interested in NDEs?
In 1976, I was teaching at the University of Virginia when Raymond Moody started his psychiatric residency there under my supervision. I had known that Raymond had just written a book, but I did not know what it was about until the book, Life After Life, became a best-seller. Raymond was quickly deluged with letters from experiencers who were amazed to find that they were not alone in having had an NDE. Trying to focus on his psychiatric training, he did not have the time to answer all those letters, so he brought them to me. Once I started reading them, I couldn’t put them down. So I took them to mymentor at UVA, Dr. Ian Stevenson, and the two of us starting investigating this phenomenon.
What was your religious or spiritual orientation at that time, especially with regard to the survival of consciousness at death?
I don’t think my religious orientation at the time is relevant, except to say that as a scientist I had thought the question of survival was solely a matter of faith or philosophical perspective, and not a question that could be studied scientifically. Becoming immersed in near-death experiences opened my eyes to a host of other phenomena that are quite amenable to scientific research, and that may well have important bearing on the question of survival.
Would you mind summarizing your current beliefs and telling us how much your NDE studies have influenced you?
Yes, I would mind summarizing my current beliefs, because I don’t think they are relevant to an assessment of my work as a scientist or as a physician. But I can say that my studies of NDEs and related phenomena have convinced me that survival of consciousness is a reasonable hypothesis that is researchable by orthodox scientific methods. Until our research does answer the question definitively – which may not happen in my lifetime – belief in survival may remain a matter of personal faith or preference. But I think the research that has been carried out in the past quarter century has established that there are many phenomena that are not easily explained by a purely materialistic model of humankind, and that may be better explained by a model that includes interacting physical and spiritual aspects to people.
Your last response suggests that a scientist cannot really have an opinion, belief, or conclusion of his own or he is no longer an objective examiner. On this subject, do you really think that absolute proof of survival is possible? While I am not a scientist, it seems to me that there is as much proof of survival as there is of biological evolution. At least, the evidence for evolution falls short of being absolute. Why is it that scientists can commit themselves to evolution but not to survival?
Scientists are like other people in that they can’t help having opinions and beliefs, but we have to evaluate our data independently of those beliefs. That’s why science is best done as a collective effort, so our individual opinions don’t bias our observations.
The methods of science do not permit absolute proof of anything. Scientists explore the evidence for and against competing hypotheses, and derive tentative conclusions that a certain hypothesis is more or less likely than others, based on the data currently available. Because science is based on empirical observation rather than revelation, our conclusions are always subject to change as new evidence accumulates. Sometimes a concept like evolution receives such overwhelming empirical support that we act as if it were proven; but even those concepts are subject to revision as we discover contradictory evidence. Although I think there is sufficient empirical evidence to make survival the most likely explanation for some phenomena, it has not been embraced by many mainstream scientists because we have much more work to do in eliminating competing hypotheses and developing a plausible mechanism by which something could survive bodily death.
According to a Gallup poll published in 1990, more than 22 million people have reported having an NDE. That seems awfully high to me. Do you feel that number is in the ballpark?
I agree that that number seems high, but I think the disagreement stems from how one defines an NDE. The Gallup poll used a very broad definition, essentially asking survey respondents whether they had ever been on the verge of death or had a “close call” that involved any unusual experience. That definition would include a wide variety of phenomena from drug-induced hallucinations to miraculous rescues, few of which would qualify as NDEs by standard criteria. A number of rigorous scientific studies in the past few years have suggested that between 10 and 20% of people who are demonstrably near death, such as from a cardiac arrest, report having NDEs. But whether the total number of near-death experiencers is closer to 5 million or 50 million, they are common enough to be of importance to health care professionals, to scientists, and to society at large.
Of all the NDE cases you’ve come across, which do you consider the two or three most evidential? Why?
You asked which cases I consider the most evidential, and I will answer that, but let me say first that I do not regard the most evidential cases as necessarily the most important or the most impressive. The most impressive cases to me, as a psychiatrist, are the ones that lead to the most profound and long-lasting personality transformations: the people whose NDEs shake them out of their narrow, self-centered perspectives into lives of giving and loving, the people who abandon careers based on accumulating wealth and power at others’ expense to become teachers or massage therapists. But as impressive as those cases are, they are evidence only of the transformative potential of the NDE, not of its ultimate meaning or objective reality. The cases that are most evidential are those in which the experiencer returns with verifiable information that he or she could not have acquired through normal means. These include cases in which an experiencer had clear perceptions that could have come only from an out-of-body perspective; cases in which the experiencer’s thought processes were clearer than ever, while his or her brain function was clearly impaired; and cases in which the experiencer obtained information that appeared to come from a deceased acquaintance. My colleagues and I have published detailed accounts of 7 such cases (Cook, Greyson, & Stevenson, “Do any near-death experiences provide evidence for the survival of human personality after death?” Journal of Scientific Exploration, 12, 377-406, 1998; Kelly, Greyson, & Stevenson, “Can experiences near death furnish evidence of life after death?” Omega, 40, 513-519, 2000). I think one of the best cases is the one described by cardiologist Mike Sabom in his 1998 book, Light and Death, in which Pam Reynolds described accurate and detailed visual perceptions of her brain surgery in which all the blood had been drained out of her body and her brain waves were totally flat.
It is my understanding that researchers have found that electrical stimulation of the angular gyrus in the brain results in experiences similar to the NDE. Can this discovery be interpreted to mean that the NDE is strictly a mechanistic occurrence without spiritual implications? What are your views?
A 2002 paper in the prestigious journal Nature, by Swiss neurologist Olaf Blanke and colleagues, described a patient with epilepsy in whom out-of-body experiences were repeatedly elicited by temporal lobe stimulation. This was not an experience identical to an NDE; it was simply a feeling “as if” the patient had left her body. This was not a new finding: it confirmed a similar report almost a half century ago by Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. Blanke and his colleagues were admirably circumspect in their conclusions, and they did not claim that their finding implied that NDEs are strictly mechanistic occurrences without spiritual implications. They demonstrated simply that an illusion of being out of the body could result from electrical stimulation of the right temporal lobe, and from that illusion they speculated about the role of certain parts of the brain in the experience of feeling dissociated from the body.
It is irrational, however, to make the unwarranted jump from Blanke’s observation about induced illusions to the assumption that spontaneous out-of-body experiences must also be illusions due to temporal lobe activity. That is certainly one of many hypotheses, but it remains at this point an untested hypothesis.
On empirical grounds, the induced out-of-body sensations elicited by temporal lobe stimulation resemble spontaneous OBEs, but are not identical to them. For example, OBEs induced by electrical stimulation are accompanied (in Blanke’s patient and in Penfield’s) by complex somatic illusions, such as bizarre distortions of one’s body image, which do not occur in spontaneous OBEs. On the other hand, OBEs induced by electrical stimulation do not include accurate perceptions of the environment from a spatial perspective distant from the body, which are reported in some spontaneous OBEs. Given the phenomenological differences (and the differences in psychological aftereffects for the experiencer), it is a leap of faith rather than a scientific deduction to assume that the mechanism of electrically induced OBEs also applies to spontaneous experiences.
On logical grounds, we should not assume that all OBEs are caused by temporal lobe activity, just because some are. In Penfield’s patient, electrical stimulation of the right temporal lobe also elicited the illusion of hearing an orchestra playing. However, we do not conclude that all sensations of hearing an orchestra are illusions due to temporal lobe activity; rather, we allow that some such sensations may be accurate perceptions of a real orchestra that exists outside the patient's brain. By the same reasoning, we cannot conclude, from the fact that electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe can induce OBE-like illusions, that all OBEs are illusions due to temporal lobe activity.
Early NDE research involved many experiencers who had not previously heard of an NDE. Now that there is so much available to the public on the subject, isn’t future research prejudiced by this?
Yes, it is. This is by no means peculiar to NDE research. All research based on individuals’ reports are subject to the influence of personal and cultural biases in perception and interpretation. However, we do have many reports of NDEs that were collected prior to Raymond Moody’s pioneering book in 1975 that first brought NDEs to public attention, and we can compare the types of experiences and aftereffects being reported today to those that were reported prior to 1975.
I understand that you once worked with Dr. Ian Stevenson, who did so much research in the area of reincarnation. Is there continuing research at the University of Virginia in this area? Are you involved in any of it?
Dr. Stevenson was one of my mentors back in the 1970s, and I continue to work with him. Two years ago he officially retired from the University of Virginia, and I took his chair as Director of the Division of Personality Studies at UVA. The Division was established in 1967 to study psychical phenomena that bear on the question of whether some part of us survives bodily death. We have a staff of 8 doctoral-level researchers and 3 assistants. Most of our current research focuses on near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, deathbed visions, apparitions, spontaneous after-death communications, communications through mediums, and children who claim to remember previous lives. Although Dr. Stevenson is no longer conducting new field studies, he is still actively writing books and papers about his cases suggestive of reincarnation. But other researchers in our Division are continuing to expand our collection of reincarnation-type cases that Dr. Stevenson began, and which now includes more than 2,700 children. Our website (http://www.healthsystem.virginia.edu/internet/personalitystudies/) includes more information about our research activities, publications, and resources.
Is there more research that needs to be done, or has science gone as far as it can in studying these phenomena?
There is a lot more that needs to be done. Although there may be sufficient data to establish that these phenomena are real and occur commonly, many mainstream scientists will continue to ignore the evidence for survival until we can suggest reasonable mechanisms to explain how something could continue to survive after the physical body dies. So we are moving beyond the mere collection of new cases, into research that tests hypotheses about possible mechanisms.
One of the active areas in NDE research is establishing the conditions under which accurate out-of-body perceptions can occur. Jan Holden and I are conducting research now in which unexpected visual targets are placed above the operating tables during carefully monitored medical procedures in which cardiac arrest is intentionally induced. Cardiologist Sam Parnia and neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick are doing similar studies in England. Promising new aspects of research into children who claim to remember previous lives include psychological testing of these children and sophisticated imaging of the tissue underlying the birthmarks that they claim are related to death wounds from their previous lives. We are also conducting studies of mediumship in which we can eliminate the possibility of contaminating sensory communication between mediums and sitters. Similar controlled studies of mediums are being carried out by Gary Schwartz and Linda Russek in Arizona and by Tricia Robertson and Archie Roy in England. Far from being over, I think scientific investigation of psychic phenomena is just beginning to blossom.
Are you interested in collecting more cases?
Most definitely. We are always trying to increase our collection of cases, of NDEs and deathbed visions, of children who claim to remember previous lives, and of apparitions and after-death communications. No two cases are exactly the same, and by increasing our database we can answer questions that cannot be answered by in-depth studies of smaller samples. We would be delighted to hear from any readers who have experiences to report, preferably by e-mail (DOPS@virginia.edu) or by mail at the University of Virginia Division of Personality Studies, PO Box 800152, Charlottesville, VA 22908-0152.