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The MD Who Studies Near Death Experiences Is NOT Religious

Greyson was motivated by a desire to understand experiences that materialist approaches have simply not explained satisfactorily

Last week, we talked about psychiatrist Bruce Greyson and his new book, After (2021), discussing near-death experiences (NDEs). The Guardian ran an interview with Greyson the same day, in which he offers some perspectives that may be useful in trying to sort out the issues:

Near death experience

● Modern neuroscience does not have a simple answer that dismisses NDEs.

When I ask Greyson why he decided to publish After now, after all these years, he explains that “we had to wait until we had enough knowledge about near-death experiences to be able to understand what was going on,” by which he means not that we know what NDEs are, but that advances in science have allowed us to rule out a heap of things they are not. “There are physiological hypotheses that seem plausible theoretically,” he says, but none have stuck. Are feelgood chemicals, like endorphins, released into the body at the point of peril, creating euphoria? Does the brain become starved of oxygen, prompting real-seeming fantasies? Do various areas of the brain suddenly begin to work in concert to create strange, altered states? Nobody knows for sure. “We keep thinking, ‘Oh it’s got to be this,’” Greyson says. “No, the data doesn’t show that. ‘Oh, this then?’ Well, nope, the data doesn’t show that, either.”

Alex Moshakis, “What do near-death experiences mean, and why do they fascinate us?” at The Guardian (March 7, 2021)

Every so often one reads in popular science literature that a researcher has homed in on the true (wholly physical) cause of NDEs. But it turns out that the researcher has simply put forward another hypothesis.

● In the field, there is both considerable prejudice against the study of NDEs and a private wish to discuss them: As Moshakis recounts, “When Greyson mentions his research to colleagues, he receives ‘a variety of reactions, from, “Are you out of your mind?” to “Oh, let me tell you about my near-death experience.”’” In the 1980s, he established the Greyson Scale in order to evaluate NDEs in a consistent manner.

● NDEs often change lives significantly: “To Greyson, the impact near-death experiences have on people’s lives has been his most surprising discovery.” ‘I make a living by trying to help people change their lives,’ he says. ‘It’s not easy to do. But here I’ve found an experience that, sometimes in a matter of seconds, dramatically transforms people’s attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviours.’ Often, these changes persist over decades.” Usually, the experiencer becomes much more interested in relationships, less interested in power, status, and money.

Read the whole article here.

It’s true that a small number of near-death experiences are distressing:

Many people claim to experience euphoria in near death experiences (NDEs), but one woman claims to have felt an evil presence. The person, who gives her name as just Sandi, temporarily died following a heart attack and said her “heart had stopped for 12 minutes. I was told that I had no pulse or brain movement.”

During that 12 minutes, Sandi claims to have experienced something so evil she has not been the same since.

Sean Martin, “Near death experience: ‘I felt such a horrible presence that it terrifies me even now’” at Express (July 28, 2020)

Research into NDEs in general is comparatively new and such distressing experiences are comparatively rare. Estimates of their proportion of all experiences range from 1% through 15%, which suggests that more research is needed, even for classification purposes. The surprising thing is that even distressing NDEs can have a positive effect. For example, experiencers who have attempted suicide rarely do so again: Says one psychologist, “This is in stark contrast to the normal pattern—in fact, a previous suicide attempt is usually the strongest predictor of actual suicide.”

Study of NDEs continues. One team of researchers from Canada and Belgium (University of Western Ontario and Université de Liège) has used a new procedure called “text mining” in which they analyze the recollections of experiencers based on patterns in the words used to describe them:

Traditionally, NDEs are explored using standardized questionnaires like the Greyson scale, which asks participants a series of questions answered using multiple choice. The problem, [Andrea] Soddu said, is it is a potentially biased approach that may skew recollections.

“[Using text mining] we extracted words that were more on the positive side like ‘light’ and ‘wellness’ and saw that words like ‘fear’ — while still part of the narrative — were much less dominant than the positive outcomes.”

Jaclyn Carbone, “Near-death experience: London man shares what it’s like to die — and then come back” at Global News (February 5, 2020)

The paper is open access.

One thing that NDEs generally do is cause the experiencer to stop fearing death. As one participant in the Canada–Belgium study put it, “As fearful as these moments are for people… it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually deeply beautiful.”

You may also wish to read:

Physician explains why he takes near-death experiences seriously. Near-death experiences don’t fit easily into traditional science categories because they occur — often with life-changing effects — when the brain is damaged or unconscious. In a culture which insists that the mind is simply what the brain does, verified near-death experiences when the brain is inactive are a challenge.

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The MD Who Studies Near Death Experiences Is NOT Religious