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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—At the University of Virginia, a space is given to the scientific investigation of strange phenomena that challenge currently accepted scientific assumptions. Such phenomena include extrasensory perception (such as telepathy), apparitions and deathbed visions, poltergeists, experiences of persons who come close to death and survive (usually called near-death experiences), out-of-body experiences, and claimed memories of previous lives.
Dr. Bruce Greyson is one of the several scientists who work in this Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS), and his specialty is near-death experiences.
Dr. Greyson’s father was a chemist. The material sciences reigned in his house and spiritual matters were not much considered. Greyson followed in his father’s footsteps, but his fascination with unanswered questions drew him away from the material sciences and toward psychiatry when he was in medical school.
“When I got into psychiatry, one of the areas that had the most unanswered questions was this whole area of the paranormal—things that sound psychotic on the surface (of course, they are so different from everyday reality), but they happen to perfectly normal, sane people,” he said.
Sitting in his office at DOPS, Dr. Greyson was encircled by small mountains of stacked papers. A wall of his office was also lined with filing cabinets brimming with cases of profound near-death experiences (NDEs). Mild-mannered, sober yet quietly enthusiastic, Dr. Greyson described some of those cases. He is particularly interested in the stunning after-effects on these individuals who report leaving their bodies during a brush with death and entering a visceral but ethereal state of being.
While the causes of such experiences are much-debated, the indisputable fact is that NDEers are deeply impacted.
“As a psychiatrist, what’s much more interesting to me is not the ‘knock your socks off’ part of the experience, but the after-effects, the way it changes people’s lives,” Dr. Greyson said. “Psychiatrists and psychologists spend a lot of hard work trying to get people to make fairly small changes, and here in the flash of a second, people are totally transformed—this is a powerful experience!”
In one case, a man was an alcoholic and he was abusive toward his wife. After an NDE, he became an all-around good Samaritan. He didn’t drink, he was good to his wife, he helped others. For example, he rushed to New Orleans to join efforts following Hurricane Katrina. Though his wife was happy with the changes, she did complain that he became too oblivious to everyday practical matters, such as paying bills. It’s as though his glimpse of the next life made him less concerned with this one.
Dr. Greyson explained: “We’re all taught the Golden Rule, and we see it’s something we’re supposed to strive toward—you try to treat others the way you want to be treated—but when you have a near-death experience, it’s not a rule you’re supposed to follow. It’s just the way the universe works and of course you do that, because we’re all in this together, we’re all the same. If I hurt someone else I’m hurting myself.”
While one may understand this principle on the surface—and Dr. Greyson has been reminded of this often through his interaction with NDEers—it’s another thing to really accept it deep down. “I’ve changed a lot because of this research,” he said, “But I don’t think it’s on the order of magnitude of someone who actually had the experience.”
One of the most profound effects Dr. Greyson has observed is a loss of the fear of death. No longer afraid of death, NDEers are also no longer afraid of living life to the fullest.
The changes in an NDEer are often immediate, and almost always dramatic and lasting. They aren’t like fleeting New Year’s resolutions or the many life lessons we seem to have to relearn again and again. Dr. Greyson has followed up on cases over the course of decades and found that in about 95 percent of the cases, it remains as though the NDE just happened.
It’s not all ideological either. Physical NDE effects have been observed. Electromagnetic after-effects apparently make NDEers affect devices; their car batteries may inexplicably die or their cell phones will stop working. Some NDEers also have unusually low blood pressure, an increased tendency toward allergies, sensitivity to alcohol or bright lights, and other effects.
While some generalizations can be made about NDEs, they also vary widely. For example, depending on a person’s social or cultural background, he or she may frame the description of the experience differently. This may be because NDEs are so outside of the normal range of experiences that it is hard to describe them accurately in words. People grasp for familiar terms to describe something utterly unfamiliar.
A Christian may say he saw Jesus or angels. Someone from another culture may say he saw the God of death. Some people describe entering a tunnel, but a truck driver once described himself entering something like a tail pipe!
Many NDEers don’t talk about their experiences at all. They fear sounding crazy. Members of Dr. Greyson’s own family had kept such secrets. After he began talking about NDEs, they spoke with him in private and revealed their own experiences.
In the 1980s, Dr. Greyson presented information about NDEs at an American Medical Association conference. One cardiologist stood up after the presentation and said that in his 20 years of practice he’d never heard of anything like the NDEs described. He asked how it could be proven that the patients in these cases weren’t just making it up. Another man stood up and said that he was that doctor’s patient and he would never have told him about such an experience.
The openness of healthcare professionals to discussing NDEs is a prominent topic among NDE researchers. Many NDEers who have opened up to doctors or nurses have been rebuffed, and in extreme cases even diagnosed as mentally ill.
Dr. Greyson and the other DOPS researchers are grateful to have a space within a well-respected academic institution to seriously approach these mysteries. DOPS is privately funded, though it is part of the university. Dr. Greyson pointed out photos hanging in the lobby, one of which showed the first major donor, Chester Carlson, who invented the Xerox process. Two other major donors were also pictured—silent film actresses who left DOPS their fortunes. Hanging near the donors’ photos was an image of the late Dr. Ian Stevenson who founded DOPS and contributed years of methodical research into cases of children who seem to remember past lives.
On another wall was a photo of Dr. Greyson meeting the Dalai Lama. Across the hall, Dr. Greyson opened the door to a lab where his colleagues test the brain activity of people who seem to have special abilities. A spoon seemingly twisted by the power of a person’s mind was hung up on a bulletin board. Colorfully dotted electroencephalogram (EEG) caps for testing electrical activity in the brain lay on shelves along the walls.
While Dr. Greyson studies the profound after-effects of NDEs, some of his colleagues probe the mind-brain relationship and examine the nature of consciousness from another angle. Dr. Greyson once told the University of Virginia magazine: “Our mind-brain identity model works fine for everyday walking and talking, but when you’re looking at times when the brain is not functioning and the mind seems to function quite well, you get into that extreme area where we need to look at some other models.”
Coming soon: More interviews and video footage featuring researchers at DOPS at the University of Virginia.
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