Near-Death Experiences Can 'Totally Transform' a Person in Seconds Says Scientist

People who come close to death often report remarkable experiences, that have long been dismissed by the medical profession.

Dr. Bruce Greyson, a specialist in psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia—and one of the world's leading experts on near-death experiences—has been studying these strange phenomena for more than four decades.

Newsweek spoke to Dr. Greyson about his work and what people's reports of near-death experiences (NDEs) reveal about the nature of life, death and consciousness. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Newsweek: Firstly, can you describe your area of research?

Dr. Greyson: I study near-death experiences, which are profound experiences people have on the threshold of death—or when they are in fact pronounced dead—that includes things like leaving the physical body, going to some apparently other realms, having a life review, encountering other entities that they interpret as deceased loved ones or deities, feeling overwhelming peace and well-being, and eventually coming back to life or being told to come back to life, and then being forever changed afterwards.

Do we know how common these kinds of experiences are?

It's difficult to know, because a lot of people are not willing to talk about these experiences. But research in the U.S., the U.K. and various countries in Europe has generally suggested that they occur in about between 10 and 20 percent of people whose hearts stop, which amounts to about five percent of the general population.

Do people who have had NDEs experience profound changes in their lives afterwards?

Definitely. As a psychiatrist, this is the most fascinating aspect to me because I make my living trying to help people change their lives. That's very difficult to do. But here's this experience that in a few seconds, can totally transform someone's attitudes, values, beliefs and behavior. They typically make people more spiritual if I can use that word. They make them more compassionate, more caring, more altruistic, and they become much less interested in physical things—in material goods, in power, prestige, fame, competition.

This does not go away with time. I've talked to people in their 90s, who had the experience as teenagers, and they say it's like it happened yesterday—that they've never been able to go back to their old life. This is often a comfort to them, but often it can be a problem as well. I've seen marriages break up because the spouse couldn't tolerate the change. I've seen career military people or policemen who could not tolerate the idea of hurting someone after their near-death experience change careers. I've seen cut-throat businessman who decided that competition was silly after a near-death experience change careers. And they typically go into helping professions—medical care, teaching social work, or clergy, something like that.

When I first heard about the effects of near-death experiences and people kept telling me that they're no longer afraid of dying, I started getting worried that NDEs would make people more suicidal. So I actually did a study of patients who had made suicide attempts. And I compared those who had a near-death experience as a result of the attempt with those who didn't. And what we found out was that those who had a near-death experience were much less suicidal than those who didn't have an NDE.

When I asked them why that was, they said that when you lose your fear of death, you also lose your fear of life. Because you're not afraid of losing everything, you're not afraid of taking chances and living life to the fullest. And it makes life much more meaningful, and much more fulfilling. They realize in the NDE that they're not actually individuals, but they're part of something much greater than themselves. So that the problems that they had, which are still there are no longer seen in the same perspective. And they see these problems not as something to run away from, but to try to learn from and grow from.

Are there any particular cases that stick out for you?

Let me give you one example of a 55-year-old truck driver who had emergency quadruple bypass surgery, and in the middle of the operation when his chest was being cut open—and he was totally anesthetized—he claims that he left his physical body and looked down on the operation and saw his surgeon flapping his elbows as if he was trying to fly. Now when the patient told me this it sounded crazy to me. I assumed he was hallucinating.

But with his permission, I then later talked to his surgeon who admitted that was accurate. He had developed this unusual, idiosyncratic habit. He would enter the operating room and wanted to observe for a while, he didn't want to risk touching anything that wasn't in a sterile field. So he placed his hands, palms against his chest and then pointed things out to his assistants by moving his elbows rather than using his fingers. Everything that the patient described, was completely accurate. Not something that he could have guessed or that he could have been told about.

What kind of explanation could you offer for something like that?

I can't think of a possible materialistic explanation. You could speculate that he had heard about this doctor doing that, or someone told him. But those are really not plausible. It was an emergency operation, he had never met the doctor before. He didn't know anything about the doctor. And as soon as he woke up from the operation, he was totally aware of this and described it before anyone had time to tell him about anything. And this is just one of literally hundreds of experiences where people describe things accurately that they could not possibly have guessed.

In fact, Jan Holden, a professor at the University of North Texas, studied about 100 of these cases and she found that in 92 percent, they were completely accurate. It is mind-boggling.

What kind of biological explanations have been proposed for NDEs?

There have been a lot of physical explanations that have been proposed. Being a scientist myself and a skeptical one, I take them seriously and I try to investigate them. And those that we have been able to study, the data seem to disprove them entirely.

For example, the first one was that lack of oxygen was causing these experiences. But we've actually studied the oxygen level of people who were close to death and what we find is that those who have near-death experiences actually have more oxygen than those people who don't have near-death experiences. Same thing with people who are given drugs at the point of death or near-death. We thought that maybe drugs given to people were making them hallucinate. But we find that the more drugs people are given, the less likely they are to report a near-death experience.

Now some of these [hypotheses] we can't test. For example, the idea that there is some possibly unknown neurotransmitter that's released in their brain under stress, like in a near-death situation, that may cause people to hallucinate. Most of these chemicals like endorphins are produced in very small amounts for a very short period of time in some area of the brain that we don't know, and its virtually impossible to sample those chemicals while someone's having a near-death experience. But it's hard to imagine how a chemical could make somebody be able to see and hear things accurately from a perspective outside the physical body.

Do you get any kind of pushback from from people in the medical profession because of the work you do?

Yes, of course, doctors are just like anybody else. Some people think this is the most fascinating thing in the world. And some people think it's a total waste of time. But I've published well over 100 papers now in standard mainstream medical journals about this research, and that makes people take them a little more seriously. And quite frankly, the attitude among doctors has changed dramatically in the decades that I've been doing this work.

What would you say are the main limitations in the kind of research you do?

Well the main thing is that we're dealing with a subjective experience. I can't know first-hand what someone else is experiencing when they tell me about a near-death experience. So, all I can rely on is what they say and how they behave afterwards. I don't know exactly what they're experiencing. And in fact, when I ask someone to tell me about his or her near-death experience, they usually start by saying that there just aren't any words to describe it. I know that when I make them describe it, I force them to distort the experience. And they usually describe it in metaphors to communicate what happened. Those metaphors are either cultural or religious. For example, there is this loving being of light [that people report seeing]—many people will use the word "God" to describe that. But they will secretly say, 'I use that word, so you'll know what I'm talking about. But it wasn't the guy I was taught about in church. It's much bigger than that. I just don't know what to call it.'

What are the most important takeaways regarding the nature of consciousness, life and death that have arisen from your decades of research on this subject?

The first thing is that these are incredibly common experiences. If one out of 20 people has had an experience, it's probably likely that someone you work with or go to school with, or someone in your family has had this experience. And number two, they're perfectly normal experiences. They're not anything to do with mental illness. They are normal things that happen under abnormal circumstances. Number three, they suggest that the mind is more than just what the brain does.

Because we have many experiences now when the brain is demonstrably impaired in very serious ways. And the mind seems to be functioning better than ever, people describe their thoughts going faster and more logical and clearer than ever before, when the brain is essentially offline. And if that's true, if the mind can function when the brain is not, that raises the possibility that the mind can continue to function after we die—and certainly most near-death experiencers believe that's the case. Furthermore, they report that what happens after death is not something to be feared. And fear of death permeates a lot of what we do in life.

Beyond that, the near-death experiencers come back with not only information about death, but more importantly, about life—about what makes this life more meaningful and more fulfilling. By living more compassionately and more altruistically, they find life becomes so much more fulfilling for them. I think we can all learn from that.

Bruce Greyson appears in the Netflix series "Surviving Death" and has also written a new book—After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond—which will be published on March 2.

The sun shining through clouds
Stock image showing the sun above some clouds in the sky. Near-death experiences have the potential to transform people's lives, experts say. iStock

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