Dr. Bruce Greyson’s patients told him about NDEs, and he listened.
Click here for Bruce Greyson’s Website
Audio Clip:[00:00:01] Do you want to have fun with me later? Courtney Holmes, I am mildly surprised. But offer accepted. Midnight, basement, at level C. What’s going on? I would like you to stop my heart.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:00:15] That’s a clip from the movie Flat liners, it’s actually a remake of the 90s movie. They remade it again in 2017, which you would think with all the enormous amount of research that’s been done, a near death experience, much of it influenced or done by today’s amazing guest Dr. Bruce Greyson. Well you’d think with all that science, some of it would make it into this movie but of course it doesn’t. Again it’s movie, so they’re trying to be entertaining, I guess that’s what they’re trying to do or maybe they’re trying to influence culture a little bit, I don’t know. You know I’m hesitant, I have this great interview coming up and this guy is fantastic. Bruce Greyson, he is such an enormous, such an important figure in near death experience research science. But at the same time I can’t help but feel, and I really hammered on this in this interview, that he’s a little bit, what would you call it when a group of people are dishonest? I mean, provably dishonest over and over again, what do you call them? I know what I call them. But it turns out it’s not the same as what today’s guest Dr. Bruce Greyson calls them. Here’s a clip from the interview.
Audio Clip: [00:01:36] I just failed to believe that Dr Watt is sitting there doing any kind of real research that would compel her to respond to your paper. So her response going through all the trouble, and then having the right connections to immediately zipping it through a peer review process. It doesn’t seem genuine. Doctors and scientists are just like everybody else. I think the vast majority of these quote, debunkers are people who really believe what they’re saying, who are so locked into their prejudice that they can’t accept the reality of anything else. So I think most of these people are acting out of honesty with their own wrong beliefs.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:02:18] Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science and spirituality with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics. I’m your host Alex Tsakiris and today, today, we got a biggie. We have Dr. Bruce Greyson here, he has a new book titled After and we’ll get into that in a minute. But I just want to pick up on the After thing. Because I really, really love the title of that. I just think when you take a big step back you know, we’ve talked about this on the show. But if you look at not just our culture but every culture we know of throughout history, there has been this, fascination doesn’t really capture it but this deep knowing that the afterlife is key to not only understanding a deeper part of who we are but a deeper part of what we need to be or maybe what we can be in this life. So Dr. Greyson’s amazing work over his 40 year career as one of the truly pioneers and leading researchers in near death experience science, has been part of this really game changing science that has taken this deep fascination we have in the afterlife and applied science to it and kind of broken through in some ways that I think a lot of us, I wasn’t around, I could say, way back when he started. But even for the last 20 years while I’ve been aware of it you know, I don’t think we could have even imagined that the kind of cultural change that has come about around near death experience would have occurred or maybe we did expect them. Maybe we even assumed that it would happen sooner, I don’t know but these are all things that we’re going to talk about. There’s no one more central to this super important science than Dr. Bruce Greyson from the University of Virginia and I’m just really, really pleased that he’s joined us here today. Bruce, thank you for joining me.
Bruce Greyson: [00:04:30] Ah, my pleasure Alex. Thank you for inviting me.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:04:34] So Bruce as I mentioned you have a fantastic new book out, It’s titled After. A doctor explores what near death experiences reveal about life and beyond. Fantastic book, it’s good to be just kind of one of those Cornerstone books that anyone who’s interested in this field is going to want to have, but it really goes beyond that because you know we would expect this to be kind of capstone of your career and all that. And it has all that and it tells all these great stories of the experience you’ve gone through. But it also has a lot of up to date findings and research because you’d continually be so actively involved in this field so I thought it was just terrific. What has been the reception so far on the book?
Bruce Greyson: [00:05:24] Well I’ve been very pleased, I’ve gotten mostly positive reception, I’ve heard from a lot of people I haven’t heard from in decades that they’re glad to read it. So I’m very happy with the way it’s been received so far.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:05:36] Great. So I know you’ve told this story several times and you tell it in the book. And I’ve also heard interviews where you talk about your first encounter with a near death experience but it really is a terrific story, would you mind sharing that with folks?
Bruce Greyson: [00:05:53] Sure. It took me by surprise because I had been raised in a scientific household where we just talked about the physical world. There was never any talk about anything non physical anything spiritual or religious, It just never came up in our family, there was no reason to. We thought what you see is what you get. If it couldn’t be measured then we didn’t worry about it and that means that when you die, that’s the end of everything and it was fine with me, It was just the way it was. I went through college and medical school with that materialistic mindset. I didn’t think anything was missing and then shortly after I graduated from medical school, In my first few weeks as a psychiatric trainee, I was asked to see a patient in the emergency room who had overdosed. When I went down to see her and she was quite unconscious, I could not arouse her no matter what I did. So I talked with her roommate in a different room about 50 yards down the hall to get information about what has been going on in the patient’s life, what stressors she might have had, what she might have taken for the overdose. I spent about 15 or 20 minutes talking to the roommate and then went back to see the patient and she was still out cold. So she was going to be admitted to the intensive care unit overnight and I went to see her the following morning after she woke up. When I went to see her the next day, I introduced myself she was still very groggy, barely awake at all. I told her who I was and she said, I know who you are I remember you from last night. That kind of caught me off shore because I thought she was out cold. So I said to her, I’m surprised at that I thought you were asleep I saw you. And then she opened her eyes and looked at me and said, not in my room, I saw you talking to my roommate. Well that made no sense to me, I couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. That could only happen if she had left her body and moved with me down the hall to her roommates room and as far as I can tell that made no sense at all. As far as I knew I was in my body, how can you leave it? So I kind of fumbled around and she picked up my confusion and then went on to tell me about the conversation I had with her roommate, where I was sitting, where she was sitting, what we were wearing, the questions I asked, the answers her roommate gave and she made no mistakes, I could not understand this. However, I couldn’t deal with my confusion, my job was there to work with her. So I focused on what was going on in her life and her suicidal thinking and tried to push my feelings out of my mind. In the next several days I got some distance from this, I told myself this could not have happened. I must have misheard, misinterpreted maybe they were playing a trick on me, I’m a green intern, they’re trying to embarrass me, It didn’t happen. Well, it wasn’t until several years later that Raymond Moody joined me at the University of Virginia and he had just written a book in 1975 called Life After Life, in which he gave us the name Near Death Experiences and told us what they consist of. And I read his book and talked with him about it and I realized for the first time that the story that my patient told me was not just a one time story by one psychiatric patient. It was part of a much larger phenomena that millions of people all around the world were talking about, I still couldn’t understand it. But to me as a scientist that means you need to go towards it. You don’t deny something that has happened, you try to understand it. And as a skeptic that means it checked to challenge everything I thought I understood. So I decided we need to go look at this and collect as many stories as we can and try to find the patterns and here I am 50 years later still trying to understand it.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:09:34] Yeah, that’s such an amazing story on so many levels because I love the way you say it so matter of factly as a scientist, really no, but as a scientist as well as a physician and I’ve heard this from other near death experience researchers, really the best ones. It’s almost like they were like well, I knew what I had to do and I didn’t think about the consequences you know you encountered the consequences in your career and stumbling blocks but at the time you were like, Hey this is what I’m trained to do. I have a new experience, I need to follow it.
Bruce Greyson: [00: 10:11] I was aware of the consequences. I knew that like myself very few doctors had ever heard of this thing and we think, be very skeptical of it and weren’t sure it existed. But I thought well, I need to be true to myself. I know these things happen I saw one and Raymond’s written this book about 150 other cases,so it’s there. And how can you have intellectual integrity and deny something that exists? So you need to look at it and try to understand it. I still went into this thinking, there’s got to be some physiological explanation for this and that was my mindset for the first several years trying to figure out how does this happen? How do we explain it?
Alex Tsakiris: [00:10:51] I recently had Leslie Kane on talking about her excellent new Netflix series Surviving Death, which you are featured quite prominently in the first episode, do a fantastic job, you really come across great. But one of the things that kind of struck me and I guess I should have known this all along, but I always think of you as this indie researcher, which you are. But you’re also a people helper. I mean, you got in doubt, you got into psychiatry and you can maybe tell us about that. But like the scene that I brought up or the slide that I brought up, is you sitting in a consultation with a near death experience and I get the feeling from reading the book that you’ve had many of these and people have sought you out as a people helper. Tell us about that part of this whole experience for you during your career?
Bruce Greyson: [00:11:47] Well, I was interested in pursuing research in near death experiences. But nobody pays you to do that for a living. So I made my living as a psychiatrist, treating psychiatric patients, teaching medical students and residents about psychiatry and doing research on the side. And I loved that I liked being a doctor being a psychiatrist. And that was how I made my living for the next 40 50 years.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:12:13] Just gonna say you know, I kind of cut the bio short because I hate when people go on and on about your credentials at the beginning. But I did want to read a little clip from the book and I don’t know if this will embarrass you, you’re pretty humble guy, you don’t want to charm too much. But in the book you do, you just kind of lay out who you are in reading from after here. I’ve been fortunate enough to serve on the full time medical school faculty at the University of Michigan where I ran the emergency psychiatry service at the University of Connecticut, where I was clinical chief of psychiatry and at the University of Virginia, where I held the endowed Chester Carlson professorship in psychiatry, in neuro Behavioral Sciences. I received research grants from government agencies, pharmaceutical companies and from private and non private research foundations, I have been privileged to have addressed a symposium on consciousness at the United Nations and have earned awards for my medical research, and have been elected as a distinguished life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. Okay, so that’s just all true, that a bragging if it’s true, but here’s what you say. But through all these in the back of my mind or the nagging questions about the mind and body relationship that Holly raised with her knowledge of that stain on my tie, which relates back to the first story you told us, my personal need as a skeptic to follow the evidence kept me from closing my eyes to events like that, events that seemed impossible and lead me on a journey to study them scientifically. Very beautifully written, do you have anything to add? I mean, this is a very distinguished career and I know from the book that at times you felt that that career might be threatened by your passionate drive as a scientist to investigate this. What was that like?
Bruce Greyson: [00:14:20] Well, it was. But as you said before, there’s been a remarkable shift in public attitudes towards near death experiences in the last half century. When I started out in this field, no doctors ever heard of it and most who did hear of it were quite disbelieving. When we first started talking in medical conferences in the early 1980s about near death experiences. We would get a lot of people coming to our presentations, but they’ll be a very silent in the audience when we finished and nobody quite want knew what to make of these things. And now when we talk about these NDE’s in medical conferences. It’s rare that a doctor doesn’t get up from the audience and say, let me tell you about my experience. So I think you know, one of the things I like about working with doctors is that they’re very practical group. If it’s something that will help their patients, they want to know about it. And clearly, a lot of their patients are having near death experiences. And that affects their attitudes and beliefs and values in their health care. So doctors want to know about it, they still have, I think a healthy skepticism about what causes NDE what their ultimate meaning is. But there’s no doubt in their minds that they do exist and they’re fairly common.
Alex Tsakiris: [00: 15:35] You know what about the personal aspect of this because I did mention that there’s some great interviews that you’ve done, one of my favorites is with my friend Rick Archer from Buddha At The Gas Pump, one of the things I really appreciate about your interview with him is you guys kind of separated out the spiritually transformative experience aspect of near death experiences, which is super important. On one level, that’s really where the beef is because people come through transformed and their lives show it. But because you’re a scientist and because you’re a professional academic and medical professional, you’ve had to pursue this kind of scientifically from a physiological standpoint, from a research publishing standpoint, like you just mentioned at conferences. So it’s great to kind of bifurcate those in a way because they’re two interesting discussions. I wonder personally as a man, as a son of your parents who were you know, your dad was chemistry guy, very kind of nuts and bolts but then as a father yourself as a husband, but what is this been like for you because I know anyone who studies this for as long as you have, there’s a personal spiritual transformation just for hearing these accounts, right?
Bruce Greyson: [00:16:54] There is, there is you know, I was raised as a scientist and I firmly believe that science is a great way to learn about the world around us. And so I still turn to that as my primary way of knowing what’s going on. So I tend to apply scientific methods to everything in my life, including my research, I have pursued all the physiological hypotheses that have been proposed to explain end ease. And rather than accepting or denying them, I’ve sought out data to test them and all the ones I’ve been able to test so far have been contradicted by the data. Now there are some that we have not been able to test yet so they’re still remained plausible but untested. And a part of me thinks that we may someday find a physiological answer for these things but I’m getting less and less convinced we ever will as time goes on and we don’t find anything that’s coming close to it. So I also am very aware that the major effect of this experience on people who have them is not what it tells them about the afterlife, but what it tells them about this life and how to lead a more meaningful and fulfilling life and it is spiritual transformation. It involves their relationship to other people to something greater than themselves, to the universe as a whole, to the divine. And that affects everything they do. And when you talk to people about this again and again, over decades, you can’t help but be affected by it yourself. And think more and more about what is the meaning of life? Why are we here? How should we be spending our time?
Alex Tsakiris: [00:18:29] You wrote a book with Dr. Jan Holden from the University of North Texas colleague, I know you have a lot of respect for it, I did too. Together you both wrote the Handbook of Near Death Experiences which is really, really an important book on a number of levels. But mainly because it’s almost like a reference guide for healthcare professionals who encounter this you know, nurses who have a patient come back and are dying to tell somebody I saw this, I saw that and it’s a shame to think that someone, because of their own you know, lack of knowledge would be dismissive towards that person or make that person feel less than welcome. So that was a really important book and you’ve done a revision of it that is super important. But the push back against near death experience science has been really hard to explain, like the Skeptiko’s that I’ve brought up here, I did an interview with Jan Holland and we were really, I asked her to respond to an interview I did with Carolyn Lott who published a peer reviewed paper. There’s nothing paranormal about near death experiences, how neuroscience can explain seeing bright lights, meeting the dead or being convinced you are one of them. And I love Jan’s quote, she’s actually quoting you in the interview that I did with her, but I’m saying how can such schlocky, just unprofessional research which it is I don’t care, I’ve interviewed Miss Watt and confronted her with it directly her misquotes, her complete rigging of any kind of normal interpretation of the data, you would have failed this paper. Dr. Holden would have failed this paper, would have suggested somebody seek a different profession if you’re in one of your classes. But here’s the quote. I said you know, what do you make Chan of this, there’s nothing paranormal about near death experiences. And she says, well she’s from Texas she’s you know, she lives in Texas, she’s nice you know, she’s not gonna, I don’t know, the material that’s out there actually supports a different conclusion. To quote my colleague, Bruce Greyson if you ignore everything paranormal about NDE’s then it’s easy to conclude there’s nothing paranormal about them. So maybe you want to speak for a minute to this kind of over the top debunking that NDE sciences faced over the years.
Bruce Greyson: [00:21:22] I’m somewhat sympathetic with these debunkers because I started out there and I understand where they’re coming from. And it really requires you to give up some of your cherished beliefs about how the world is constructed, if you really want to take these things seriously and understand them and that is very unnerving to do. I was tremendously under when I first got into this field. But I was confident that they were really a real phenomenon and it was important to understand them. If my cherished beliefs about the world were wrong, I wanted to know that, I didn’t want to continue with my wrong beliefs. So I thought it was worthwhile risking that to pursue them and I could understand how people would not be willing to do that.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:22:10] I get that on one level and I want to talk about that from your personal level of being a skeptic and being comfortable that the life, your life is meaningless as you were told and all that, I want to talk about that in just a minute. But I want to throw this on the table because I wonder if you’re willing to at least consider the possibility that this is a manufactured dissent. This isn’t genuine in the way that we think about it. I have a hard hat and I’ve done this for years, so many of these people and pursued them, peer reviewed you know, it always has to be peer reviewed, posing as science kind of stuff. I just fail to believe that Dr Watt is sitting there doing any kind of real research that would compel her to respond to your paper. So her response going through all the trouble and then having the right connections to immediately zipping it through a peer review process. It doesn’t seem genuine and it doesn’t seem genuine when you stack it up with all the other papers that as soon as into significant near death experience research efforts comes out whether it’s Sam Parney or with its Pim Van Lommel or whether it’s you or whether it’s Eben Alexander you know, it’s like it is organized, it is immediate and the response is, it seems to me that it’s hitting a different tone. It’s hitting a tone of I’m not sure that we want to go and leave that out there without a response. Are you at all open to that or are you totally convinced that it is all just kind of organic gosh dolly g, those guys are so wrong, let me go tell them?
Bruce Greyson: [00:23:58] Well you know, doctors and scientists are just like everybody else. They have the same motives, the same biases. They certainly are, I’m sure some people will just playing an academic game and trying to give their supervisors what they think they want to hear and trying to give the journal publishers editors what they think they want to hear. But that’s a small number if they do exist, I think the vast majority of these quote debunkers are people who really believe what they’re saying, who are so locked into their prejudice that they can’t accept the reality of anything else. In that sense, that type of unshaped unshakable belief in materialism is very much like any fundamentalist religion. You cannot accept any evidence that contradicts your beliefs. So you don’t, you honestly don’t believe it. So I think most of these people are acting out of honesty with their own wrong beliefs. They’re just not willing to accept.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:24:58 ] I’m down with the most people part of that and I don’t want to pursue this too much further, but I’m going to pursue it a tiny bit further because, what really, it’s only, I started out really first of all, I started out interested in parapsychology because I was a business guy and then I got done with that. And I said, I want to know the big picture questions, who are we, why are we here? And I thought these guys you know, Dean Reagan and Rupert Sheldrake and those guys were doing interesting, real science. Well, when I found the opposition to that was just despicable as a shelter comes out and says deceptive, that they’re being deceptive. Sheldrick’s a Cambridge biologist and he’s a pretty buttoned up British guy, he I don’t think he throws around a deceptive scientists title very easily. It started opening me up to the possibility that this science may have drawn the attention of folks who are interested in controlling messages controlling culture and anyone who wasn’t comfortable with that just has to wake up to you know, the example I always use is Gloria Steinem. Gloria Steinem was in the CIA, she admits she was in the CIA, she was outed for being in the CIA, but she was in the CIA before she joined the women’s movement. It’s not like she started the women’s movement and then was recruited by the CIA, she was in the CIA working on other women, on other projects and then got recruited to join the women’s movement. This is our history, it is undeniable, they are out of her mouth out of the words of the people who control her. I’m not suggesting that there’s a parallel here with near death experience research. But I’m not totally convinced that there isn’t a trail of breadcrumbs that are left for people to pursue a certain line of attack against this research there shouldn’t be that kind of dissent. Like you just mentioned you know, the kind of research that you and your colleagues have done has been like, what we would expect to see, Oh is this the last gasp of a dying brain? Well let’s check oxygen levels, let’s check if there’s other chemicals in the system, let’s check all these things. And all this kind of debunking research there’s none of that, there is virtually no research. Most of the time, they’ve never even talked to anyone who’s experienced this near death encounter kind of thing. So I’ll let it go after this but maybe I’ll let it go now. I won’t require that you comment on that but that is my inevitable conclusion to it.
Dr. Bruce Greyson: [00:27:45] Well, Alex, let me just say that there definitely are people who are diehard materialists, who will not look at all the evidence and it will assist, they know the truth. On the other hand, I know diehard people with a religious or spiritual perspective who will not look at any contradictory evidence also.
So that’s, that’s just human nature that some people are so locked into their own viewpoint. They’re are not willing to look at the evidence that contradicts them. Fortunately, I think the vast majority of new death researchers are not like that. They’re honest, open, skeptical scientists,
Alex Tsakiris: [00:28:18] you know? And the other thing that you mentioned a minute ago that I wanted to circle back on is do you think that people in the medical field.
Kind of have a little bit of a leg up kind of from a philosophical standpoint or from a patient doctor relationship. You mentioned that and I think that’s definitely true. Do you want to speak to that
Dr. Bruce Greyson: [00:28:41] at all? Yeah, I think it is true. I think that’s one of the reasons I like working with doctors, you know, a lot of scientists, especially basic scientists, uh, come at it from a theoretical perspective.
And of course they want to understand how things work and if they can’t understand it, they don’t accept it doctors. And even more. So nurses are very practical people. They want to do what works and if they can’t understand how it works, if they don’t understand the mechanism, okay, that’s too bad, but we know it works.
So we’ll use it. And that makes them different from scientists who say, I need to understand it before I’m going to use it. Uh, so I think for that reason, doctors and nurses are very practical. Their major concern is will this help or hurt my patient? Not do we understand how it works?
Alex Tsakiris: [00:29:27] Great. So in the book, after you not only talk about that kind of transformation that we’re talking about and what it means for people’s lives and some of the problems and opportunities, you know, cause it isn’t always perfect.
As you point out in the book, there is some transition, a lot of times that people have to do when they return and are changed and maybe other people in their life aren’t changed, but that’s really kind of a minor topic because of the question I really wanted to ask you is could you recall what were maybe one or two of the most.
Significant kind of breakthrough moments for you scientifically where you maybe went into some research. And I always like hearing when scientists say I went into the research and I really didn’t know how it was going to come out. And I was afraid that, you know, maybe I was going to come out and I was going to have to go, Nope, I guess I was wrong.
You know, did you ever have any of those moments where you’re kind of holding your breath to see how it would come out? Sure,
Dr. Bruce Greyson: [00:30:32] sure. I think that’s, that’s the essence of science. You know, the great Lewis Thomas wrote that great science, if it’s really science is something that you don’t not know how it’s gonna turn out.
Um, you know, one of the, one of the most impactful events for me, and this was when I had developed this new death experience scale to standardize research into NDE. So we knew we’d all be talking about. The same phenomenon goes into originally all the near-death resources, wracking isolation with no one else at their own university.
And I wasn’t sure we were all talking about the same thing. So we developed a scale through our elaborate statistical process to come up with a way of defining what I needed to have experiences for research purposes. And that was in use for maybe a decade or so when I was approached by two, um, skeptical statistician.
So I did not know. And they had, they had been using this unusual and very sophisticated tests called the rash analysis to analyze whether a scale was really worthwhile, whether it was really valid and they wanted to apply the scale to my data, to see whether my scale was really worthwhile. And I thought about this, I didn’t understand the test.
It was way beyond my level of understanding of statistics. And there were people I didn’t know, I didn’t know how honest or how open-minded they were and they wanted and wanted access to my raw data to test the scale. And I thought about it and thought, well, do I want to risk having all this credibility destroyed by this.
On the other hand, if the scale doesn’t work, I want to know that I don’t want to keep using it, promoting it. If it is, it’s really a valid
Alex Tsakiris: [00:32:09] Can we pause one second there? I want to make sure everyone understands what we’re talking about.
So this is known as the Grayson scale after your name and what are some of the factors that you’ve found in these massive number of counts that you collected and then statistically analyzed an organized into some repeatable patterns that come up on the scale. Just so people know, like what were some of the, what are some of the items on the grace and scale that these guys then further analyze?
Dr. Bruce Greyson: [00:32:36] Right? I never called it the race and scale. I called it the NDE scale and other people have just called it the great grace and scale is a shortcut. I never called it that. And I’m not particularly happy with that being called, but anyway, yeah. The scale includes 16 items. It includes changes in your thought processes like thoughts becoming faster than ever before, clearer than ever before.
Having a life review includes emotional changes, like feeling of overwhelming peace and wellbeing. A sense of being one with the universe sense of being encapsulated by unconditional love, from a being of light, it includes so-called paranormal things like a sense of, uh, leaving the physical body and seeing things beyond the range of your census.
So-called extra sensory perception. It includes pre-cognitive visions of the future. And that includes, uh, so-called other worldly things being at some other non-physical realm of dimension encountering, what seemed to be entities, not of this world deities or deceased spirits, and finally coming to a point of no return beyond what you can’t go and still return to life.
So there are 16 of these items that. Were most commonly reported by new death experiences and which most easily differentiated Indies from other responses to a brush with death. Uh, so that’s what the scale was. And eventually I decided I needed to know if it really worked or not. So I gave these two scholars, uh, Jim Horan and rental line access to all my raw data.
I thought it was around 600 or so near death experiences responses on the scale. And they proceeded to analyze it. And months went by before I heard from them. And I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect from this, but I had to go with it. That’s, you know, if you’re gonna be skeptical, you have to be skeptical about your own ideas as well as everyone else’s.
So I gave them all the data and waited and waited and waited. And after a few months, they come back with the answer that the scale was valid. You produced. Um, a reasonable measure of one experience. Um, there were some things that they corrected with my scale. For example, in my scale, each item had three possible responses and they said, they’re an auto show.
You didn’t need three. That two was fine. If it were just yes or no, that would give you as much information. But they concluded that the scale of measuring one coherent experience, that was the same across, uh, gender race, religiosity length of time since the experience and so forth. And that really validated my experience, my, my scale
Alex Tsakiris: [00:35:17] and this scale, Dr.
Grayson has been kind of the foundational piece in. Just a lot of research that’s been published around the world by labs, outside of university of Virginia. That’s maybe take it to the next step and explain to people how someone has, has, how some folks have used the scale to kind of move this research.
Dr. Bruce Greyson: [00:35:40] Yeah, it it’s, it’s been translated into about 20 languages and has been used in hundreds of studies all around the world. And it’s, it’s kind of the main way now of, of identifying and quantifying the depth of a near death experience is very helpful in research to make sure you have a coherent sample of one consistent phenomenon.
It’s not helpful in dealing with an individual experience. Or for example, if someone says to me I was pronounced dead, I had this incredible experience and I am forever transformed by it. And you give them the scale and they score a too low to be qualified as a near death experience. You can tell them they had to have a near death experience.
They clearly had a transformable transformative spiritual event when they were close to death or pronounced dead. That’s another death experience. So it doesn’t help you in defining an NDE for an individual person, but it’s helpful in looking at a large sample of research subjects. So it’s been used by that, um, over the last 40 years, uh, in all different types of study.
Now, there are some questions now about whether it needs to be updated because we’ve learned a lot about NDEs since the skull was first developed in the early 1980s. And I’m working with some people now to look at whether they should change it. And if so, how
Alex Tsakiris: [00:36:57] interesting any study from the grace and scale I’ve got to use that term.
I’m sorry that that wasn’t in at the UVA, but you thought was particularly interesting or novel way of applying it.
Dr. Bruce Greyson: [00:37:14] Uh, well, there, there are a number of schools all over the country. Um, you know, there’s a group in university of the Asian, in Belgium, in Steve, Laurie’s his lab, and he’s got some great, uh, young researchers there who are using it.
Um, uh, Charlotte Markel, uh, Vanessa, uh, Charlotte verbal, uh, console who are doing very innovative work with samples of nature experiences, um, using my scout to define them. This group in New Zealand had to buy Natasha tussle amount of Mila who were using the scale. Um, that’s been used by teams in Italy, um, of course in the several in the UK, um, and throughout the United States as well.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:37:50] One example that , I found super interesting is this idea that you’ve looked at you are a psychiatrist, uh, you’ve looked at her. I’m not sure if other people looked at mental health and in the, and I think, again, this is where the scale can kind of help.
Dr. Bruce Greyson: [00:38:08] Right, right, right.
Well, you know, being a psychiatrist, I have access to large numbers of people with mental illness. Um, so I looked at, at the association between mental illness and near death experiences. And first I looked at a large sample of near-death experiencers and gave them a screening questionnaire for symptoms of mental illness.
And I found that their rate of mental illness was the same as the general population. So people with NDEs have the same amount of mental illness as everybody else does. Then I looked at people who were seeking psychiatric help. And I looked at everyone who came to the psychiatric clinic over the course of a year, some 800 people and asked them if they had been, ever been close to death.
And if so, I had them fill out my NDE scale. And what I found that was almost 20% of them had a near death experience, which is about the same as the general population of people who come close to death. So again, mental illness. Does not seem to have any particular relation with near death experiences.
Um, we also looked at specific types of mental illness that might be theoretically associated with, um, near death experiences, post traumatic stress disorder, um, dissociation and so forth. And we found that they were not the same thing, that those, those, uh, psychiatric diagnoses, um, did not apply to people with new experiences.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:39:36] Let me switch gears for a minute and ask you a kind of, really, really big picture question. You know, max Planck said you can’t get behind consciousness. Right. Which kind of takes us in a whole other direction about what we’re even doing. You know, so we’re, we’re post materialistic science, all those dummies back there, but are we considering the possibility that.
Maybe our understanding of these extended consciousness realms, we’re dragging along some of our kind of, I would say backdoor materialism kind of look at how things are organized and how things work. I mean, if there’s nothing behind consciousness, are we in consciousness all the time, both when we’re not in a near-death experience and when we’re in a near-death experience and when we’re in a entheogenic experience and all the rest of it, I’m sure you’ve thought deeply about this.
What are your thoughts about the larger questions of consciousness?
Dr. Bruce Greyson: [00:40:37] I think you have to look at those things. You have to keep, go with the movement with an open mind. You know, I, I grew up with the idea that most people have that the mind is what the brain does, that all our thoughts and feelings and perceptions are created by the brain.
That’s certainly seems that way in everyday life. When you get intoxicated, uh, you don’t think very clearly when you get hit on the head or have a stroke that affects your thinking. So clearly the brain. He was instrumental in our, in our thoughts. Um, and it’s only in extreme circumstances like near death experiences when the brain seems to be offline or severely limited, and consciousness seems to be expanding.
People think clearer than ever before, they have perceptions more vivid than ever before. Whether the brain seems to be incapable of forming a thought, and we see this in other successes as well. There’s a phenomenon called terminal lucidity and people with end stage dementia, like Alzheimer’s disease who have not recognized family for decades and have not been able to communicate suddenly became totally lucid in the hours before they die.
And they recognize family and carry ankle here in conversations, then they collapse and there is no medical explanation for this. Someone with advanced Alzheimer’s disease does not regenerate the brain and it become, you know, uh, it capable of thinking again, the brain cannot be involved in this and yet, but consciousness does.
So clearly it seems to me that consciousness can exist without the help of the brain that raises the question of whether it can continue to do so after the brain dies after our bodies die. Is consciousness still there?
Alex Tsakiris: [00:42:14] I think you answered that over and over again, but I, I got to say, you know, you’re, you’re kind of staying on the scientific, uh, medical track, which is great, but I was surprised to hear you talk about God and, uh, you know, you’re really stepping out there in saying, Hey, that’s where the data leads.
And you’re not first heard that from, uh, Jeff Long a colleague. And I know you have a lot of respect for Jeff and I do to radiation oncologist in Louisiana. But he went out and did some survey work the most extensive that’s out there and kind of came to the same conclusion. Like, look, we can, you may not like the answer to this, but this is the most significant li uh, reported experience from the near-death experience is that experience with that greater, that God that all encompassing love and light more than a tunnel, more than the light. It’s that feeling experience of God. And then I’ve heard you say, and in the book say you’re not going to be a tight button.
Does scientists it’s dodged that question. You jumped right in there and say, well, that’s how it looks to you too.
Dr. Bruce Greyson: [00:43:26] Yeah. Well, you know, talking about the other world or about a deity is something that’s very hard to study scientifically. You can’t test God. Um, He doesn’t even have to cooperate with our double blind trials.
Um, but there are things about what they say about the other life that can be tested scientifically. Um, but whether there’s a, God is not one of them. Now I look at the data from what the engineers say and how they respond. And I see remarkable consistency in the phenomena they experience, but not necessarily in how they describe it.
Most near death experiences say that there are no words to describe what happened to me. I just can’t put it into English. And then we say, great. Tell me all about that. So we’re, we’re kind of forcing them to distort it by putting it into words. So they use whatever metaphor has come readily to them. And those are often religious or cultural metaphors.
So most people will talk about encountering this warm, loving being of light. It’s not like a static light, like a light bulb or the sun is a being, it’s an entity with intelligence and, and. Uh, this incredible unconditional love and acceptance and protection. And when people describe this to you, they will make maybe use whatever metaphor has come to them.
If you happen to be a Christian, you may say that was God, or that was Christ. If you’re a Hindu, you may say that was a young dude or something else. Um, people describe it by what their culture tells them to describe it. But even those who use the word, God will often say to me, I’m using the word God. So you know what I’m talking about, but it wasn’t like the guy that I was taught about in church.
It was much bigger than that. Uh, you know, Evan Alexander says the word God is much too puny for what I experienced. And I think that many of them say like I needed more. Johnny says, you can call it anything you want. You can call it God, Allah, Krishna, Buddha, whatever. It’s all that is. And there is no word to encompass it.
And that’s the type of way they describe this entity that has the properties of what we call a God, but much more than that.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:45:32] I get you on all that. But I do think that sometimes when we talk about it, we talk about it in a way to kind of appease an atheistic scientific community that really doesn’t want to hear about God, because you’re, you’re spinning it.
You’re not spinning it, but you’re talking about it one way, which is important to understand that we can’t attach a religious tie to it. Many I’ve talked to Christians who tried to co-op, you know, if you don’t see Jesus, you didn’t have, I got my own scale. My scale isn’t see Jesus, you don’t have a real NDE, but the thing that I just don’t want to bury, and I’m not saying that you are, but I want to emphasize is.
This is the most profound part of their experience. So they might say, I might not have the language for it or this and that, but they say, listen up, this is what it’s about. And the atheist materialist stuff is so far fricking wrong. That it’s just completely outside the box. They’re not doing this scale analysis of, could it be, could it be this, they have a complete knowing that there is this all loving source that this stuff comes through.
And I, I hear you saying that in the book. I just want to make sure, yeah. You know, we’re not kind of soft pedaling it to it because I feel like we do this all the time. We are playing on the other guy’s court. I mean, whether we like it or not scientific materialism, They own the court and they decide who plays and they decide what the rules are and you’ve had a fantastic career, but there’s a lot of people that would love to pursue this research, but they can’t, I’ve talked to them.
They’re like, this will not get me. I won’t even be able to keep my job, let alone, get to the next rung on the ladder. So I don’t know. I just, I think that has to be thrown out there as well. Do you have any thoughts you
Dr. Bruce Greyson: [00:47:31] want to add? I sure do. I sure do. I am. I am no longer a scientific materialist, but I’m still a scientist and that means everything I know comes through my experiences.
And I know as a scientist that my experiences are subject to my interpretation of them. I’m never totally convinced that I’m seeing things properly and that I’m understanding that properly. I am fairly convinced that the sun’s going to come up tomorrow from the evidence I’ve had in the past. I’m not a hundred percent convinced.
I approached the world in that way. That I’m always a little skeptical about what I think. I know. So I am fairly convinced from what people have told me from the thousands of people have told me near death experiences that from their own experience, not from their religious teachings, but from their experience, there is this all knowing all loving being or entity that is guiding us, and that is waiting for us when we pass.
And that we are in fact, part of that, it’s like a wave in the ocean. You a distinct thing. You’re at wave when you’re part of the same thing, the rest of the ocean is. Uh, so I’m fairly convinced that that’s the truth. That’s the way things are. Um, but I’m not totally convinced because I know that I can be misinterpreting this hearing.
And I never, I never totally convinced that I got the right story.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:48:54] Uh, I love it. I love it. And I’ve been holding back and every time you’d say skeptic, I kind of want to jump in there because obviously part of the title of this show, and I think the word has been again, co-opted abused. And, and, and I even think that sometimes when we talk, uh, this was like the point I always make is skepticism.
Isn’t required in science. This is my opinion. It’s not, if you want to be, you just have to do good science. That’s why we have the scientific method, because someone can say I’m skeptical and someone say, I’m not skeptical. I’m biased. I’m not biased. Show me the data. You know, it really that’s how it’s supposed to work.
It’s supposed to all just come out in the wash. If we do good work, it’s not a matter of, Oh, you’re not skeptical enough. I mean, do you have any thoughts you want to add to that?
Dr. Bruce Greyson: [00:49:43] Yeah, I do. Alex. Yeah, we are all biased. There’s no getting around that. Everyone has biases, whether they’re personal cultural, religious, political, We’re all biased.
We all have ways of that determined with a color color, our thinking, not determine it, but color it. And I know that I do too. And you have to constantly be trying to understand it and maybe trying to fight against it and see what’s the truth there beyond my biases. And that requires, I think, skepticism about the evidence and about your own ideas, unless you entertain that doubt, that skepticism, you never sure you’re getting the right story or where you’re getting your own biases.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:50:24] Great. You know, uh, Dr. When we talked well, we didn’t really talk in depth about some of the more hard science, medical science that’s been applied to near-death experiences, mainly because I’ve talked about it on so many other shows and you’ve done some great interviews and people need to read the book because that stuff is in there and it’s kind of laid out step by step, you know, whatever you think your.
Pet hypothesis is on why near-death experiences. Aren’t everything you’re saying. Get the book, get Haftar. And I think those will be put to rest. One thing that does, I guess, nag at me is the relationship that the whole resuscitation thing is fascinating, right? And another colleague of yours. Excellent researcher, Dr.
Sam Parnia has really advanced this Jan Holden again has Dr. Penny Sartori, Dr. Jan, Holden, Dr. Penny Sartori. I always love and reference their research on interviewing people after recitation and recalling it, and then go to the control group. People didn’t have an Indian, they’re saying, what are you talking about?
I was dad, call it anything. And the other one’s just cutting out. Here’s how it was. They will be in, they did this fantastic, simple. Anyone can get that part. Dr. Parnia. Kinda more, uh, rigorous in hospital thing, but here’s the thing. It kind of implies again, back to this almost mechanistic relationship between the brain and this technology that’s being applied to our body.
And then it’s connecting to this God thing and this spiritual thing in a way that doesn’t satisfy either group doesn’t satisfy them, materialist leaning, kind of folks. It doesn’t satisfy the purely spiritual kind of people. Well, how do you wrestle with that?
Bruce Greyson: [00: 52:28] Well, near death experiences share a lot in common with other spiritually transformative events that occur in other situations, you can have this through spiritual traditions like meditation, you can have a through sensory deprivation, you can have a through lots of different ways. But the near death experience coming close to death seems to be now one of the most reliable ways of getting it. But why is that approach to death a way of reaching this spiritual transformative event. You know most people will have one through meditation or some other spiritual tradition or trying to get it, they’ve been prepared for it, they know what to expect, they have a guru or someone who’s going to help them integrate it. People who have NDE’s aren’t looking for it. They don’t want it, it sort of comes upon them so what makes them have it? And it appears that in the near death situation something about dying or about approaching death, triggers or allows this to happen. And I’m fairly convinced now that something about us that’s non physical can leave the body in these extreme circumstances. But it may be that something that happens in the brain, whether it’s electrical or chemical or both allows that to happen. Now certainly you can have out of body experiences in other circumstances. But something about the brain decaying, deteriorating makes that easy to happen and permits it. So I think it’s worth looking at the physiological correlates of a near death experience, to see what’s going on in the brain to permit the non physical part of us to separate from the physical part of us, two parts that are normally working together in perfect harmony.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:54:20] Yeah, it’s just kind of interesting because now we’re bringing the brain back in you know, we started by kind of setting it aside and saying, well it looks like the brain doesn’t play the role that we thought it did. The brain is shut down after cardiac arrest which…
Bruce Greyson: [00: 54:36] Right, right.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:54:37] I always mentioned people you know, Dr. Greyson and his colleagues have focused on NDE’s that are occurring in a medical situation, not because that’s their pet interest but because it’s the closest they can get to kind of controlling the physiology and building on this database we have of what happens to the body so, but anyways, what we’re saying okay, the brain set that aside, this seems to be Max Planck you know, we can’t get behind consciousness or something greater. And now it’s just kind of strange that we’re bringing the brain back and say, well it does seem like maybe the brain is triggering these and as we get better with resuscitation technology, there seems to be this link that is unexplainable from a spiritual perspective when people are saying, well I knew I was going to have the NDE or they told me this or that, life is planned, this is part of the plan kind of, there’s gaps in the story you know, a couple of different ways.
Bruce Greyson: [00:55:37] Let me let me turn your thinking about the brain and these experiences around a little bit. We’re thinking about the brain triggering this event when we propose that under normal circumstances, the brain sort of imprisons the non physical part of us so that a can’t leave, so that you can’t experience these other types of consciousness. And they have to get the brain out of the way to let this happen. So it’s not that the brain is tricking it but the brain is being taken away from whatever it does that prohibits us from doing this. It’s like the brain has a filter in it to stop this other consciousness from coming to us. And that makes sense, in terms of evolution, all our senses evolved to help us survive in the physical world, you don’t hear every possible sound that’s out there, that would overwhelm, you won’t be able to understand anything. So your ears filter out those irrelevant sounds and just lets in the small frequencies that are relevant to your survival. Your eyes don’t see everything, every wavelength in the spectrum, it just lets in those few wavelengths the small range that’s relevant to our survival and filters out the rest. So thoughts are out there, if our mind is out there somewhere, it makes sense that your brain would have evolved to filter out the irrelevant stuff like God, like deceased loved ones and just let in those thoughts and perceptions that relate to our physical survivals. How to find food, mate, a shelter. You don’t need to talk about God to do those things. So it makes sense that the brain evolved to filter out the higher consciousness and only when the brain’s filter is shut down somehow does he allow you to experience those higher forms of consciousness.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:57:22] But don’t we still have a little bit of a wrinkle in the story when we introduce this resuscitation technology? And what is going on there with technology, the link between technology, medical technology resuscitation and the spiritual? Do you have any thoughts?
Bruce Greyson: [00:57:41] Well, I think the spiritually, this resuscitation stuff is just one way of making it more possible and more common. first they come back from this death state and talk about these things. Used to be that people would die and if you were lucky enough to hear them talk as they were dying, you may hear about deathbed visions that have like NDE’s. But usually it just died and never told anybody, was just a substation techniques, we can bring them back and then hear what they experienced. You know we’re struggling with, how can this mind that’s, if it’s not part of the brain how does it relate to the brain, we have no idea how that could happen. And materialists say, well that means you can’t have a mindset from the brain. We don’t understand how it could work. But the dirty secret of neuroscience is, we can’t explain consciousness inside the brain either. No one’s ever come up with idea about how an electrical or chemical process in the brain can create thought. That’s just as much mystery as consciousness outside the brain. So we’re stuck. Both ways of looking at things have huge holes in them, that make us not understand what’s going on. I think when you have that much trouble understanding the basics of mind and conscious and brain, then we’re not asking the right questions. That doesn’t seem to be an answer to the questions we’re asking.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:58:58] Yeah, well said I like when people always go the hard problem of consciousness. Let’s start with the easy problem of consciousness, which we don’t understand at all.
Bruce Greyson: [00: 59:08] Right.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:59:08] Hey, Dr. Greyson what do you see coming up in the future of near death experience research? What are you most excited about? What are you looking forward to seeing come about?
Bruce Greyson: [00:59:24] Well, there are two answers to that. One is me personally and the others where the field is going. And me personally I’m still a psychiatrist, a healer and that’s what I’m interested in. And my colleague, Marietta Pil, Ivanova and I are now looking at people who have difficulties after a near death experience and we feel like they need help integrating that into their lives. And we’re looking at what types of things make them come for help, what types of help they’re seeking, what type of helpers they’re seeking and what they find helpful and not helpful and hopefully come up with some virtual guidelines for how to help people like this. But I’m limited because of my interest and background and what I can study. Fortunately, there’s a new generation of researchers coming up behind me who have vastly different areas of expertise who are interested in NDE’s and their brain to the study of NDE’s, areas that I couldn’t hope to understand whether it’s cross cultural and sociological evaluations or physiological electrochemical evaluations. I think in the next 20 30 40 years we’re going to see a lot more about MDE’s that we can’t even imagine now.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:00:33] Well, I’m sure it’s incredibly gratifying to you to see that research and know that you are directly responsible for spawning so much of it inspiring so much of it and then being directly a part of so much of it. It’s really an amazing body of work. So this book again, folks check it out. After a doctor explores what near death experiences reveal about life and beyond, I kind of pushed him a little bit. He didn’t reveal a lot of personal stuff about his personal spiritual experience and that’s okay he doesn’t have to. It’s been absolutely fantastic having gone and congratulations on a fantastic book.
Bruce Greyson: [01:01:20] It’s been fun talking to you.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:01:22] Thanks again to Dr. Bruce Greyson for joining me today on Skeptiko and thanks also to Dr. Suzanne Gordon, another terrific indie researcher who I’ve talked to in the past on Skeptiko. But she was nice enough to connect me with Dr. Greyson and help make this interview happen so thanks for that. The one question I can’t resist teeing up from this interview are the dishonesty bunkers that have stood in the way of near death experience science by following what could only be characterized as dishonest practices you know, I mean dishonestly spinning the data, dishonestly publishing peer reviewed work that doesn’t meet their normal standards. Are they really dishonest? Would we really call them dishonest or are they just oh, kind of stuck in their belief systems? And what about this idea that I keep hammering on of social engineering? I mean, could there possibly be any social engineering element to near death experience science? Well, I guess I can’t really resist injecting my opinion into the tone of that question. But I would like to hear your thoughts on it. Let me know, jump on over to the Skeptiko forum or track me down any way you like. I got some really good shows coming up. Stick with me for all of that. Until next time, take care and bye for now.
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