A Glimpse Beyond

updated 08/01/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/01/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

According to a 1982 Gallup poll 8 million Americans have had some sort of near-death experience, or NDE, in which they glimpsed a world beyond their earthly reality. The surprising incidence of these intense, revelatory moments may explain the perennial interest in the phenomenon, which has recently spawned several bestsellers—including Betty Eadie's account of her own NDE, Embracing the Light, and Dannion Brinkley's Saved by the Light. Dr. Bruce Greyson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut medical school in Farmington, has devoted 20 years to researching NDEs and is coeditor of The Near-Death Experience: Problems, Prospects and Perspectives. Greyson, 48, discussed the subject recently with reporter Anne Longley.

What is a near-death experience?

It's a profound event, which often happens in a matter of seconds, that many people experience when they come close to dying or face the threat of death—be it just after an accident or on the operating table. In most cases there is a sensation of leaving the physical body, of going through a tunnel to an unearthly world where one may meet deceased relatives, review one's life or be greeted by a being of light, who is often seen as a religious figure. Many people report hovering above their bodies and watching events unfold while feeling ethereally detached. But occasionally there are also very unpleasant NDEs. One type is sort of an eternal void experience, in which a person suddenly experiences nothingness—no sight, no sound, no sense of touch, no smell—and feels this is going to go on forever. Or there is blatant hellish imagery, demons and so forth.

In the end, one either decides to come back to the living or is sent back against his or her will. Most people return feeling they have to do something meaningful with their lives. They may give up high-paying positions and go into social work, teaching or the clergy.

Couldn't an NDE be explained simply as a dream that occurs at the brink of death? Are there any measurable physiological manifestations of NDEs?

Dreams or hallucinations simply don't transform the personality the way NDEs appear to. As for a physiological explanation, the final common pathway to death is lack of oxygen to the brain. But lack of oxygen causes confusion, belligerence and frightening hallucinations—very unlike the calmness and clarity of thought that usually characterize an NDE. The changes that might credibly be linked to NDEs—for example, the release of dozens of potent stress-relieving chemicals such as endorphins—are extremely difficult to monitor. But those things don't explain the aftereffect of an NDE, the life-changing phenomenon.

Could you cite an example of such a changed life?

I know a middle-aged police officer who was at home when he started bleeding after a routine hernia operation. He was rushed to the hospital where he had an NDE on the operating table. Afterward he found it impossible to continue life as a cop and became a high school teacher.

You've never had an NDE. What makes you think that they're more than hallucinations?

I remember a woman who had overdosed on prescription drugs and was unconscious in the hospital emergency room while I was interviewing her roommate about what had happened. The next morning the overdose patient could describe my discussion with her roommate—what I was wearing, what was said. Even if she had been conscious, she couldn't possibly have overheard; we were too far away.

Why do people have NDEs, and do you think they are real?

People find dying terrifying in our normal state of consciousness, and NDEs may be a way of dealing with imminent death and our fear of the unknown. Also, the physiological changes going on in the brain may have some bearing on the psychological effects. On another level, I think there is a spiritual realm we are often blind to that is liberated by the proximity of death. I think people do have these experiences.

Why the current interest in NDE?

I think people are reviewing their lives as the year 2000 approaches. And because much of society has lost faith in traditional religion, we need another source to give us values and tell us what virtue is. Most near-death experiencers become less conventionally religious and espouse a universal spirituality, saying things like, "I'm aware of God in everything. I don't feel the need for a particular church. Now I know that I'm part of something greater than myself."

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