Researcher says, ‘We’ve just scratched the surface’
Interest in studying NDEs was sparked after the publication of Moody’s book. Then in 1981, the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) was founded “to promote responsible, multi-disciplinary exploration of near-death and similar experiences, their effects on people’s lives, and their implications for beliefs about life, death, and human purpose,” according to the IANDS website.
On Sept. 2–4, IANDS organized a conference in Durham, N.C., for NDE researchers to present their findings.
Bruce Greyson, M.D. and director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia, said NDEs are reliable because the accounts by near-death experiencers (NDErs) of these events remain unchanged over time. He compared a group of NDErs’ accounts about their NDEs made 20 years apart and found that they remained closely identical over time.
Greyson believes that NDEs are an indication that the mind is independent of the brain because impaired brain functions would be expected during the clinical situation that the NDErs underwent, but his research found no corresponding impairment of mental functions in NDErs.
“In most cases, people’s mental functioning is better in the NDE than [it] is during our normal waking life,” Greyson said during an interview with The Epoch Times.
“Their thinking is faster, is clearer, is more logical, they have more control over their chain of thought, their senses are more acute, their memories are more vivid.
“If you ask somebody about their near-death experience that happened 15 years ago, they tell it as if it happened yesterday. If you ask them [about] other experiences from their life at the same time, they are very fuzzy memories, if they have any at all.
“[…] When you think that these experiences, which are characterized by enhanced thought processes [that] takes place when the brain is not functioning well or sometimes not functioning at all since it is in cardiac arrest or deep anesthesia—times when brain science would tell us that you shouldn’t be able to think or perceive or form memories—it becomes quite clear that we can’t explain this thing on the basis of brain physiology.”
Eben Alexander, M.D., a neurosurgeon who also spoke at the conference, had an NDE that’s a case in point. He contracted acute bacterial meningitis, which damages the neocortex, in 2008 and went into a coma, spending six days on a ventilator.
The glucose level of his cerebrospinal fluid was 1 mg/dl (milligram per one-tenth of a liter), while normal levels are between 60 and 80 mg/dl. When the level drops to 20 mg/dl, the meningitis infection is considered severe. For days after the coma, Alexander struggled to speak and recall memories before the coma. No one with this kind of severe brain damage is expected to fully recover.
However, during his NDE, Alexander had such vivid experiences involving multiple senses, such as vision, hearing, and smell, that he said he couldn’t describe how amazing it was.
“My brain right now—I think it recovered pretty well—could not do anything close to what my brain was doing,” Alexander said. “How does a dying brain end up getting far, far more powerful and able to handle these tremendous loads of information instantaneously and put it altogether?”
Another phenomenon related to NDEs is shared death experiences, in which a person close to a dying person experiences something with the same characteristics as NDEs.
Moody first heard about shared death experiences in 1972 from a medical professor of his. The professor’s mother had a cardiac attack, and when she was trying to resuscitate her mother, she felt herself leaving her body and saw her body resuscitating her mother. As her mother died, she saw her mother in spirit form, and the spirit met some beings, some of whom she could recognize as people whom her mother had known. Then, her mother and the other people were sucked into a tunnel.
After over 30 years of research, Moody estimates that shared death experiences are as common as NDEs. As he studied more of these cases over the years, he found that the features of shared death experiences are similar to those of NDEs.
One of the most common features of shared death experiences is that the shared death experiencer sees the spirit of the dying person, which appears as a transparent replica of the person, or an oval or sphere of light leaving from the head or chest of the dying person’s physical body, Moody told The Epoch Times in an interview.
Sometimes, the bystander would also experience the life review of the dying person. A woman in Georgia was documented as having talked with her husband’s spirit as she saw his life review when he was dying, and she also saw a being that identified herself as the miscarried daughter she and her husband had lost.
Moody thinks that shared death experiences act as strong evidence for the view that the mind exists independently of the brain, because the people experiencing them are in no way having impaired brain functions at the time.
“All of the features that I identify as the initial near-death experiences that I studied years ago are also present in people who have these experiences at the bedside, who incidentally are not ill or injured,” Moody said during his presentation at the conference.
“There’s nothing wrong with the oxygen flow to their brains, and yet they have identically the same experiences that I hear from people who did come close to death.”
Even stronger evidence, as Moody recounted during the interview with The Epoch Times, was the case of a priest and a nun in South Africa who had a car accident together and who both had cardiac arrest followed by an NDE. After they were resuscitated, both recounted the experience of leaving their bodies and going into a light together with identical details.
With the amount of research over the past 30 years, Moody said that “there has now been a genuine—and I would underline ‘genuine’—solid step toward rational comprehension of the afterlife.”
Similarly, Greyson said, “The science of near-death experiences is much further advanced now than it was 30 years ago.”
However, Greyson thinks that there is still more to do in the area of near-death studies, especially with the modern tools and techniques that we didn’t have before, and he expects that in the future, we will learn more about the causes of NDE.
“I think we have just scratched the surface of NDE,” he said.
“Some people with a religious or spiritual background will talk about the experience being given to us as a gift or coming from some supernatural cause, and I don’t know how to express that concept in scientific terms yet. But I think that science is a dynamic enterprise, not a static one, and I think sooner or later we will find a way in scientific terms to talk about something beyond the physical or psychological that is ordered in a way that we demand scientific concepts will be.
“I think the major advances in the future will be along the lines of what role the NDE plays in people’s lives and personality development, and establishing values and beliefs and attitudes and different ways we can help people benefit from the near-death experience.”
Next week, we will explore the after effects of NDEs.