Unveiling the phenomenon of near-death experiences

By Linda Childers | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published January 4, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Near-death experiences (NDEs) are a real and common phenomenon, reported by patients who were close to death and later explained things they couldn’t have known. 

  • Through his research, Bruce Greyson, MD, DLFAPA, the world’s leading expert on NDEs, has discovered that part of us appears to live on after the death of our bodies. He also says the rates of psychiatric disorders for people who experienced an NDE and people who have not experienced an NDE are equal.

  • Studies show that NDEs can occur in a variety of medical situations, including coma, cardiac arrest, attempted suicide, near-drowning, and more.

Bruce Greyson, MD, DLFAPA, professor emeritus of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia, had just graduated from medical school when he was asked to see a patient who had attempted suicide and overdosed on pills. After entering the emergency room, he found the patient was unconscious, so he proceeded to speak with her roommate in the hallway.

“The next day, when I visited the patient in the ICU, I started to introduce myself, and she told me she remembered me from the night before,” Dr. Greyson tells MDLinx. “I didn’t understand how that was possible, since she had been unconscious.”

"But she told me how she had seen me talking to her roommate in the hallway, and she even described a spaghetti stain on my tie."

Bruce Greyson, MD, DLFAPA

The prevalence of NDEs

Dr. Greyson was baffled. At first, he thought a colleague might be playing a trick on him. He tried to find a scientific explanation for his patient’s out-of-body awareness but was left with more questions than answers. 

That experience led Dr. Greyson to begin researching NDEs. Over the past 50 years, he’s come to understand that while NDEs are very real, researchers are still grappling with how to explain the phenomenon. Surveys show that between 4% and 15% of the population have had NDEs.[]

"As a materialist, I grew up believing the physical world is all there is and the brain creates all of our thoughts and feelings."

Bruce Greyson, MD, DLFAPA

“After studying thousands of NDEs, I'm reluctant to say they're caused by the brain,” Dr. Greyson says. 

Over the years, Dr. Greyson has spoken to thousands of patients who have either been comatose or clinically dead, without a heartbeat. 

He’s listened as they subsequently recall vivid out-of-body experiences where they levitated or felt joy and serenity; many spoke of seeing a bright light and meeting deceased relatives. In some cases, NDEs were negative, with patients experiencing vast emptiness and distress.

What the research says

Not only are NDEs a mystery, Dr. Greyson says, but there are a lot of misconceptions about the phenomenon. Dr. Greyson is the author of After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal About Life and Beyond.

“When I first started this work, I mistakenly thought NDEs could be an indication of mental illness, or at least psychological disturbance,” he says. “I realize now that’s not the case. People who have various psychiatric disorders have the same proportion of NDEs as everyone else.”

Additionally, Dr. Greyson says people who have NDEs have the same rates of psychiatric disturbance as people who don't have near death experiences, so there's no connection between the two. “We have to look at NDEs as normal experiences that happen to people under abnormal conditions,” he says.

While researchers attempt to determine what causes NDEs, they’ve debunked many potential theories. In 2022, a multidisciplinary group of scientists published Guidelines and Standards for the Study of Death and Recalled Experiences of Death, where they stated that NDEs aren’t consistent with hallucinations, illusions, or psychedelic-drug-induced experiences.[] 

Dr. Greyson also recommends that physicians read actual NDE studies rather than gleaning information from the news. He cites recent research that appeared to show continued brain activity after cardiac arrest as being blown out of proportion by the media.

“The recent work that Sam Parnia, MD, PhD, an NYU Langone Health intensive care physician, has done relating to NDEs after cardiac arrest is by far the most sophisticated in terms of trying to measure brain waves in cardiac arrest,” he says. “Yet, despite media reports, the study didn’t show any association between these brain waves and conscious activity.”[] 

Caring for patients following NDEs

According to Dr. Greyson, NDEs are real and life-changing experiences, causing many patients to come back from an NDE with a different perspective, and no longer fearing death.

“As doctors, we need to take these experiences seriously, because they have profound effects on the patient’s beliefs and values, including their attitudes towards healthcare,” he says. “Telling a patient to just forget about their NDE doesn’t do them justice and just makes them lose faith in your credibility.”

Dr. Greyson says patients who have experienced NDEs typically feel much more “alive” and willing to take risks.

“An NDE gives them more meaning and purpose in their lives,” he says. “It also changes what they think is important in life."

"They become much more attuned to connections with other people and the universe, and it makes them less invested in things such as power, prestige, fame, and wealth."

Bruce Greyson, MD, DLFAPA

He adds that, on the other hand, NDEs can also make patients become less invested in taking good care of their bodies, as they no longer fear death.

The future of NDE research

Dr. Greyson’s current research is focused on the effects of the NDE itself, and how healthcare providers can help patients adjust to life after an NDE.

“Some patients have no trouble at all adjusting, while others have extreme trouble,” he says. “People who live in violent professions—for example, career military officers or police officers—sometimes feel they can't go back to that career. And those who are in very competitive businesses feel it no longer makes sense to get ahead at someone else's expense.”

Overall, Dr. Greyson says many people who experience an NDE feel like they're a part of something greater. 

“It’s not uncommon for patients to either change the way they work or change careers entirely, going into some type of helping profession, such as healthcare, teaching, social work, or clergy,” he says.

Dr. Greyson and his colleagues are also conducting research on physician attitudes and beliefs, and how doctors view patients who have NDEs. “We’ve found that doctors who try to impose their own beliefs about an NDE onto the patient do more harm than good,” he says. 

"Physicians need to listen to their patient and help them come to their own understanding of what the experience means."

Bruce Greyson, MD, DLFAPA

He says the main barriers doctors encounter when discussing NDEs with their patients are not knowing enough about them and not having enough time to talk to the patient. He also recommends referring patients to psychologists who have experience with NDEs while also consulting online resources, such as those offering information about NDEs and referrals for patient support groups.

Even after 50 years of studying NDEs, Dr. Greyson admits he’s still learning: “Today, I realize there’s more to life than just our physical bodies,” he says.

What this means for you

Researchers say NDEs are real experiences where patients who have been close to death report looking down as doctors tried to resuscitate them or recalling a bright light and stories of meeting deceased family members. Experts on NDEs say physicians should take their patients’ recollections seriously and acknowledge their NDE rather than trying to disprove it. 

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