Dr. near-death: Greyson's heart-stopping study

A woman hovers above her own lifeless body, detached and at peace, before moving through a dark tunnel toward a dazzling light.

Whether a believer or a skeptic, chances are you recognize the standard markers of a near-death experience. But in 1975, when Bruce Greyson was a newly minted psychiatrist, this was new terrain.

At the time, Greyson was working in UVA's emergency room with a psychiatric resident named Raymond Moody, who had just published the soon-to-be-runaway bestseller, Life after Life, in which Moody coined the now familiar term "near-death experience" (NDE).

Greyson, who was already exploring brain-mind anomalies, became fascinated by the countless letters Moody received from people relating to the surprisingly consistent reports of what clinical death survivors recalled about their flat-line time.

"They were astounded and often relieved to find out they were not alone," he remembers.

Almost three decades later, Greyson, 57, is still fascinated. This director of UVA's Division of Personality Studies began a new project earlier this year designed to verify reports of out-of-body NDEs. Greyson, in collaboration with UVA cardiologists, is conducting an investigation that focuses on patients receiving automatic heart defibrillators who must endure a brief cardiac arrest to ensure that the units are functioning.

Wearing a conservative yellow tie as he leans back in his chair, Greyson says there's nothing to report yet, but he smiles and mentions he's considering extending the two-year study.

"Bruce is a very careful, cautious researcher," says Dr. Michael Sabom, an Atlanta-based cardiologist who also studies near-death experiences.

Greyson points out some of the anesthetics used on the cardiac patients interfere with memory, so he rigged a computer to generate images visible only from the ceiling.

"If people can remember what's going on," Greyson says, "then that's very hard to explain."

Scientifically proving NDEs' occurrence, however, is not what most interests Greyson as a psychiatrist. He's excited by how near-death experiences change people's lives. According to Greyson, near-death survivors share no distinctive traits prior to their NDEs, but afterward they generally become more spiritual, more altruistic, and less materialistic.

Having pioneered a path-breaking study of suicide survivors who reported having NDEs, Greyson discovered that, unlike other failed suicides, his subjects were less likely to repeat their attempts. According to Greyson, "What they tell you is once you're not afraid of death, you're not afraid of life."

Unaware of any chemical capable of creating such a life-altering effect, Greyson suggests NDEs have important implications for psychiatry, noting, "We work very hard for a long time to make very small changes."

Has his research has affected his own outlook? "It's given me a different perspective on what's important in life," Greyson says. "It's also made me a lot less willing to dismiss crazy ideas out of hand."

Bruce Greyson

Bruce Greyson