After by Bruce Greyson


Bruce Greyson, a professor emeritus for psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at UVa,  has been studying near death experiences for much of his career. He begins this book by recounting an experience in the ER with a student who had attempted to commit suicide. She was unconscious when he examined her; the next day, she told him about their meeting, including a detail about a spaghetti stain on his tie and about his meeting in a separate room with her roommate. Not knowing how to cope with this impossible story, he put it away without telling anyone about it. In 1975 another UVa professor, Raymond Moody, published the best seller Life After Life and stories of near death experiences began pouring in from others. Greyson helped compile them and thus began his work.

He describes himself as a person grounded his whole life in science without a religious tradition in his family. His work does not lead him to a particular view of the “meaning” of NDEs. He says, “I know that some of my spiritual friends may object that I take seriously the possibility that NDEs may be brought on by physical changes in the brain. And I know that some of my materialistic friends may be dismayed that I take seriously the possibility that the mind may be able to function independent of the brain.” While both premises are plausible, neither can be established as scientific fact.

Still, the stories are inspirational and their spiritual nature cannot be ignored. Though the experiences recounted vary considerably, there are commonalities. Experiencers say they cannot find the words to describe what they observed, they often encounter someone they had known as a guide, they often feel a great joy or peace. For various reasons they must go back, rather than on toward the light, and find themselves changed for life. For me personally, reading about the expressions of an unknowable positive force is encouraging and reinforces my efforts to find the Buddha nature out there.

The golden rule, as a way of life, is recounted repeatedly by those who experience NDEs. Greyson notes this precept is almost universal in religious traditions, and “recent work in neuroscience suggests that the universal nature of the golden rule is the result of an unconscious brain mechanism that evolved over millennia to help us survive in groups.” Experiencers refer to it not as a moral guideline we should strive to follow, but as a description of how the world works, a law of nature. It does seem to be missing in some notably important cases.

He speaks several times of Jill Bolte Taylor, a neurobiologist whose book My Stroke of Insight is helpful in learning about near death experiences. He mentions Robert Van de Castle, a name I somehow knew, who studied dreams in his work for the UVa health system for 25 years. And Ian Stephenson is mentioned, who helped him stand up to the mainstream medical establishment when his work was dismissed. He describes the experience of Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who wrote the book Proof of Heaven after his NDE.

This book reminded me that I have wondered about my mother. During the weeks she was unconscious after a terrible accident, she was described to my dad by nurses as “dead” for a short time. I can imagine her keeping an experience that she couldn’t explain to herself. And everyone said it was her strong determination that enabled her to survive that accident.

Bruce Greyson, After, St. Martin’s Essentials, 2021, 258 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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