30 Years of NDE Research: an interview with Bruce Greyson

Bruce Greyson in 2011What do you recall about those early meetings that led to the founding of IANDS?

Rather than trying to repeat all the details about the origins of IANDS, I will give you my impressions. After Raymond Moody published his groundbreaking Life After Life, he was contacted by a number of clinicians and researchers interested in learning more about near-death experiences. Rather than dialogue with each of them individually, Raymond and John Audette decided to gather them all together to form a research network. My hope going into that weekend meeting at Moody's farm 34 years ago was that this group of clinicians and researchers would jointly launch a multi-center study of NDEs, using the same data collection instruments and roughly the same research techniques. 

What actually happened was both less and more than I had anticipated. The "less" part was that the diverse group of clinicians and researchers, some of whom were also experiencers, did not agree on a basic definition of what an NDE is, let alone on a uniform data collection instrument or research technique. The "more" part was that the organization that grew out of that meeting was far greater than simply a research network. It did bring together researchers who could offer each other the mutual advice and support that we could not find working in isolation in our individual institutions, but it also became obvious that there were other, perhaps more important, missions for the group. One wasto provide information, support, and resources for the near-death experiencers themselves; a second, related mission was to provide information and resources to health care workers and the general public about NDEs and related experiences.

Although Raymond was the guiding presence behind the group, he had little interest in running an organization. That he turned over to John, who often seemed to function as Raymond's left brain in those days. Ken Ring, Mike Sabom, and I joined John as officers of the fledgling organization. Though I served stints as President and Research Director of IANDS, I think my most important role within the organization was as editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies, from 1981 to 2008. The journal played a vital role in providing a respectable, peer-reviewed vehicle for people to publish their findings and ideas about NDEs in the decades before mainstream journals would show an interest in the topic, and I think it helped NDEs become a legitimate topic for discussion among clinicians and scientists.

One aspect of IANDS that has surprised and gratified me has been the diversity of its members, its leaders, and its activities. In addition to functioning as a resource for near-death researchers, it has grown into a worldwide support network for experiencers, and an educational resource for the public and the media through its local Friends of IANDS chapters, its annual conferences, and its sophisticated internet presence.

What do you find most interesting in the field of NDE studies? How have your family and friends reacted to your interest in this field? How have you integrated what you have learned from NDEs into your religious views, your scientific views, your view of reality?

The founders of what became IANDS were a heterogeneous group — not only in their backgrounds but also in their reasons for interest in NDEs. Some of them, such as John Audette, a medical sociologist, and Ken Ring, a social psychologist, focused on the "big picture" of the ultimate meaning of NDEs. They looked toward how NDEs and knowledge from them and about them could transform human society — and indeed, human evolution — by promoting the spiritual growth of our species, if not our planet.

As a clinical psychiatrist, my focus was more limited, concentrating on the role NDEs play or could play in transforming the individual experiencers. While I am intrigued by the broader questions of the spiritual evolution of humanity and what NDEs imply about the relationship between brain, mind, and spirit, those questions make my head spin. I feel more at home – and more useful – in working with individuals trying to integrate their NDE and its lessons into their daily lives. So as fascinating as NDEs themselves may be, I have been most interested in the aftereffects and lookingat how experiencers' attitudes, beliefs, and values change following their NDEs – and how they and their loved ones deal with those changes.

My fairly stable track record prior to becoming interested in NDEs I think encouraged those who knew me to take a more open-minded approach to the topic and to take it seriously. Likewise, the reaction among my medical colleagues has been reasonably positive. Unlike some of the basic sciences, medical science is a very practical, results-oriented pursuit. Because I have focused my research on documented aftereffects that have important consequences for patient care, such as the role of NDEs in people's attitudes toward suicide or bereavement or their anxiety about dying, my colleagues have shown interest in learning whatever they can about NDEs that might help them become better caregivers.

Studying NDEs for the past 35 years – and spending so much time with experiencers themselves – has transformed my own views of religion, of science, and of reality, and helped me outgrow many of the simplistic assumptions of my religious background and my scientific training. I can't say that it's given me answers to the "big" questions about spirituality and its relationship to our mundane world, but it's made me very comfortable with not having answers.

Thinking about your deepest hopes for IANDS - what turned out better than you'd hoped? What surprised you? What disappointed you? What might you have done differently? What would you like to see happen in the future?

I have been surprised at some of the ways IANDS has developed over the decades – indeed, I am surprised that it has survived for 30 years! I am surprised that IANDS has blossomed into such an international network of support for experiencers, and an educational resource for experiencers, families, clinicians, and the media. And I am surprised that after more than three decades of research, we still have barely scratched the surface in terms of research into the phenomenon. But my immersion in NDEs – or maybe it's my age – has taught me not to waste time in disappointment. I've learned that my personal hopes for IANDS were not necessarily what was best for the organization, and I trust that the way IANDS has developed – and will continue to develop – is the way it should be. For that reason, I will not indulge in sharing my hopes for the future of IANDS. I leave that to the next generation.