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U.Va. research on near-death experiences investigates the possibilities between life and death

The Greyson Lab uncovers truths about reduced fear of death

With a never-ending fascination around the concept of death, near-death experiences provide perplexity. At the University, the Division of Perceptual Studies tackles the mystery of extraordinary human capacities such as near-death experiences by evaluating empirical evidence.  

A near-death experience occurs under intense physiological conditions, such as a lack of brain activity, deep general anesthesia, cardiac arrest or trauma and can be a peaceful or frightening event. Common features of near-death experiences include a painless and comfortable feeling, a sensation of leaving the body or being drawn into a tunnel or darkness, a sense of peace, a review of significant past events or a preview of future events. 

Psychiatric Medicine Prof. Bruce Greyson leads research on the characteristics of near-death experiences, as well as patterns that can be found among them.

Greyson’s interest in near-death experiences began after he observed contradictions between findings of near-death experiences as a physician and what he had known to be true about the material world as a child. This contradiction influenced Greyson’s studies of NDEs, which occur in approximately 10 to 20 percent of people who come close to death, or about 5 percent of the world population. 

“Our goals are to gain a better understanding of the features, mechanisms and aftereffects of NDEs, to explore their implications for our models of the mind and the brain and to apply this knowledge to help experiencers, their significant others and our society deal more realistically with the transition from life to death,” Greyson said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.   

In a recent article, DOPS examined the fear of death and other death attitudes in the context of near-death experiences. 

Marieta Pehlivanova, assistant professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences, explained that the DOPS was interested in this research to further identify what makes near-death experiencers lose their fear of death in order to devise strategies to reduce fear of death among people who have not had a near-death experience. 

DOPS aimed to evaluate proposed intermediaries that could explain the relationship between NDEs and a reduced fear of death including positive emotions, an out-of-body experience, a bright light or spiritual beings.  

Many NDE features such as positive emotions directly correlated with a reduced fear of death in the study, but were not statistically significant enough. At the same time, some features such as the experience of light negatively correlated with death anxiety, but also were not statistically significant. 

Of note, the DOPS found that having a life review or encountering mystical beings are the strongest determinants of a reduced fear of death in near-death experiencers. Pehlivanova mentioned how these encounters can involve an emotional component that creates a positive association with death that may help facilitate the reduced fear of death after an NDE.  

The DOPS also reported that a sense of disembodiment is not associated with a change in death attitudes. This is a finding that contradicts several studies such as one that found that 67 percent of near-death experiencers had decreased or completely eliminated the fear of death after their out-of-body experience. 

“It was surprising to find that having an out-of-body experience during one’s NDE was not associated with reduced fear of death after the NDE. We expected to see such an effect because experiencing oneself as separate from one’s body may suggest that one’s consciousness can exist even if the body is compromised or dead, and thus physical death is not to be feared,” Pehlivanova said.

The reduced fear of death is one of various potential changes that a person may undergo after a near-death experience. In 2000, Greyson found that near-death experiencers develop dissociative symptoms before and/or after having their NDE. These dissociation states involve a disturbance of the sense of self through the loss of the coordination between one’s self, body and the environment.  

“Experiencers almost always lose their fear of death and dying, become more spiritual in the sense of feeling more compassion for others and more connected to other people, to the natural world and to the divine,” Greyson said.  

Hence, most near-death experiencers develop a more altruistic attitude. Greyson has witnessed career military members or policemen who have experienced NDEs change careers to avoid the violence that comes with their jobs. Often, near-death experiencers go into medical care, social work or other professions with an emphasis on helping others.     

Despite the death and other attitude changes that some near-death experiencers develop, there is still a prevalent anxiety surrounding death in the general population. Current interventions to reduce these anxieties have modest results. However, the findings noted in the DOPS’s research can be used to design treatments aimed at reducing the fear of death in vulnerable populations, such as terminally ill patients. Guided programs such as virtual reality, imagery or meditations could reduce fear of death by simulating specific NDE features.

“Only when we expand models of mind to accommodate extraordinary experiences such as NDEs will we progress our understanding of consciousness and its relation to brain,” Greyson wrote.

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