The following is excerpted from After, the culmination of nearly half a century of Dr. Bruce Greyson’s scientific research. Bruce Greyson, M.D., is one of the world’s leading experts on near-death experiences. His book helps us rethink the nature of life, death, and the continuity of consciousness.
A more extreme version of this slowing of time is an experience of complete timelessness, a feature in many near-death experience accounts. Joe Geraci, a 36-year-old policeman who almost bled to death after surgery, described this sense in his NDE:
“I knew what it was like to experience eternity, where there was no time. It’s the hardest thing to try and describe to someone. How do you describe a state of timelessness, where there’s nothing progressing from one point to another, where it’s all there, and you’re totally immersed in it? It didn’t matter to me if it was three minutes or five that I was gone. That question is only relevant to here.”
For Joe, time not only slowed down, but seemed to disappear entirely. Many people who have had NDEs describe a sense of timelessness. Some of them say that time still existed, but that the NDE seemed to be outside of the flow of time. Everything in their NDE seemed to be happening at once, or they seemed to move forward and backward in time. Others say that they realized in the NDE that time no longer existed, that the very concept of time became meaningless.
Among all the people who shared their near-death experiences with me, three-fourths reported a change in their sense of time, and more than half said that they had a sense of timelessness in their NDEs. I noticed this slowing or stopping of time, along with speeding up of thought processes, were more common in NDEs that couldn’t have been anticipated, as in car accidents or in heart attacks in apparently healthy people. They were less likely in NDEs that might have been anticipated, as in medical crises in people who knew they had a fatal disease or in people who tried to take their own lives. This connection between time slowing down and the suddenness of the close brush with death is something I could have discovered only by analyzing a large sample of NDEs.
The link between unexpected brushes with death and clearer, faster thinking made sense to me. If you’re trying to stay alive in a sudden crisis, it may be helpful to be able to slow down your perception of time and to think faster and clearer, so you might be able to save yourself. And we know that people who are expecting to die often review their lives in anticipation of the end. Those people may not need to experience another life review when death actually comes. For these reasons, it makes sense that the shifts in thinking would be stronger in sudden and unexpected NDEs. But even though I could find reasons why people should think faster and clearer and slow down their perception of time in the face of life-threatening danger, it still puzzled me that they could do that, when I would have expected them to be terrified and hysterical. I could understand why time might change in an NDE, but it didn’t answer the question of how it happens.
In addition to their thoughts being faster and clearer than usual, many experiencers also report that their senses, like vision and hearing, were more vivid than usual. Jayne Smith had an NDE at age 23 during a bad reaction to anesthesia during childbirth. She described her senses during that experience:
“I found myself in a meadow, mind cleared, identity intact, and once more aware of having a body. And this was a beautiful green meadow with beautiful flowers, beautiful colors, lit again with this glorious, radiant light, like no light we’ve ever seen, but there was sky, grass, flowers that had colors that I’d never seen before. And I remember so well looking at them and thinking, ‘I have never seen some of these colors!’ And wonder of wonders, I realized I was seeing the inner light of all the growing things, just utter glory in color. It was not reflected light, but a gentle, inner glow that shone from each and every plant. Overhead, the sky was clear and blue, the light infinitely more beautiful that any light we know.”
Jayne’s extraordinary sensations were visual, but sometimes other senses are involved as well. Gregg Nome, who drowned when his inner tube capsized going over a waterfall, described the remarkable heightening of his senses:
“Suddenly, I could hear and see as never before. The sound of the waterfall was just so crisp and clear that it really is indescribable. Two years before this, my right ear had been injured when somebody threw a large, powerful firecracker into a bar where I was listening to a band, and it exploded right next to my head. But now, in my NDE, I could hear perfectly clearly. And my sight was even more beautiful. I felt as if I had been limited by my physical senses for all these years. Sights that were very far away from me were as clear as sights that were very close, and this was at the same time. There was no blurriness in my vision whatsoever.”
Gregg found not only his vision more vivid than usual, but his damaged hearing restored and all his physical senses heightened. Two-thirds of the experiencers in my research reported extraordinarily vivid sensations in their NDEs. This most often involved exceptionally bright vision and unique colors, or exceptionally clear hearing and unique sounds. On rare occasions, experiencers report unusual odors or tastes as well.
I wasn’t sure what to make of these experiences. The extraordinary thinking and perceptive abilities in NDEs, while the brain is impaired, were difficult to understand in terms of what we know about the brain. But I was drawn to their paradoxical nature, and I wanted to try to understand them. I couldn’t just dismiss them with a, “Wow, that’s weird!” My hope was that viewing them in a larger context might help us grasp their meaning. And that larger context included a related feature of NDEs that was equally challenging.
From After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond by Bruce Greyson. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
Dr. Bruce Greyson is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the UVA School of Medicine. He served on the medical school faculty at the Universities of Michigan, Connecticut, and Virginia. He was a co-founder and President of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, and Editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. His award-winning research led him to become a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, and to be invited by the Dalai Lama to participate in a dialogue between Western scientists and Buddhist monks in India. After is the culmination of almost half a century of his scientific research.
You can learn more at BruceGreyson.com.