Updated: Nov 9, 2020
I thought applying the empirical tools of scientific inquiry would give me some certainty and peace of mind about my NDE. Boy, was I wrong.
I decided that if I really wanted to know what had happened to me in Costa Rica—if I visited the afterlife or was just hypoxic—I needed to do a forensic investigation of the available information. As a scientist, I couldn’t just assume anything. My critical thinking mind would not settle for a best guess.
One thing I learned early on in my investigation was that there are two camps of thought in the “are near-death experiences real?” debate. On one side, you have the materialists, who believe everything can be explained by alterations of the brain, by cascades of neurotransmitters and endogenous hallucinogens and the random synaptic firings of a traumatized organ. On the other, you have the spiritualists, who believe the experience is objectively real and proof that consciousness exists independently of the brain and thus can survive the death of the body.
Before Costa Rica, I was definitely in the materialist camp, and I was still largely leaning in that direction. However, there were some nagging inconsistencies that I just couldn’t shake, which had more to do with the intensity of the emotions I experienced as well as the lingering effects. I felt the unnerving sensation that I was pulling on loose threads: the more I pulled, the more undone the intellectual foundation of my life became. I had put my faith in science, so I took a deep dive into NDE research and laboratory studies to see where the data took me. I needed to see how the evidence stacked up one way or another. As a forensic pathologist, I have investigated thousands of deaths; now I was investigating my own.
As a forensic pathologist, I have investigated thousands of deaths; now I was investigating my own.
Some the first published descriptions of near-death experiences were detailed by Dr. Raymond Moody in in his 1975 seminal book on the topic, Life After Life. In this book and in its subsequent re-issue, Moody described nineteen elements that appeared to be consistent among the NDEs he investigated:
1) a strange sound
2) hearing oneself pronounced dead
3) peace and painlessness
4) out of body experience
5) a tunnel experience
6) rising rapidly to the heavens
7) people of light
8) the Being of light (God, or some other significant religious figure)
9) a life review
10) reluctance to return to life
11) a border between life and death
12) residual effects on life
13) new view of death
14) ineffability, the sense that the experience can't be described in words
15) coming back
16) coloration of events by others
17) panoramic view of life
18) a realm where all knowledge exists
19) experiencing a Heavenly place.
These features were commonly reported, but not everyone experiences them all. There is a spectrum of NDEs and Moody’s list was a list of potentials. Like a dinner menu, some people may have a two and a four, others just a six, and some all nine. It varied.
The more I read the more I started to see there were a wide spectrum of near-death experiences and what happened to me might not be so unordinary in that context.
Early during my research I found the website for the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia. I did my pathology residency and neuropathology fellowship at UVA, so I immediately knew I had found a good source of scientific material. UVA is a fantastic school and has one of the top medical centers in the world—and unbeknownst to me, is home to the world's greatest NDE research center.
The Division of Perceptual Studies website led me to a test you can take to gauge whether or not you had a near death experience. It’s called the Greyson Scale, named after the prominent NDE researcher Dr. Bruce Greyson. The scale has 16 questions, ranking responses from 0, 1 or 2—zero being you did not experience something, and 2 being a profound experience of something. For example, "Did you have a feeling of joy?"
The maximum score on the Greyson Scale is 32 and Dr. Greyson’s research has demonstrated that a score of 7 or higher is indicative of a true near-death experience. Among a large cohort studied using the scale, the mean score was 15. The scores can also be used to determine what kind of near death experience an individual had, as well. For example, a score of 9 to 12 would be a paranormal component. A score of 13-16 would be a transcendental component.
My score was a 16. I was left with little doubt that I had experienced something extraordinary.