After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond 

After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond 

New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021. 258 pp., hardcover, $28.99.

In this landmark book, Bruce Greyson, MD, one of the world’s leading medical experts on near-death experiences (NDEs), presents us with the results of almost fifty years of scientific research into this phenomenon.

Greyson shares his long journey, which started with an inexplicable experience he had as a “newly minted psychiatrist” attending to a patient in the emergency room. The patient was unconscious during the whole period of his first visit, but when he returned the following day, she claimed to have seen him converse with her friend in the consultation room the previous evening; she also related some information about that meeting that she could not possibly have known by any ordinary means.

So began Greyson’s interest in paranormal experiences reported by people on the threshold of death. These experiences challenged his scientific understanding of life, death, the brain, and consciousness. His curiosity, tempered by a strong skepticism and a scientist’s need for proof, inspired a lifelong journey for answers, which he presents in this compelling book.

NDEs are profound experiences that occur on the threshold of death, which often include mystical or spiritual features. NDEs are common and have been reported since ancient times to today, occurring in 10–20 percent of all people who come close to death, or about 5 percent of the general population.

Skeptics have often written off such experiences as hallucinations, religious visions, or the result of mental illness. More recently, the medical and scientific community has been increasingly investigating these experiences in order to understand their implications about the nature of consciousness, the brain, death, and what, if anything, comes after.

Reports of remarkable experiences on the threshold of death (such as when the heart stops) can vary. Some near-death experiencers report seeing rare colors, while others hear strange sounds or have conversations with dead loved ones or out-of-body experiences. In any case, these people undergo profound transformations in their attitudes, beliefs, values, and behavior. 

Greyson has studied over 1,000 experiencers and includes several of the most dramatic first-person accounts in this book. Part medical detective story and part journey of personal growth, After chronicles one doctor’s skeptical inquiry over decades of clinical experience and scientific research as he reluctantly comes to grips with the facts about NDEs, their effects on his patients, and ultimately, how they shaped his own life’s purpose.

This book explores questions that are fundamental to understanding the nature of NDEs, as well as implications that challenge some common assumptions about reality. Some of these questions are:

• How can we tell that NDEs are real?

• What do NDEs tell us about the mind-body connection?

• How can people’s consciousness continue when their brain activity has stopped?

• Does consciousness continue after death into an afterlife, such as heaven or hell?

• What about the nature and identity of the divine beings encountered by people who have NDEs?

In all of Greyson’s thoughtful, honest, and rational exploration of these questions, the most striking takeaway for me was the tremendous lack of understanding by modern science regarding the nature of consciousness itself. Greyson is both humble enough and wise enough to acknowledge this fact. He approaches this mystery and engages the myriad of unanswered questions with a refreshing level of integrity.

Perhaps the greatest value of this book is the change that it may facilitate in the way we view and live life while we are still alive. As Greyson points out, “The evidence shows that near-death experiences transform the lives not only of people who have them and their loved ones, or the researchers who study them. NDEs can also transform those who read about them and can ultimately, I believe, even help us change the way we see and treat one another.”

After inspires us to evaluate our understanding of life and death, but most importantly to reevaluate our own lives and ensure that we fill them with true meaning and joy. We can all do this even without having NDEs of our own.

John Cianciosi

John Cianciosi is director of programming for the Theosophical Society in America.