LD: I heard George Lucas had one, when he was little, and it helped inspire the spiritual thrust of his movies.
BG: There are a number of actors and actresses who have talked about theirs publicly. Donald Sutherland, Debra Winger...
LD: Roseanne too. I think the more people come out and talk about it the more it becomes acceptable and okay. Where do you see the future of NDE research? In general, and your own.
BG: With my own, I feel I still have more work to do in educating other physicians. Doctors are much more willing to accept this and talk to their patients about it now. I'm slowly getting papers published in the leading medical journals establishing that these are normal, non-psychotic experiences that people have. I caution doctors to let patients tell about them. It's frustrating for a patient, who's just had the most important experience of his life, to be told by a doctor, "Oh, that's okay. Just forget about it."
LD: Yeah. And plus, if doctors listened more, you could collect more data.
BG: I see part of my role as educating doctors, and that's kind of a small role to play. I think the larger thing that needs to be done within the field is to look at the connection between NDEs and other types of spiritually transformative experiences. Obviously an NDE is only one of many ways of changing your life, and turning your life around.
One other area that may be fruitful to explore is what these tell us about whether we survive death of the body. This is a much more difficult area to do research in. A lot of people will say that it's pointless to research; you can never prove anything scientifically in this area. I'm not that hopeless about it. I think it may be possible to learn some things about that from NDEs. I think we're a long way from getting an answer, but I think NDEs can help us move in that direction. That's something I'll be working on for the next 20 years or so.
LD: How does a psychiatrist's line of questioning differ from those of other near-death experience researchers?
BG: Psychiatrists work with individual people, so we're looking at the NDE from the standpoint of individual experiencer whereas other people -- for example, Kenneth Ring, who has done so much in this area as a social psychologist -- looks at what the NDE means for humanity or for society. Does this play a role in the evolution of our species? It's a slightly different question. He's looking at: Is our species advancing? And I'm looking at: Does the individual change?
LD: How did you get started with this field of work? Did people come to you and say, "I don't know who else to tell...you might think I'm crazy but..."
BG: Once I got known as someone who was interested in this field, people started coming to me, and they still do come to me for that reason. But I got started because I was here at the University of Virginia when Raymond Moody came here and published his book, Life After Life back in 1975. That was the book that first made people aware of NDEs. He was getting hundreds of letters a day. Here he was starting his training and didn't have time to do anything with them, so he sort of gave all the letters to me and said, "Do you want to do something with these?" They were just fascinating, so I began researching them at that time.
LD: Is there a particular case study that you find the most fascinating? Do you have a favorite story that sticks in your mind?
BG: There are so many. My favorite changes from month to month. The best one now is one that Michael Sabom, M.D. published in his recent book The Light and Death. The Pam Reynolds case. Here's a case where the woman met every criterion for death that we have. She was being carefully monitored, not only the surface EEG, but deep probes into her brain stem. She was as dead as we can determine, and yet still had a very profound NDE.
LD: Was her experience one step different from others or the same?
BG: It was pretty much the same. It was very elaborate. She not only saw things in the operating room that she couldn't have known otherwise, but then went into the tunnel, the light, saw deceased relatives and all that.
LD: I was curious, for example, about research in Germany and Japan. I assume you're basically finding out the same thing.
BG: We are, pretty much. There are some cross-cultural differences, but by and large they're the same all over the world. Since I'm also the editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies, I've stayed in touch with everybody. A lot of those people, researchers from all over the world, review manuscripts for me prior to publication, so I stay in touch with them in that regard.
LD: Do you study what children say and what adults say; the differences and similarities?
BG: Children don't have the same cultural indoctrination that adults do. So in that sense, their experience is a little more pure. There are also ways in which children are biologically different from adults and that kind of confounds the issue. Generally speaking, they tell the same types of stories that adults do. They tend not to have the elaborate life review that adults do because they don't have as much life to review. They don't tend to see deceased relatives because they don't have as many.
There are some striking stories of children who've talked about "guides" in their near-death experiences. As they described the guides, their parents recognized them as deceased relatives that the kids had never met.
LD: And then children aren't afraid of death afterwards.
BG: Yeah. It can be very difficult for children to grow up with the knowledge that they get in NDEs. I had one young man who was referred to me as a patient a few years ago. He was a freshman in high school and was very active. He played in a rock band, was on the football team, and active in church. Then he had his NDE and all these things seemed sort of unimportant to him now.
He came back with a sense of -- there's something important in this life. And these other things seemed so trivial to him. He felt out of step with his peers; school seemed unimportant. He started not going to classes. It was a very difficult period for him and it was years before he finally started to get back on track.
LD: I guess that happens with adults too. Sometimes people come back to their marriages or their jobs and think, mmm, some things need changing.
BG: There are some people whose lives are spiritual before the NDE, and then when they have it,
maybe it doesn't change them very much. But people who were in very punitive or violent professions can be
totally shaken up by the NDE and not be able to go back to their lives as they were before. There were a lot of
people who had NDEs in Vietnam, who had been career military people. They just couldn't go back to it.