The Nuance

What Near-Death Experiences Teach Us About the Brain

New research may shake up science’s understanding of the brain and consciousness

Markham Heid
Published in
6 min readFeb 18, 2021
Illustration by Kieran Blakey for Elemental

The truck driver’s story sounded far-fetched.

The man claimed that in the middle of his quadruple bypass heart surgery — during which he was fully anesthetized and his eyes were taped shut — he had “come to” and found that he was looking down at his own body and the doctors preparing to operate on it. He described the scene in detail, and he recalled that his surgeon had waved his elbows in the air as if he were mimicking a bird flapping its wings.

Later, when asked about his patient’s peculiar account, the truck driver’s surgeon confirmed that he had indeed waved his elbows in the air. He explained that, in order to avoid contaminating his gloved hands before a procedure, he would place his palms on his chest and point with his elbows — an uncommon practice that his patient couldn’t have seen or anticipated.

Bruce Greyson, MD, is a professor of psychiatric medicine at the University of Virginia. In his new book, After, he describes the truck driver’s near-death experience (NDE) and many others like it. Greyson spoke with both the truck driver and with his surgeon, and he tried to pin down the source of the man’s uncanny recollections. But his efforts only deepened the mystery of the man’s apparent out-of-body perceptions.

After studying NDEs for decades, Greyson says that much of what he’s learned has been hard to square with prevailing notions of how the mind and brain work. “Our common assumption is that the mind, or consciousness, is just what the brain does,” he says. In other words, the mind and the brain are one and the same. They’re inseparable. “There’s a lot of evidence for this,” he adds. “When you get drunk or you get hit on the head, you don’t think very well.”

But, paradoxically, NDEs often occur when the brain is heavily disabled or even measurably inactive. “The evidence we have from NDEs seems to suggest that the mind and brain can dissociate under extreme circumstances,” he says. “Somehow, the mind can continue to function when the brain seems to stop.”

“People who have had both an…



Markham Heid

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.