Would you call the NDE (Near-Death Experience) testimony of a credentialed, respectable medical professional a mental episode of pure fantasy or even sheer lunacy?
- A successful neurosurgeon, who has taught at Harvard Medical School and other universities, spent his life dismissing claims of heavenly out-of-body experiences and refuting such talk with scientific logic, until he himself had a near-death experience.
Alexander’s tale is the cover story on Newsweek’s latest issue, which features the headline, “Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience Of The Afterlife.” Alexander, a Christian, claims he took the journey to the afterlife when he slipped into a coma in 2008 after contracting a very rare bacterial meningitis. (Excerpt from The Huffington Post)
Dr. Eben Alexander III has been an academic neurosurgeon for the last 25 years, including 15 years at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital, the Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. Over those years he has personally dealt with hundreds of patients suffering from severe alterations in their level of consciousness. Many of those patients were rendered comatose by trauma, brain tumors, ruptured aneurysms, infections, or stroke. In his academic career he has authored or co-authored over 150 chapters and papers in peer reviewed journals, and made over 200 presentations at conferences and medical centers around the world. He thought he had a very good idea of how the brain generates consciousness, mind and spirit.
In the predawn hours of November 10, 2008, he was driven into coma by a rare and mysterious bacterial meningitis-encephalitis of unknown cause. He spent a week in coma on a ventilator, his prospects for survival diminishing rapidly. On the seventh day, to the surprise of everyone, he started to awaken. Memories of his life had been completely deleted inside of the coma, yet he awoke with memories of a fantastic odyssey deep into another realm – more real than this earthly one! His older son advised him to write down everything he could remember about his journey, before he read anything about near-death experiences, physics or cosmology. Six weeks later, he completed his initial recording of his remarkable journey, totaling over 20,000 words in length. Then he started reading, and was astonished by the insights his journey brought to the world’s literature on near-death experiences, and to all phenomena of extended consciousness. His experience clearly revealed that we are conscious in spite of our brain – that, in fact, consciousness is at the root of all existence. (Excerpt from Eternea: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality; emphasis supplied)
How does the good Doctor feel about his near-death experience? This is his reflection of the experience in his own words:
Yet in spite of the complete absence of neural activity in all but the deepest, most primitive portions of my brain, my identity—my sense of self—did not go dark. Instead, I underwent the most staggering experience of my life, my consciousness traveling to another level, or dimension, or world.
Since telling my story here, I’ve been amazed and profoundly gratified at how powerfully it has resonated with people all over the world. But I’ve also weathered considerable criticism—in large part from people who are appalled that I, a brain surgeon, could possibly make the claim that I experienced what I did.
I can’t say I’m surprised. As a scientist, I know that the consensus of my tribe is that the self is created through the electrochemical activity of the brain. For most neurosurgeons, and most doctors generally, the body produces the mind, and when the body stops functioning, the mind stops, just like a picture projected on a screen does if the projector is unplugged.
So when I announced to the world that during my seven days of coma I not only remained fully conscious but journeyed to a stunning world of beauty and peace and unconditional love, I knew I was stirring up a very volatile pot. Critics have maintained that my near-death experience, like similar experiences others before me have claimed, was a brain-based delusion cobbled together by my synapses only after they had somehow recovered from the blistering weeklong attack.
This is certainly the assessment I would have made myself—before my experience. When the higher-order thought processes overseen by the cortex are interrupted, there is inevitably a period, as the cortex gets slowly back online, when a patient can feel deeply disoriented, even outright insane. As I write in Proof of Heaven, I’d seen many of my own patients in this period of their recovery. It’s a harrowing sight from the outside.
I also experienced that transitional period, when my mind began to regain consciousness: I remember a vivid paranoid nightmare in which my wife and doctors were trying to kill me, and I was only saved from certain death by a ninja couple after being pushed from a 60-story cancer hospital in south Florida. But that period of disorientation and delusion had absolutely nothing to do with what happened to me before my cortex began to recover: the period, that is, when it was shut down and incapable of supporting consciousness at all. During that period, I experienced something very similar to what countless other people who have undergone near-death experiences have witnessed: the transition to a realm beyond the physical, and a vast broadening of my consciousness. The only real difference between my experience and those others is that my brain was, essentially, deader than theirs.
Most near-death experiences (NDE) are the result of momentary cardiac arrest. The heart stops pumping blood to the brain, and the brain, deprived of oxygen, ceases being able to support consciousness. But that—as I’d have been the first to point out before my own experience—doesn’t mean the brain is truly dead. That’s why many doctors feel that the term “near-death experience” is essentially a misnomer. Most people who had them were in bad shape, but they weren’t really near death.
But I was. My synapses—the spaces between the neurons of the brain that support the electrochemical activity that makes the brain function—were not simply compromised during my experience. They were stopped. Only isolated pockets of deep cortical neurons were still sputtering, but no broad networks capable of generating anything like what we call “consciousness.” The E. coli bacteria that flooded my brain during my illness made sure of that. My doctors have told me that according to all the brain tests they were doing, there was no way that any of the functions including vision, hearing, emotion, memory, language, or logic could possibly have been intact. That’s why, just as I now no longer doubt the existence of the world of expanded consciousness that NDE subjects, mystics, meditators, and countless other people have described for centuries, I also feel that my experience adds something new to those stories. It supplies a definitive new form of evidence that consciousness can exist beyond the body. (Excerpt from the Newsweek Magazine article “The Science of Heaven” featured in The Daily Beast; emphasis supplied)
Indeed the good Doctor no longer doubts the existence of the world of expanded consciousness that NDE subjects, mystics, meditators, and countless other people have described for centuries. And, as a result, he has made an about-face with respect to the mainstream science theory that the brain produces or gives rise to consciousness, i.e., consciousness is the mere effect of brain activity. Having undergone the NDE, Dr. Alexander has switched from being a skeptic to a believer/mystic.
Initially, I’d planned on writing my experience up in a scientific paper. But as I struggled to place it within the context of everything I’d learned about the brain and consciousness up to that point, I realized that I needed to reach out beyond my fellow scientists. Specifically, I wanted to reach the public who listen most deeply and attentively to what scientists tell them. And I needed to reach those millions because for a long time now many scientists have been telling the public a story that is not quite true.
This not-quite-true story is that the brain produces consciousness. Most scientists accept this as dogma. I certainly did, and it’s why so many scientists still refuse to even consider that I really and truly experienced what I say I did. But we in fact have no real proof of this at all, other than our general distrust of anything we can’t put our hands on. But there are many established scientific facts that we haven’t placed our hands on either. No one has ever seen an electron, or touched the force of gravity. The fact is, most doctors, and most scientists today, are confusing the fact that consciousness and brain activity are related (which they certainly are) with the opinion that the brain actually produces that consciousness.
x x x
I am as deep a believer in science, and the truth-respecting values that created it, as I ever was. As such, I want to affirm again—not just to my fellow scientists but to everyone—that there is a larger, more real world out there. Those who have experienced it are neither deluded nor dishonest, but they are hampered by the limits of language to convey the sheer exponential vastness of what they encountered. This world of consciousness beyond the body is the true new frontier, not just of science but of humankind itself, and it is my profound hope that what happened to me will bring the world one step closer to accepting it. (Same source as previous citation; emphasis supplied.)
But exactly what did the good Doctor experience during his NDE? What does he claim happened to him?
Dr. Alexander has shared and provided abundant, rich details of his NDE not only in his book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife but also in interviews over radio, television, and the Internet, and in published articles that he, himself, has written or that have been written about him. Newsweek has featured Dr. Alexander and the account of his NDE; his story even made the magazine’s cover (see the image below). You can read the details of Dr. Alexander’s NDE in Newsweek at http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/10/07/proof-of-heaven-a-doctor-s-experience-with-the-afterlife.html or by clicking on the image below.
He has been featured over cable TV’s Science Channel on the program Through the Wormhole hosted by actor Morgan Freeman, in the episode “Is There Life After Death?” You can view the pertinent segment of the episode below.
So, do you think Dr. Eben Alexander actually experienced the so-called “afterlife”? Or was he just hallucinating? Share your thoughts with us here by posting your comments below.