The Science of Heaven
Dr. Eben Alexander
At around five o'clock on the morning of Nov. 10, 2008, I awoke with the early symptoms of what proved to be an extremely severe case of bacterial meningitis. As I wrote here three weeks ago, and as I narrate in my book Proof of Heaven, over the next several hours my entire cerebral cortex shut down. The part of my brain responsible for all higher neurological function went every bit as dark as the lower portion of New York City did during Hurricane Sandy.
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.
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.
The conundrum of how the brain relates to consciousness is often called by the nickname "the hard problem." As Edward F. Kelly and Emily Williams Kelly, researchers in the Department of Psychiatry & Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia, point out in their book Irreducible Mind, "In recent decades brain researchers have begun 'opening up the black box,' deploying a formidable array of increasingly sophisticated clinical, pharmacological, biochemical, genetic, neurosurgical, electrophysiological, and behavioral methodologies in efforts to understand what brains can do and how they do it." Among the most recent and impressive of this new array of tools are high-resolution electroencephalography (or EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and positron emission tomography (or PET). Thanks to these technologies we can now map the regions and follow the activities of the brain on a level undreamed of just a few short decades ago.
So impressive are these advances in brain mapping and technology that they have persuaded many people—including most scientists—that we are closing in on solid proof that consciousness is a purely physical phenomenon. In an editorial published in Newsweek in 2004, the psychologist Steven Pinker stated straight out that what people think of as the soul is really "the information-processing activity of the brain," and that we know this because "new imaging techniques have tied every thought and emotion to neural activity."
It's the word "tied" in the sentence above that's the most troublesome. Brain activity and consciousness are indeed profoundly tied up with one another. But that does not mean that those bonds can't be loosened, or even cut completely. The question of questions is whether the deep parallelism between brain function and human consciousness means that the brain actually produces consciousness. In the wake of my experiences during my week in a coma, my answer is a very confident "No."
Many scientists who study consciousness would agree with me that, in fact, the hard problem of consciousness is probably the one question facing modern science that is arguably forever beyond our knowing, at least in terms of a physicalist model of how the brain might create consciousness. In fact, they would agree that the problem is so profound that we don't even know how to phrase a scientific question addressing it. But if we must decide which produces which, modern physics is pushing us in precisely the opposite direction, suggesting that it is consciousness that is primary and matter secondary.
This may sound absurd to some, but it is really no less absurd than the facts—now solidly established by quantum mechanics—of how we see the world around us right now. Every moment of every day, we completely personalize the data coming in at us from the physical world, but we do it far too quickly and automatically to be aware that we are doing so. Physicists discovered just how completely consciousness is wedded to the physical environment at the beginning of the 20th century, when the fathers of quantum mechanics (physicists such as Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck, and Albert Einstein) established that units of light, called photons, can appear either as waves or as particles, depending on how we choose to measure them. The implications of this seemingly minor curiosity are in fact enormous, for they demonstrate that at a subatomic level, perception itself (our inner consciousness) is so wedded to the world that our consciousness of a physical event—say, a moving photon—actually affects that event. The very nonlocal features of consciousness, so well supported in Irreducible Mind and in Pim van Lommel's wonderful book Consciousness Beyond Life, are the resounding evidence that consciousness itself is a quantum phenomenon. Refinement in our understanding of this mystery proceeds even today, as the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland for their innovative work in isolating the "collapse of the wave function," or the exact process by which the conscious mind of the observer paints subatomic reality (hint: Einstein would still be frustrated!).
Totally objective observation remains a simple impossibility. And while in our ordinary earthly life we miss this fact completely, it becomes much more apparent in near-death experiences, when the body and brain cease to mediate our encounter with the larger reality and we encounter it directly.
Make no mistake: consciousness is a total mystery. As total a mystery now as it was 10, or 100, or 1,000 years ago. We simply do not know what it is. But consciousness is so familiar to all of us, so central to our identities, that we have learned to overlook this most obvious of facts.
It is a deep mistake to do so. Far from being a shadowy epiphenomenon or "ghost in the machine," as the philosopher Gilbert Ryle famously called it, consciousness is and always has been our primary link to the larger universe. My seven-day odyssey beyond my physical body and brain convinced me that when the filter of the brain is removed, we see the universe clearly for the first time. And the multidimensional universe revealed by this trans-physical vision is not a cold, dead one, but alive with the force that, as the poet Dante wrote some 600 years ago, "moves the sun and other stars."
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.
Heaven Is Real: A Doctor's Experience With the Afterlife
Dr. Eben Alexander
As a neurosurgeon, I did not believe in the phenomenon of near-death experiences. I grew up in a scientific world, the son of a neurosurgeon. I followed my father's path and became an academic neurosurgeon, teaching at Harvard Medical School and other universities. I understand what happens to the brain when people are near death, and I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys described by those who narrowly escaped death.
The brain is an astonishingly sophisticated but extremely delicate mechanism. Reduce the amount of oxygen it receives by the smallest amount and it will react. It was no big surprise that people who had undergone severe trauma would return from their experiences with strange stories. But that didn't mean they had journeyed anywhere real.
Although I considered myself a faithful Christian, I was so more in name than in actual belief. I didn't begrudge those who wanted to believe that Jesus was more than simply a good man who had suffered at the hands of the world. I sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God somewhere out there who loved us unconditionally. In fact, I envied such people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided. But as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself.
In the fall of 2008, however, after seven days in a coma during which the human part of my brain, the neocortex, was inactivated, I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death.
I know how pronouncements like mine sound to skeptics, so I will tell my story with the logic and language of the scientist I am.
Very early one morning four years ago, I awoke with an extremely intense headache. Within hours, my entire cortex—the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion and that in essence makes us human—had shut down. Doctors at Lynchburg General Hospital in Virginia, a hospital where I myself worked as a neurosurgeon, determined that I had somehow contracted a very rare bacterial meningitis that mostly attacks newborns. E. coli bacteria had penetrated my cerebrospinal fluid and were eating my brain.
When I entered the emergency room that morning, my chances of survival in anything beyond a vegetative state were already low. They soon sank to near nonexistent. For seven days I lay in a deep coma, my body unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline.
Then, on the morning of my seventh day in the hospital, as my doctors weighed whether to discontinue treatment, my eyes popped open.
There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I'd never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.
But that dimension—in rough outline, the same one described by countless subjects of near-death experiences and other mystical states—is there. It exists, and what I saw and learned there has placed me quite literally in a new world: a world where we are much more than our brains and bodies, and where death is not the end of consciousness but rather a chapter in a vast, and incalculably positive, journey.
I'm not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history. But as far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma.
All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.
It took me months to come to terms with what happened to me. Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma, but—more importantly—the things that happened during that time. Toward the beginning of my adventure, I was in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky.
Higher than the clouds—immeasurably higher—flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them.
Birds? Angels? These words registered later, when I was writing down my recollections. But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms.
A sound, huge and booming like a glorious chant, came down from above, and I wondered if the winged beings were producing it. Again, thinking about it later, it occurred to me that the joy of these creatures, as they soared along, was such that they had to make this noise—that if the joy didn't come out of them this way then they would simply not otherwise be able to contain it. The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but doesn't get you wet.
Seeing and hearing were not separate in this place where I now was. I could hear the visual beauty of the silvery bodies of those scintillating beings above, and I could see the surging, joyful perfection of what they sang. It seemed that you could not look at or listen to anything in this world without becoming a part of it—without joining with it in some mysterious way. Again, from my present perspective, I would suggest that you couldn't look at anything in that world at all, for the word "at" itself implies a separation that did not exist there. Everything was distinct, yet everything was also a part of everything else, like the rich and intermingled designs on a Persian carpet ... or a butterfly's wing.
It gets stranger still. For most of my journey, someone else was with me. A woman. She was young, and I remember what she looked like in complete detail. She had high cheekbones and deep-blue eyes. Golden brown tresses framed her lovely face. When first I saw her, we were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, which after a moment I recognized as the wing of a butterfly. In fact, millions of butterflies were all around us—vast fluttering waves of them, dipping down into the woods and coming back up around us again. It was a river of life and color, moving through the air. The woman's outfit was simple, like a peasant's, but its colors—powder blue, indigo, and pastel orange-peach—had the same overwhelming, super-vivid aliveness that everything else had. She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for five seconds, would make your whole life up to that point worth living, no matter what had happened in it so far. It was not a romantic look. It was not a look of friendship. It was a look that was somehow beyond all these, beyond all the different compartments of love we have down here on earth. It was something higher, holding all those other kinds of love within itself while at the same time being much bigger than all of them.
Without using any words, she spoke to me. The message went through me like a wind, and I instantly understood that it was true. I knew so in the same way that I knew that the world around us was real—was not some fantasy, passing and insubstantial.
The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I'd say they ran something like this:
"You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever."
"You have nothing to fear."
"There is nothing you can do wrong."
The message flooded me with a vast and crazy sensation of relief. It was like being handed the rules to a game I'd been playing all my life without ever fully understanding it.
"We will show you many things here," the woman said, again, without actually using these words but by driving their conceptual essence directly into me. "But eventually, you will go back."
To this, I had only one question.
A warm wind blew through, like the kind that spring up on the most perfect summer days, tossing the leaves of the trees and flowing past like heavenly water. A divine breeze. It changed everything, shifting the world around me into an even higher octave, a higher vibration.
Although I still had little language function, at least as we think of it on earth, I began wordlessly putting questions to this wind, and to the divine being that I sensed at work behind or within it.
Where is this place?
Who am I?
Why am I here?
Each time I silently put one of these questions out, the answer came instantly in an explosion of light, color, love, and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave. What was important about these blasts was that they didn't simply silence my questions by overwhelming them. They answered them, but in a way that bypassed language. Thoughts entered me directly. But it wasn't thought like we experience on earth. It wasn't vague, immaterial, or abstract. These thoughts were solid and immediate—hotter than fire and wetter than water—and as I received them I was able to instantly and effortlessly understand concepts that would have taken me years to fully grasp in my earthly life.
I continued moving forward and found myself entering an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting. Pitch-black as it was, it was also brimming over with light: a light that seemed to come from a brilliant orb that I now sensed near me. The orb was a kind of "interpreter" between me and this vast presence surrounding me. It was as if I were being born into a larger world, and the universe itself was like a giant cosmic womb, and the orb (which I sensed was somehow connected with, or even identical to, the woman on the butterfly wing) was guiding me through it.
Later, when I was back, I found a quotation by the 17th-century Christian poet Henry Vaughan that came close to describing this magical place, this vast, inky-black core that was the home of the Divine itself.
"There is, some say, in God a deep but dazzling darkness ..."
That was it exactly: an inky darkness that was also full to brimming with light.
I know full well how extraordinary, how frankly unbelievable, all this sounds. Had someone—even a doctor—told me a story like this in the old days, I would have been quite certain that they were under the spell of some delusion. But what happened to me was, far from being delusional, as real or more real than any event in my life. That includes my wedding day and the birth of my two sons.
What happened to me demands explanation.
Modern physics tells us that the universe is a unity—that it is undivided. Though we seem to live in a world of separation and difference, physics tells us that beneath the surface, every object and event in the universe is completely woven up with every other object and event. There is no true separation.
Before my experience these ideas were abstractions. Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also—I now know—defined by love. The universe as I experienced it in my coma is—I have come to see with both shock and joy—the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.
I've spent decades as a neurosurgeon at some of the most prestigious medical institutions in our country. I know that many of my peers hold—as I myself did—to the theory that the brain, and in particular the cortex, generates consciousness and that we live in a universe devoid of any kind of emotion, much less the unconditional love that I now know God and the universe have toward us. But that belief, that theory, now lies broken at our feet. What happened to me destroyed it, and I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more, than our physical brains as clear as I can, both to my fellow scientists and to people at large.
I don't expect this to be an easy task, for the reasons I described above. When the castle of an old scientific theory begins to show fault lines, no one wants to pay attention at first. The old castle simply took too much work to build in the first place, and if it falls, an entirely new one will have to be constructed in its place.
I learned this firsthand after I was well enough to get back out into the world and talk to others—people, that is, other than my long-suffering wife, Holley, and our two sons—about what had happened to me. The looks of polite disbelief, especially among my medical friends, soon made me realize what a task I would have getting people to understand the enormity of what I had seen and experienced that week while my brain was down.
One of the few places I didn't have trouble getting my story across was a place I'd seen fairly little of before my experience: church. The first time I entered a church after my coma, I saw everything with fresh eyes. The colors of the stained-glass windows recalled the luminous beauty of the landscapes I'd seen in the world above. The deep bass notes of the organ reminded me of how thoughts and emotions in that world are like waves that move through you. And, most important, a painting of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples evoked the message that lay at the very heart of my journey: that we are loved and accepted unconditionally by a God even more grand and unfathomably glorious than the one I'd learned of as a child in Sunday school.
Today many believe that the living spiritual truths of religion have lost their power, and that science, not faith, is the road to truth. Before my experience I strongly suspected that this was the case myself.
But I now understand that such a view is far too simple. The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already. This view is scientific and spiritual in equal measure and will value what the greatest scientists of history themselves always valued above all: truth.
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