The Science of Heaven
Alex, Eben, Er, Newsweek
Byline: Dr. Eben Alexander
Can consciousness exist when the body fails? One neurosurgeon says he has seen it firsthand--and takes on critics who vehemently disagree.
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. …