The Science of Heaven

Proof of Heaven
Dr. Eben Alexander’s book and article in Newsweek kicked off a fierce debate about the afterlife.

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.

Near Death Experiences
Ed Morris / Getty Images

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.