A Brain Surgeon's Near Death Experience
TOPICS: Eben Alexander - heaven - afterlife - life after death - near death experience - cortex - neocortex
Two months ago, a neurosurgeon named Dr. Eben Alexander published a book entitled Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife (New York: Simon and Schuster, October 2012). It moves the debate over the reality of near death experiences onto an entirely new level. In that volume he described a long and vivid near death experience which occurred while he was in a coma for seven days, suffering from an attack of bacterial meningitis in which E. coli bacteria invaded the cerebrospinal fluid which surrounds the brain. The entire surface of his brain was bathed in liquid turned thick with pus, as the bacteria in the fluid attacked the grey matter of his brain and prevented those brain cells from functioning at all.
In fact, the bacterial attack shut down his entire neocortex. This is the grey matter which forms the outermost layer of the brains of mammals. In human beings, it carries out our higher thought functions: the organization of our sensory perceptions, the process of sending out motor commands to our bodies, our spatial reasoning, and all our conscious thought and language. The cortex is even involved in our emotional lives, because we do not feel fear until our brains receive an appropriate sensory stimulation. That is, we have to see, hear, smell, taste, or feel something which is first interpreted in the neocortex in such a way as to become a trigger for that fear.
The physicians treating him were able to verify, in a variety of ways, that his neocortex had shut down, and Dr. Alexander was himself able to sort through the notes and reports of all the observers after he recovered, and demonstrate that the portions of his brain that supported higher thought functions had stopped operating.
Evidence of this type had never been available before -- that is, near death experiences from someone where all of that particular part of the person's brain had been totally closed down -- first, because this sort of infection is extraordinarily rare. And people whose brains are infected in that fashion, if the infection lasts for as many days as Dr. Alexander's did, usually end up dying. Those few who did not die, had survived only in a permanent vegetative state. The doctor could find no examples in the medical literature of anyone else who had gone through what he went through, and come through the illness able to tell the tale.
Those who wish to deny the reality of near death experiences usually argue that people who have lost consciousness at some levels (because, let us say, their hearts have stopped beating for a while) nevertheless have portions of their brains that are continuing to function. Their claim is that these so-called near death experiences are taking place in the parts of these people's brains that are still working. There is no evidence, these skeptics argue, that human thoughts can exist all by themselves, without any part of the human brain involved.
So what makes Dr. Alexander's book so impressive and ground breaking is that he was able to demonstrate, on the basis of his knowledge of both brain function and brain diseases, that there was no part of his brain which was still functioning well enough during that period, to have supported the vivid and detailed thoughts, feelings, images, and sounds which he experienced. He wrote an article for Newsweek in October of 2012 entitled "Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife," in which he summed up his reasoning as follows:
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.Now a skeptic could argue that the fact that Dr. Alexander did not die, but recovered after seven days in that coma, showed that some minimal function must still have been present in his cortex. If the brain cells in the cortex had genuinely been literally and completely dead, he could not have come back to consciousness. But in counter-argument to this, it must be noted that elaborate tests and observations were continuously made of what his brain was and was not capable of doing through the whole length of that period, and his brain cells simply were not functioning at a level which could have supported, within their neural circuitry, all of those lengthy and rich experiences.
It is obvious that unless human consciousness can continue to think, reason, and experience even when it is totally separated from the human brain and body, there can be no immortal soul, no life after death. What Dr. Alexander's experience demonstrated was that human consciousness can in fact still function even when it is not attached to a physical brain or body. To use old fashioned language, Dr. Alexander was able to show that his "soul" or "spirit" (his conscious thought processes) had separated from his body during this period, and that his spirit was undergoing those adventures without any supporting underlay of changing electrical charges and biochemical changes taking place in his brain cells.
Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife (New York: Simon and Schuster, October 2012).
Eben Alexander, "Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife," Newsweek (Oct. 15, 2012). Read online at http://hindsfoot.org/alexnewswk.html
See also the group of articles which Glenn F. Chesnut is putting together on the Hindsfoot Foundation site at http://hindsfoot.org/vision.html: VISIONS, HEAVENLY VOICES, NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES, AND THE AFTERLIFE.
Glenn F. Chesnut has another group of articles on the Hindsfoot Foundation site under the heading of COSMIC CONSCIOUSNESS: http://hindsfoot.org/cosmic.html . This includes articles on Richard Maurice Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind (1901), a book which had a deep influence on Bill Wilson (the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous), and on other allied topics, including Emmet Fox and New Thought, Albert Einstein on "cosmic religious feeling," and the debate between Einstein and theologian Paul Tillich (who taught with Reinhold Niebuhr and Harry Emerson Fosdick at Union Theological Seminary in New York City). Also material on Rudolf Otto and the idea of the holy in the study of comparative religions.