Dr Eban Alexander didn’t believe in NDEs until he had one himself
Essential to most faiths, the concept of an afterlife is often met with skepticism — if not outright rejection — by the scientific community. Lacking evidence, scientists and doctors repeatedly dismiss the testimonies of those who claim to have had Divine encounters through Near Death Experiences (NDEs). And for most of his eminent medical career, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander was squarely in that camp, believing that NDEs were nothing more than the neurological response of a brain under stress.
Until he had one himself.
In Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife Dr Alexander recounts the extraordinary discoveries he made while in a life-threatening coma—discoveries that shattered his long-held notions about the brain, consciousness, and God. An avowed man of science, Dr. Alexander was unprepared for what he encountered in the heavenly realm and the ways it would transform his Christian faith.
His extraordinary story unfolds like a medical thriller. Awakened early one morning in November 2008 by a horrible headache, Dr. Alexander insisted to his wife and youngest son that he was OK— the pain was likely from a lingering cold. But his condition deteriorated rapidly, and within hours Dr. Alexander was rushed to the hospital in the midst of a grand mal seizure.
Upon his arrival (in the very emergency room where he worked), a fellow doctor was shocked to see her colleague seizing on a gurney, but she quickly recognized the possible culprit: meningitis. A spinal tap confirmed her suspicion. Dr. Alexander had been stricken with a bacterial meningitis so rare it afflicts only one in 10 million adults, and he was thrust into a deep coma. There was little hope of survival, and none for recovery.
As Dr. Alexander reconstructs what transpired in the hospital during that week—based on accounts of medical personnel and his devoted family, and aided by his own knowledge as a physician—he also recounts the otherworldly experience he was engaged in. Even though his neocortex—the part of the brain that controls thought, emotion and language, and which scientists like Alexander had believed was responsible for generating near-death experiences—was completely shut down by infection, he embarked on a vivid journey in the company of a guardian spirit.
Meanwhile, Dr. Alexander’s family and doctors were holding vigil at his bedside and began to weigh the possibility of stopping treatment. Then, on the seventh day of his coma and to the surprise of everyone, Dr. Alexander’s eyes fluttered open. He had come back.
But where had he been? First of all he says there was no sense of “pearly gates or angels”. Rather when he first began his NDE he found himself in a dark place and he had no memory at all of his life on earth. Then a beautiful presence that he describes as a spirit guide of sorts guided him into another dimension. All conversation took place via direct thought, but he says that the thoughts were not 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.” Source
He experienced the sense of the divine as a powerful and all loving presence that was everywhere and in everything. An orb of light, that he describes as as “brilliant as a thousand suns” was somehow near him and with him at the same time and, though this was an incredibly bright presence, he could look at it and experience it as an all loving light and hear it as a resonant sound.
He was told that he would be shown things, but that he would have to go back. His overriding feeling was that everything is one, that separation and difference are an illusion and that everything in the universe is interconnected at a deep level and filled with an all powerful unconditional love. He got the sense that there is nothing to fear, that every part of the universe is loved and cherished and that ultimately we can do no wrong.
In the following weeks, Dr. Alexander made a truly miraculous recovery and eventually was able to return to everyday earthly life. But he continued to be blown away by his NDE, recalling every detail vividly. At the urging of his oldest son, he wrote it all down and tried to make sense of what had happened. He says, “Everything I had learned in four decades of study and work about the human brain, about consciousness, about the universe, and about what constitutes reality conflicted with what I’d experienced during those seven days in coma.”
Then, like any scientist, he set out to explain his experience through research. He formed hypotheses and tested them. He read reams of literature on NDEs and, over time, he started to fathom the connections between this monumental religious encounter and the science to which he had devoted his life.
“I’m still a scientist,” Dr. Alexander writes, “I’m still a doctor, and as such I have two essential duties: to honor truth and to help heal. That means telling my story.” And it is a remarkable story he has to tell.
Lessons Dr Alexander learned from his experience:
- Number One: Remember the Limits of Words, and Remember Their Power
- Number Two: Remember Your Brain’s Limits
- Number Three: Remember You Are Not Alone
- Number Four: Remember That Faith Leads Toward, Not Away from, Truth
- Number Five: Remember That You Have Been Here Before
- Number Six: Remember That We Are Going Somewhere
- Number Seven: Remember That We Make Our Own Reality
- Number Eight, Nine, and Ten: Remember You Are Loved, You Have Nothing to Fear, and You Can Do No Wrong
Extract from Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eban Alexander
I’m a neurosurgeon.
I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1976 with a major in chemistry and earned my M.D. at Duke University Medical School in 1980. During my eleven years of medical school and residency training at Duke as well as Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard, I focused on neuroendocrinology, the study of the interactions between the nervous system and the endocrine system—the series of glands that release the hormones that direct most of your body’s activities. I also spent two of those eleven years investigating how blood vessels in one area of the brain react pathologically when there is bleeding into it from an aneurysm—a syndrome known as cerebral vasospasm.
After completing a fellowship in cerebrovascular neurosurgery in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the United Kingdom, I spent fifteen years on the faculty of Harvard Medical School as an associate professor of surgery, with a specialization in neurosurgery. During those years I operated on countless patients, many of them with severe, life-threatening brain conditions.
Most of my research work involved the development of advanced technical procedures like stereotactic radiosurgery, a technique that allows surgeons to precisely guide beams of radiation to specific targets deep in the brain without affecting adjacent areas. I also helped develop magnetic resonance image–guided neurosurgical procedures instrumental in repairing hard-to-treat brain conditions like tumors and vascular disorders. During those years I also authored or coauthored more than 150 chapters and papers for peer-reviewed medical journals and presented my findings at more than two hundred medical conferences around the world.
In short, I devoted myself to science. Using the tools of modern medicine to help and to heal people, and to learn more about the workings of the human body and brain, was my life’s calling. I felt immeasurably lucky to have found it. More important, I had a beautiful wife and two lovely children, and while I was in many ways married to my work, I did not neglect my family, which I considered the other great blessing in my life. On many counts I was a very lucky man, and I knew it.
On November 10, 2008, however, at age fifty-four, my luck seemed to run out. I was struck by a rare illness and thrown into a coma for seven days. During that time, my entire neocortex—the outer surface of the brain, the part that makes us human—was shut down. Inoperative. In essence, absent.
When your brain is absent, you are absent, too. As a neurosurgeon, I’d heard many stories over the years of people who had strange experiences, usually after suffering cardiac arrest: stories of traveling to mysterious, wonderful landscapes; of talking to dead relatives—even of meeting God Himself.
Wonderful stuff, no question. But all of it, in my opinion, was pure fantasy. What caused the otherworldly types of experiences that such people so often report? I didn’t claim to know, but I did know that they were brain-based. All of consciousness is. If you don’t have a working brain, you can’t be conscious.
This is because the brain is the machine that produces consciousness in the first place. When the machine breaks down, consciousness stops. As vastly complicated and mysterious as the actual mechanics of brain processes are, in essence the matter is as simple as that. Pull the plug and the TV goes dead. The show is over, no matter how much you might have been enjoying it.
Or so I would have told you before my own brain crashed.
During my coma my brain wasn’t working improperly—it wasn’t working at all. I now believe that this might have been what was responsible for the depth and intensity of the near-death experience (NDE) that I myself underwent during it. Many of the NDEs reported happen when a person’s heart has shut down for a while. In those cases, the neocortex is temporarily inactivated, but generally not too damaged, provided that the flow of oxygenated blood is restored through cardiopulmonary resuscitation or reactivation of cardiac function within four minutes or so. But in my case, the neocortex was out of the picture. I was encountering the reality of a world of consciousness that existed completely free of the limitations of my physical brain.
Mine was in some ways a perfect storm of near-death experiences. As a practicing neurosurgeon with decades of research and hands-on work in the operating room behind me, I was in a better-than-average position to judge not only the reality but also the implications of what happened to me.
Those implications are tremendous beyond description. My experience showed me that the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave. More important, it continues under the gaze of a God who loves and cares about each one of us and about where the universe itself and all the beings within it are ultimately going.
The place I went was real. Real in a way that makes the life we’re living here and now completely dreamlike by comparison. This doesn’t mean I don’t value the life I’m living now, however. In fact, I value it more than I ever did before. I do so because I now see it in its true context.
This life isn’t meaningless. But we can’t see that fact from here—at least most of the time. What happened to me while I was in that coma is hands-down the most important story I will ever tell. But it’s a tricky story to tell because it is so foreign to ordinary understanding. I can’t simply shout it from the rooftops. At the same time, my conclusions are based on a medical analysis of my experience, and on my familiarity with the most advanced concepts in brain science and consciousness studies. Once I realized the truth behind my journey, I knew I had to tell it. Doing so properly has become the chief task of my life.
That’s not to say I’ve abandoned my medical work and my life as a neurosurgeon. But now that I have been privileged to understand that our life does not end with the death of the body or the brain, I see it as my duty, my calling, to tell people about what I saw beyond the body and beyond this earth. I am especially eager to tell my story to the people who might have heard stories similar to mine before and wanted to believe them, but had not been able to fully do so.
It is to these people, more than any other, that I direct this book, and the message within it. What I have to tell you is as important as anything anyone will ever tell you, and it’s true.
Eben Alexander, M.D., has been a neurosurgeon for the last 25 years, including 15 years at the Brigham & Women’s and the Children’s Hospitals and Harvard Medical School in Boston.