I am a neurosurgeon. I earned my MD in 1980 and during the intervening years I was involved in the development of advanced technical procedures like stereotactic radiosurgery and MRI-guided neurosurgical procedures for repairing hard-to-treat brain conditions like tumours and vascular disorders. I also authored and co-authored 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.
Consciousness beyond the brain
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, or so I would have told you before my own brain crashed. As a neurosurgeon, I’d heard many stories over the years of people who had strange experiences, usually suffering cardiac arrest: stories of travelling 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.
An experience with massive implications
But then, as I said, my own brain crashed and I was compelled to revise my opinion. 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 practising 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.
A special kind of NDE
In the initial phase of my NDE I had no real centre of consciousness. I didn’t know who or what I was, or even if I was. I was simply… there, a singular awareness in the midst of a soupy, dark, muddy nothingness that had no beginning and, seemingly, no end. I called this ‘ the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View’.
Later, however, as I moved through what I called ‘the Gateway’ and on to ‘the Core’, I knew. I understood that I was part of the Divine and that nothing – absolutely nothing – could ever take that away. The (false) suspicion that we can somehow be separated from God is the root of every form of anxiety in the universe, and the cure for it – which I received partially within the Gateway and completely within the Core – was the knowledge that nothing can tear us from God, ever. This knowledge – and it remains the single most important thing I’ve ever learned – robbed the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View of its terror and allowed me to see it for what it really was: a not entirely pleasant, but no doubt necessary, part of the cosmos.
Many people have travelled to the realms I did, but, strangely enough, most remembered their earthly identities while away from their earthly forms. They knew that they were John Smith or George Johnson or Sarah Brown. They never lost sight of the fact that they lived on earth. They were aware that their living relatives were still there, waiting and hoping they would come back. They also, in many cases, met friends and relatives who had died before them, and in these cases, too, they recognized those people instantly.
Many NDE subjects have reported engaging in life reviews, in which they saw their interactions with various people and their good or bad actions during the course of their lives.
I experienced none of these events, and taken all together they demonstrate the single most unusual aspect of my NDE. I was completely free of my bodily identity for all of it, so that any classic NDE occurrence that might have involved my remembering who I was on earth was rigorously missing.
Dying harder, travelling deeper
To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father? My best shot at an answer is to suggest that I was in a position similar to that of someone with partial but beneficial amnesia. That is, a person who has forgotten some key aspect about him or herself, but who benefits through having forgotten it, even if for only a short while.
How did I gain from not remembering my earthly self? It allowed me to go deep into realms beyond the worldly without having to worry about what I was leaving behind. Throughout my entire time in those worlds, I was a soul with nothing to lose. No places to miss, no people to mourn. I had come from nowhere and had no history, so I fully accepted my circumstances – even the initial murk and mess of the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View – with equanimity.
And because I so completely forgot my mortal identity, I was granted full access to the true cosmic being I really am (and we all are). Once again, in some ways my experience was analogous to a dream, in which you remember some things about yourself while forgetting other things completely. But again this is only a partially useful analogy, because, as I keep stressing, the Gateway and the Core were not remotely dreamlike but ultra-real – as far from illusory as one can be. To use the word removed makes it sound as if the absence of my earthly memories while in the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View, the Gateway, and the Core was in some manner intentional. I now suspect that this was the case. At the risk of oversimplifying, I was allowed to die harder, and travel deeper, than almost all NDE subjects before me.
As arrogant as that might sound, my intentions are not. The rich literature on NDEs has proved crucial to understanding my own journey in coma. I can’t claim to know why I had the experience I had, but I do know now (three years later), from reading other NDE literature, that the penetration of the higher worlds tends to be a gradual process and requires that the individual release his or her attachments to whatever level he or she is on before going higher or deeper.
That was not a problem for me, because throughout my experience I had no earthly memories whatsoever, and the only pain and heartache I felt was when I had to return to earth, where I’d begun.
I know there will be people who will seek to invalidate my experience, and any who will discount it out of court, because of a refusal to believe that what I underwent could possibly be ‘scientific’ – could possibly be anything more than a crazy, feverish dream.
But I know better. And both for the sake of those here on earth and those I met beyond this realm, I see it as my duty – both as a scientist and hence a seeker of truth, and as a doctor devoted to helping people – to make it known to as many people as I can that what I underwent is true, and real, and of stunning importance. Not just to me, but to all of us.
Not only was my journey about love, but it was also about who we are and how connected we all are – the very meaning of all existence. I learned who I was up there, and when I came back, I realized that the last broken strands of who I am down here were sewn up.
You are loved. Those words are what I needed to hear as an orphan, as a child who’d been given away. But it’s also what every one of us in this materialistic age needs to hear as well, because in terms of who we really are, where we really came from, and where we’re really going, we all feel (wrongly) like orphans. Without recovering that memory of our larger connectedness, and of the unconditional love of our Creator, we will always feel lost here on earth.
So here I am. I’m still a scientist, I’m still a doctor, and as such I have two essential duties: to honour truth and to help heal. That means telling my story. A story that as time passes I feel certain happened for a reason. Not because I’m anyone special. It’s just that with me, two events occurred in unison and concurrence, and together they break the back of the last efforts of reductive science to tell the world that the material realm is all that exists, and that consciousness, or spirit – yours and mine – is not the great and central mystery of the universe.
I’m living proof.