By Richard Smoley
Today the intellectual world is facing an insurrection. It has nothing to do with politics or economics. It is about worldviews. Contemporary intellectual thought is hidebound by a materialistic view of the universe that automatically shuts out anything of the “spiritual,” or, God forbid, “mystical.” More and more evidence is coming to light that refutes this narrow view of reality. And more and more intellectuals are standing up against it.
Eben Alexander is one of the most famous examples. An American neurosurgeon, in 2008, he fell into a coma during a case of severe meningitis and – at a time when, from the conventional point of view, he should have had no consciousness whatsoever – he had a profound and inspiring vision of worlds beyond this one.
Alexander describes this journey in the best-selling Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. The book sent a shock through the United States, and gained Alexander a place on the cover of Newsweek as well as the usual attempts at debunking. Since then he has travelled and given lectures to many audiences. His latest book, The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife, co-authored with my good friend and Quest contributor Ptolemy Tompkins, was published last November.
In July 2014, at the invitation of the Theosophical Society in America, Alexander spoke to an audience of some 450 people in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and later addressed the TS’s Summer National Convention. He also did the following interview. Karen Newell was also present. She is his associate in Sacred Acoustics, a company that creates audio meditations combining various kinds of sound to stimulate higher states of consciousness.
This interview originally appeared in Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America, in the Winter 2015 issue.
Richard Smoley (RS): Perhaps you could start by telling us a little bit about your journey.
Eben Alexander (EA): I’ve spent more than twenty years in academic neurosurgery and thought I had some idea of how brain-mind consciousness worked. I fully logged into the reductive materialistic mindset of neuroscience of the twentieth century, which says there is something about the neurons of the brain and their firing that gives you consciousness. Even though nobody had a clue of how that worked, I thought we just needed to study it more and figure it out.
That’s why my illness, which came on in November 2008, was so revolutionary to my thinking. I had to go back and question everything I ever thought I knew about reality. I had a very severe case of bacterial meningitis. Only in looking back, months and months later, did I start to realise what a perfect model for human death meningitis is, especially the severe form that I had: it basically dissolves the neocortex.
Modern neuroscience says the neocortex – the whole outer surface of the brain – is the part that gives rise to all the details of conscious experience. As this disease wipes out your neocortex, what is the next step? It would have been very clear to me as a neuroscientist that the next step is nothingness. Any doctor who knows anything about gram-negative bacterial meningitis and the details of my illness would realise that people don’t go in that state and come back with hallucinations, dreams, or exotic stories – they come back with nothing. In fact the reality is they usually don’t come back at all. Just the opposite happened, and that part was a mind-bender.
The extraordinary odyssey that I went through, and that I describe in my book Proof of Heaven, should not have happened at all, according to all the modern notions saying that the brain creates consciousness. And yet I was left with this absolutely astonishing ultra-real experience and an odyssey that seemed to go on for months or years, although it fit within seven earth days.
To me that was the central mystery. How is it that when you destroy the neocortex, you actually take the blinders off and allow consciousness of a far richer and more real and comprehensive knowing to come into existence? That was what drove me to come to some explanation.
RS: How do you now view that relation between brain and mind?
EA: Before the coma, as a neuroscientist who felt that the brain creates consciousness, I paid no attention to near-death experiences, because I would have said that they’re a flickering of a dying brain.
But they’re far more than that. In fact, they are not created by a dying brain at all, they’re linked to a much more substantial, conscious, eternal spiritual being. Near-death experiencers have been telling us for decades about a reality that is much more real than this one. So has the afterlife literature going back thousands of years.
I give talks around the world about all this. And I’ll have people who come up to me who know nothing about any of this literature but who share with me their own stunning personal stories of near-death experiences, after-death communications, past-life memories in children, and reincarnation stories. There’s just no way to pretend that it’s some mass hysteria, that it’s all some trick of the brain. This is something far more profound.
So I’ve come to realise that consciousness, soul, or spirit is the thing that truly exists at the core of all that is. Before my coma I would have been tempted to try and tell you that, as conventional scientific teaching says, the brain, the chemistry, the biology creates an illusion of reality, an illusion of free will. In fact that is absolutely backwards. What truly exists is consciousness, soul, or spirit.
Even modern physics is in a headlong rush to tell us that there is no material to the material world. It’s vibrating strings of energy and higher-dimensional space-time. And it is consciousness that is essential to emerging reality. The only thing we know exists is our own consciousness. But we’re so immersed in this consciousness that it’s very difficult to separate ourselves from it.
Any possible model, or any kind of scientific explanation of the nature of reality, must begin with a far more robust explanation of what consciousness is, because it is not created by the brain. The brain is a reducing valve or filter. That idea was gaining in popularity in the late nineteenth century with very brilliant thinkers – William James, Carl Jung, Frederic Myers – and yet it lost its attraction during the heyday of the twentieth century, when science got sucked into purely materialistic explanations.