In a recent book. Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (1), Dr. Eben Alexander tells what he claims to have experienced while he was in a coma for seven days. The medical condition that caused his coma came on suddenly as a result of a virulent form of bacterial meningitis. During these seven days Alexander says his neocortex (the presumed source of consciousness) was shut down yet he had elaborate experiences in another world. He was “encountering the reality of a world of consciousness that existed completely free of the limitations of my physical brain.” (2) Prior to the illness, Alexander had the viewpoint of the scientifically trained doctor. He dismissed visions of people with near death experiences as fantasies of an oxygen deprived brain. After his recovery, Alexander believed he had seen heaven.
The book is written in a narrative style. It is part autobiography with an special focus around the seven days of the coma. Alexander jumps back and forth between what he experienced while he was in the coma and what was occurring with his friends and relatives around him. Alexander seems to have as much detail about what is happening around him as he does about his own visions. For example, he recounts that a pastor learning Alexander’s death might be imminent “drove through the cold steady rain to the hospital, struggling to see through the tears filling his eyes” (3) . He writes at another point how as his sister “slogged through the soaking mud it was hard for her to keep to the flagstones.” (4) We can assume these sorts of details came from interviews with people during the writing of this book, but the level of detail suggests some degree of literary license is at work. The book has something of the flavor of a novel where conversations and details of well-known historical figures are imagined. To me this calls into question whether some similar degree of literary invention might be at work in the detailed recounting of his visions.
The visions themselves begin with a period of darkness and without body. Alexander writes: “How long did I reside in this world? I have no idea.” (5) We might wonder if this is the actual period of the coma and the visions that follow were experienced while his neocortex was starting back up. Next comes what he calls the “Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View.” Alexander says he suspected this realm “might have been some kind of memory of what my brain felt like during the period when the bacteria were originally overrunning it.” (6) It is a sensation of being buried deep in the ground like an earthworm. It is unpleasant with grotesque animals, reptilian creatures, and fetid smells. He wants to escape. A bright light accompanied by beautiful music lifts him out of the darkness and has him flying over a beautiful world. He realizes he is accompanied by a beautiful girl who speaks to him without words and tells him he is loved and has nothing to fear. Visions that follow are of his exploration of this world and his encounters with other beings. This is followed by a descent again to the “Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View.” This time he feels in control and able to leave. He realizes he is being given the grand tour from the lower levels to the upper levels with the ultimate message that he is loved and has nothing to fear.
The book seems to draw two different types of reactions. One is that what Alexander experienced is true exactly as he experienced it and this confirms what many religions tell us. Raymond Moody writes: “Dr. Eben Alexander’s near-death experience stands as perhaps one of the crown jewels of all near-death experiences. The knowledge of what he experienced raises the bar for serious investigators and pundits. It marks the beginning of a new era of rational investigation of humankind’s deepest mystery, life after death.” (7) The other is that the experiences are hallucinations and tricks of brain caused by neural confusion and massive disruption in the brain. Michael Shermer provides examples of hallucinatory phenomena and then writes: “What is more likely: That Alexander’s NDE was a real trip to heaven and all these other hallucinations are the product of neural activity only? Or that all such experiences are mediated by the brain but seem real to each experiencer? To me, this evidence is proof of hallucination, not heaven.” (8)
The examples of hallucinations that Shermer uses to compare to Alexander’s NDE are not particularly well-chosen. One is a shadow person created by electric stimulation of the brain and another is the shimmering, bright lights preceding a migraine attack. Neither of these compare remotely with an elaborately constructed world with grass, earth, smells, and beings who are able to communicate. A recent study comparing near death experiences to imagined events found “not only were the NDEs not similar to the memories of imagined events, but the phenomenological characteristics inherent to the memories of real events (e.g. memories of sensorial details) are even more numerous in the memories of NDE than in the memories of real events.” (9) NDEs are not simple sensory distortions or simple imagined beings. They probably compare more closely to experiences with powerful hallucinogens such as ayahuasca, iboga, salvia divinorium, high doses of psilocybin mushrooms, and various synthetics such as DMT. In fact, some one created a quiz that mixed statements from Alexander’s book with self-reported experiences with various hallucinogens and invited the reader to distinguish between the two. If you haven’t read Alexander’s book, you might be hard pressed to tell the difference.
Both NDEs and powerful hallucinogens have a more real than reality aspect to them that makes a compelling case for anyone who has the experience to accept its authenticity without question. We probably have a good idea why hallucinogens produce this effect. A study in Brazil demonstrated that the brain waves of ayahuasca users seeing visions with eyes closely matched brain waves of people seeing actual objects with eyes opened (10). In other words, the brain seems to be creating an alternate world by firing the neural patterns which would be used for sensing actual objects in ordinary reality. Only under the influence of the drug or during an NDE, the brain is creating seemingly without sensory input from the environment.
We might speculate that shamanism could have originated from human experience with NDEs and that the use of hallucinogens, drumming, and other trance techniques arose as a mechanism for attempting to recreate the NDE on demand. The shaman in his travels either goes down into the Earth or flies into the sky. Alexander visited the “Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View” followed by a resurrection that left him flying in the sky over some magical world. Shamans believe the plant they consume to be teachers, typically goddesses that impart wisdom to them. Might Alexander be implying some connection between the bacteria and his actual experience in coma when he says suspected that the lower realm had something to do with the bacteria overrunning his brain? In any case, we also find Alexander flying over his world with a girl who imparts wisdom to him. Even though people from different backgrounds obviously interpret their NDEs differently, underlying their reports are often common threads: visiting the underworld, flying in the sky, being taught by other beings. These are paralleled almost exactly in shamanic practice and belief.
The brain at near death or under certain drugs seems to create an alternate world. Once the cultural interpretation of the experience is striped away, this world may be quite similar for everyone. I can only think of two ways to explain this. One is this world actually exists on some plane not accessible in ordinary consciousness. The other is that there is some common machinery in all brains that becomes activated during these times.
NDEs and experiences with hallucinogens are often life changing. They can result in people changing their behavior and beliefs. In many cases, people with these experiences will count them among the most significant of their lives. At some level, these experiences may be brain waves firing. Brain waves are firing while I see the tree outside my window. Brain waves fire when a scientist makes a great discovery. The perception of the tree, the discovery of the scientist, and an NDE may all be brain waves firing. Why should we diminish the value or significance of the NDE?
NDEs and hallucinogens may give us a unique opportunity to contact directly a mechanism of consciousness common to all minds. They may provide us insight into how mind itself plays its part in the making the world. Not all of us will have NDEs but all have the opportunity to explore with hallucinogens and other non-drug means.
I say let’s explore.
Please check out a post by fellow blogger on this book. It was a discussion with him that led to this post.
1- Alexander, Eben. Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Simon and Schuster. New York,.2012.
2- Ibid p. 9.
3- Ibid p. 93
4- Ibid p. 99
5- Ibid p. 29
6- Ibid p. 30