When it came to the after-life, Eben Alexander used to be just like most scientists — a firm non-believer.
By his own account only ‘nominally’ a Christian, the 58-year-old, Harvard-educated neurosurgeon knew too much to have time for the tales of out-of-body experiences that patients would sometimes describe to him.
His work made him well aware that a brain undergoing immense physical stress can induce hallucinations, mostly due to nerve cells being deprived of oxygen.
And then, suddenly, in a turbulent, life-changing moment, the respected doctor was compelled to question the most basic assumptions he had made about the world.
After contracting a very rare form of bacterial meningitis, he fell into a seven-day coma in which the part of his brain that controls thought and emotion shut down. While doctors and family hovered over his bed, increasingly convinced he would never recover, Dr Alexander claims he was somehow transported to a ‘place of clouds’.
There, a beautiful blue-eyed woman answered his unspoken thoughts. What he described as ‘transparent shimmering beings’ glided over an idyllic landscape and an all-powerful divine presence flooded him with an intense, unconditional love.
The result was that Dr Alexander, who had taught and performed neurosurgery for Harvard Medical School for 15 years, was left convinced there is an after-life and a God.
Why? Because what he saw was Heaven.
His incredible odyssey — as described in a forthcoming book, Proof Of Heaven, and an article in Newsweek magazine — started at 4.30am on November 10, 2008, when he woke up at home in Lynchburg, Virginia.
He had a splitting headache.
As his worried wife, Holley, tried to massage away the intense pain, it spread to his back. Within 15 minutes, the agony was so bad he could barely take a step.
He was rushed to Lynchburg General Hospital, where he worked. A team of doctors discovered he had contracted a type of meningitis which mostly afflicts newborn babies.
Within a few hours, his entire cortex — the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion — shut down as the bacteria ate away at his brain.
As he was placed on a ventilator and pumped full of antibiotics, his colleagues feared he would never emerge from his vegetative state.
And yet, he now insists, his inner consciousness was very much alive.
When, seven days later, his eyes opened — to the shock of those who had been considering whether to stop treating him — Dr Alexander had an extraordinary story to tell.
Despite the fact the bacteria had stunned his neurons to complete inactivity, he had ‘journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe’.
Writing in Newsweek, he described it as something he had ‘never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility’.
When, three days after he left hospital, he first mentioned his experience to his family, his older son, himself a neuroscience student, urged him to write everything down.
Having fully recovered within a few weeks, he spent the next two months typing everything he could recall into his computer. By the time he had finished, it ran to 100 pages.
His first memory he calls an ‘earthworm eye view of the world . . . everything was murky — brown, red, dark’.
He remembers roots over his head and having no knowledge of his past life. Eventually, what he can only describe as a ‘melody’ — sights and sounds merge in this world, he says — started spinning in front of him, clearing away the murk.
The next thing he knew, he was flying over a meadow. He couldn’t speak and had no awareness of his body — he couldn’t see his arms or legs — but was simply a ‘speck on a butterfly wing’ along with millions of other butterflies in a swirling ‘river of life and colour’.
They fluttered among trees and flowers that exploded into bloom as they passed.
Below him were waterfalls, pools and ‘indescribable colours’, and above him were clouds — ‘big, puffy, pink-white ones that show up sharply against the deep blue-black sky’.
Far above the clouds were flocks of ‘transparent, shimmering beings’, making arcs of gold and silver across the sky.
‘Indescribably gorgeous’ hymns and chants wafted down from these beings — ‘higher forms’ of life which, as he gathered his thoughts later, he could only describe as ‘angels’.
He wasn’t alone. Beside him on the butterfly wing was a young woman with high cheekbones, deep-blue eyes, golden brown hair and dressed in ‘peasant garb’. He can even remember the colours of his ‘guardian angel’s’ clothes — a peachy orange, indigo and powder blue.
She never uttered a word but her soothing thoughts would ‘come into my awareness’. He adds: ‘Her thoughts were things like “You are loved. You are cherished for ever. There’s nothing you can do wrong”.’
Such messages, he recalls, ‘flooded me with a vast and crazy sensation of relief’. His companion ‘spoke’ again. ‘We will show you many things here, but eventually you will go back,’ she told him.
Poppycock? Not according to Dr Alexander. Indeed, this strange world wasn’t finished with him quite yet.
A warm wind blew around him and somehow sensing that it was the essence of a divine being, he wordlessly posed questions to it.
Where was he? Who was he? Why was he here? The answer to each was an ‘explosion of light, colour, love and beauty’ that blew through him like a crashing wave — somehow enabling him to understand concepts that would have taken years to grasp in ordinary life.
Continuing to move through this strange but enlightening world, he left this universe and went out into what he described as ‘the core’ — a huge but comforting void — ‘an inky darkness that was also full to brimming with light’ from a brilliant orb which served as his ‘interpreter’ with the ‘vast presence surrounding me’.
This, he says, was ‘a beautiful warm awareness of the divine which was clearly what we would call God’.
The whole multiverse of life was laid before him and it was ‘very clear that love was a huge part’ of it.
He claims he oscillated back and forth between the three episodes — his ‘earthworm eye view’, the infinite void and the idyllic meadow — before regaining consciousness.
While many may dispute such a story as the rich imaginings of someone who may have had a screw loose at the time, his sense of profound peace, out-of-body feeling and brilliant, goodness-radiating light are all things that crop up repeatedly in accounts of near-death experiences.
And surely many of us would envisage the same butterflies, ethereal creatures, choirs and scenery if asked to imagine Heaven.
His account is far more detailed than most, but why should we believe Dr Alexander’s out-of-body experience any more than all those he once dismissed as delusional?
To such scepticism, he makes two points: first, he believes no one else has made such claims while his or her cortex was shut down and, second, nor has it ever happened to anyone whose body was under intense medical observation every minute that he was in his coma.
The main arguments against near-death experiences, he says, are that they are down to a malfunctioning or partly functioning cortex.
‘According to current 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,’ he says.
He accepts that his story may be utterly unbelievable. In fact, he couldn’t believe it himself in the beginning. The scientist in him kept telling him that he must be wrong.
And yet, he insists, this was a memory as powerful as any in his life.
Adopting the advice of the French philosopher Descartes, to get at the truth he ignored or rejected everything he had ever accepted as real. And he has concluded — and he of all people should surely know — that there is no good scientific explanation for what happened to him.
He is still a doctor, putting up with the looks of ‘polite disbelief’ he gets from colleagues, but has pledged to spend the rest of his life investigating the ‘true nature’ of consciousness and persuading others that ‘we are much more than our physical brains’.
Going into a church reminds him of what he saw and heard during that life-changing coma.
In an age when so many have turned away from God and religion, Dr Alexander — with his butterflies — is moving resolutely in the other direction.
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