Conversion after his own encounter with the afterlife during a near-death experience.
Dr Eben Alexander spent 15 years as an academic neurosurgeon at Harvard but he was struck with a nearly fatal bout of bacterial meningitis in 2008 and had no brain activity when he lay comatose for seven days at a Virginia hospital.
Though he was unconscious and unresponsive during that period, he is now describing a ‘hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey’ to a place beyond, filled with butterflies and resounding music that has shaken his scientific viewpoint on human consciousness.
He says he entered a place filled with clouds and the sound of chanting, and was met by a beautiful blue-eyed woman.
Dr Alexander describes his paradigm shift from focusing solely on the scientific make up of the brain to considering the spiritual realm of the mind, in a deeply reflective essay in Newsweek in advance of the release of his book, Proof of Heaven.
‘As a neurosurgeon, I did not believe in the phenomenon of near-death experiences,’ he writes in his article, explaining how he had previously relied on ’good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys described by those who narrowly escaped death.’
Though he considered himself a nominal Christian he said he lacked the faith to believe in eternal life.
When his patients would tell tales of going to heaven during near death experiences, he relied on ‘current medical understanding of the brain and mind’ and disregarded them as wishful thinking.
But after he became the patient, he says he ‘experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death.’
The 58-year-old has an impressive pedigree. His ancestors were well regarded politicians and prominent fixtures in society in Tennessee. His father was Chief of Neurosurgery at Wake Forest University from 1948 to 1978.
The younger Alexander graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1975. He earned his medical degree from Duke in 1980.
He spent 15 years teaching neurology at Harvard Medical School and the University of Virginia – lecturing on and researching brain mapping, the treatment of brain tumors and trying to understand cognition.
In 2008, the father-of-two was in ‘good health and good shape,’ preparing to embark on a hike with his son of a volcano in South America, he said in a July interview about the ordeal with Skeptiko
Little did he know that he would soon become a patient at the very hospital where he taught.
The doctor’s life was nearly cut short on November 10, 2008, when he awoke at 4:30am to get ready to go to work at the Lynchburg General Hospital in Virginia, where he worked as a neurosurgeon.All of a sudden, he developed a severe pain in his back and within 15 minutes he was paralyzed in anguish and could barely even move.
His wife, Holley, rushed in to assist him and began to rub his back to relieve the tension but his condition worsened.Before he began convulsing in a seizure, his last words to his wife were, ‘Don’t call 911,’ and he lost consciousness and has no memory of what happened for an entire week.
Fortunately for him, his wife disregarded his advice and he was rushed to an area hospital and was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.
‘My entire cortex – the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion and that in essence makes us human – had shut down,’ he writes in his essay.
‘Doctors determined that I had somehow contracted a very rare bacterial meningitis that mostly attacks newborns. E. coli bacteria had penetrated my cerebrospinal fluid and were eating my brain,’ he added.
He was placed on a ventilator at the intensive care unit and for six days he was treated with triple antibiotics to fight the bacteria but his brain had little functionality and he was unresponsive, leaving doctors to believe he would not recover.
As his family prepared for the worst, on the seventh day he suddenly opened his eyes.
His breathing tube was removed and he miraculously told doctors, ‘Thank you.’
He suffered from amnesia and could not remember his life at all prior to his illness and remained in a haze for the first few days after he came out of the coma.
As he recovered though, he began to recall vivid memories of a magical mental experience during his time in the coma.
‘There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind – my conscious, inner self – was alive and well.‘While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility,’ he writes.
He says he entered a ‘place of clouds – big, puffy and pink-white,’ filled with butterflies and angel-like creatures that were ’simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms.’
In this heavenly realm, he says he heard ‘a sound, huge and booming like a glorious chant, came down from above,’ providing him with a sense of joy and awe.
A beautiful young woman accompanied him during his stay, ‘she was young, and I remember what she looked like in complete detail. She had high cheekbones and deep-blue eyes. Golden brown tresses framed her lovely face.’
Alexander admits his description might sound like something straight out of Hollywood, but to skeptics he says he has a clear sense that is was indeed real and ’not some fantasy, passing and insubstantial.’
After his remarkable experience in 2008, Alexander says the impact has been both on the professional and the spiritual.
Now the scientist has committed his energy to ‘investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more, than our physical brains as clear as I can, both to my fellow scientists and to people at large.’
But the self-described Christian-in-name-only, now says his experience with heaven has deepened his understanding of God and strengthened his faith.
‘At the very heart of my journey [is this], that we are loved and accepted unconditionally by a God even more grand and unfathomably glorious than the one I’d learned,’ he concludes.