Eben Alexander and the face of near-death experiences
For most of his life and career, Eben Alexander was skeptical about any world there might exist beyond the reach of a materialist science. His professional credentials are outstanding. He graduated from Duke University Medical School, trained at Massachusetts General Hospital, completed a fellowship in cerebrovascular neurosurgery in England, and spent fifteen years on the faculty of Harvard Medical School before returning south to Virginia with his wife and two sons. Alexander helped develop and refine leading-edge surgical procedures, including stereotactic radio surgery (surgery using radiation beams) and MRI-guided neurosurgery. He has contributed to more than 150 scientific publications and made presentations at more than 200 medical conferences around the world.
This was a man confident in his knowledge. And one of the things he knew for many years was that stories of near-death experiences were nothing but fantasy. When the brain stops working during a medical emergency or as death approaches, consciousness stops. With no brain function to process thoughts or remember them, there could be no near-death experience (NDE). As Alexander put it, “Pull the plug and the TV goes dead.”
A quick survey of the medical literature confirms that Alexander’s colleagues agreed with him. The consensus was that near-death experiences have normal, organic explanations. A 2011 paper in Trends in Cognitive Science gives away its viewpoint in the title: “There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences: how neuroscience can explain seeing bright lights, meeting the dead, or being convinced you are one of them” (yes, that’s the title). Noting that three percent of Americans claim to have had a near-death experience, the authors conclude, “Taken together, the scientific evidence suggests that all aspects of the near-death experience have a neurophysiological or psychological basis.”
Alexander had seen many patients and their families face the hard facts and unanswered questions surrounding faith, spirituality, and death. He sympathized with their struggles, but didn’t see a place for the supernatural in his own life. He was by his own admission an occasional churchgoer who didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about religion or belief. “I encouraged our boys to say their prayers at night,” he wrote, “but I was no spiritual leader in our home… As much as I’d grown up wanting to believe in God and Heaven and an afterlife, my decades in the rigorous scientific world of academic neurosurgery had profoundly called into question how such things could exist. Modern neuroscience dictates that the brain gives rise to consciousness — to the mind, to the soul, to the spirit, to whatever you choose to call that invisible, intangible part of us that makes us who we are — and I had little doubt that it was correct.”
Despite his scientific skepticism, Alexander did not begrudge his patients their belief in the supernatural. “As a doctor who saw incredible physical and emotional suffering on a regular basis,” he wrote, “the last thing I would have wanted to do was to deny anyone the comfort and hope that faith provided. In fact, I would have loved to have enjoyed some of it myself. The older I got, however, the less likely that seemed.”
Then, early on a November day in 2008, everything Alexander thought he knew about the supernatural world was forever upended. The seven days that followed transformed his view of miracles by placing him squarely in the middle of one.
“God Help Me!”
On the morning of November 10, 2008, Eben Alexander woke up at his home in Lynchburg, Virginia, with a bad backache followed by a splitting headache. At first he thought it might be the lingering effects of a respiratory virus and back pain from the night before. But by noon Alexander was rushed to the local hospital with a grand mal seizure. Alexander had been a healthy man of fifty-four who was training to climb a mountain in Ecuador with his college age son, Eben IV. There was no reason for him to get so sick so suddenly.
As the ER doctor on call, Alexander’s friend and colleague Laura Potter, received word of the incoming case (though not yet Alexander’s identity) and ran down a mental checklist of what could have caused such a catastrophe: alcohol or drug reactions, low blood sodium, stroke, brain tumor, and meningitis among other possibilities.
Because Alexander had complained of a severe headache before his seizure, Potter decided to perform a lumbar puncture to test his spinal fluid for signs of infection. This fluid runs along the spinal cord and coats the brain. It is clear except when there is an infection in the meninges, the membranes lining the inside of the spine and the skull.
Alexander was flailing and twisting so violently on the examining table because of his seizure that it took six people to hold him down for the lumbar procedure. The least cloudiness in the fluid would indicate an inflammation of the meninges — meningitis. The ER staff was shocked to see the fluid come out greenish-white and thick with pus.
Further tests showed Alexander had such a rare version of the disease that it may be the only example of its kind ever recorded. Eighty percent of meningitis cases are caused by viruses. Patients with viral meningitis can be very sick, but only about one percent of them die. The other twenty percent of cases are caused by bacteria, a more serious condition. These patients have mortality rates ranging from fifteen to forty percent.
When the bacteria are E. coli, which is what Alexander had, and brain function deteriorates as fast as his had that November day, the survival rate is about ten percent. Of those who survive, virtually all will live the rest of their lives in a vegetative state because the lining and outer layers of their brains are eaten away by the ravenous bacteria in their spinal fluid. The first areas of the brain to be destroyed are the ones that control basic human functions: memory, language, emotion, logic.
E. coli meningitis is virtually unknown in adults. When it happens, it is a consequence of surgery, penetrating brain trauma, or of a severe problem in the immune system such as AIDS. Alexander had experienced none of these.
The chance of Eben Alexander contracting E. coli meningitis was minuscule. A survey of medical literature going back more than fifteen years revealed no other cases. His chance of surviving, even in a vegetative state, started at ten percent when he was wheeled into the hospital and grew more desperate by the minute.
For two hours after arriving in the emergency room at Lynchburg General, Alexander thrashed and squirmed, grunting and yelling nonsensical sounds. Then suddenly he shouted three words: “God, help me!” and lay motionless on the bed. For seven days he didn’t move or speak, kept alive by a ventilator and IVs.
Alexander’s story to this point is a kind of miracle in reverse — an extremely rare event that’s also deadly. A distinguished neurosurgeon is laid low by a type of disease he has studied intensively. It is meningitis (uncommon in otherwise healthy adults), non-viral (occurring in only 20 percent of meningitis cases), and caused by E. coli (virtually unknown under the circumstances). However, the focus of the story then turns from the evident hopelessness of finding a natural cure to the need for a miraculous or supernatural solution. Alexander thus leaves the familiar world of facts and science behind for another world he never knew existed.
Up to this point in his life, Alexander believed in the tangible world that was the center of his training and work. “I adored … the absolute honesty and cleanness of science,” he said. “I respected that it left no room for fantasy or for sloppy thinking… This approach left very little room for the soul and the spirit, for the continuing existence of a personality after the brain that supported it stopped functioning.”
During the week his body was in a coma, some part of Eben Alexander — we can call it his spirit — took a journey that changed him so profoundly he struggles to find words to describe the experience or the transformation. In the prologue to his book Proof of Heaven, he writes, “I see it as my duty, my calling, to tell people about what I saw beyond the body and beyond this earth. I am especially eager to tell my story to the people who might have heard stories similar to mine before and wanted to believe them, but had not been able to fully do so… What I have to tell you is as important as anything anyone will ever tell you, and it’s true.”
“The Most Real Experience of My Life”
The first sensation he describes is being submerged in bad-smelling semi-transparent mud that looked like dirty Jell-O, surrounded by a deep mechanical pulse that he could feel as well as hear, “as if a giant subterranean blacksmith is pounding an anvil somewhere off in the distance.” He labeled this the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View, a muddy ooze with a reddish glow that was infiltrated at first by what looked like roots or blood vessels and later what looked like faces of people.
The second stage of Alexander’s experience brought new sounds and sights. He describes a white-gold light that began to splinter the darkness accompanied by “a living sound, like the richest, most complex, most beautiful piece of music you’ve ever heard.” He named this sound the Spinning Melody. He was pulled up out of the ooze through an opening in the light and found himself flying over a lush green countryside with children playing, people singing and dancing, dogs running and jumping, the whole sight indescribably vibrant and intense. To him it was at once a beautiful, incredible dream world and yet simultaneously it was completely real. He called this transitional stage of his journey The Gateway.
After a while Alexander noticed someone flying next to him. It was a beautiful girl with high cheekbones, deep blue eyes, and golden-brown hair. Though he had never seen the girl before, he felt drawn to her. She looked at him with a look that he felt made his whole life up to that point worth living. It wasn’t a romantic look or even of friendship but something more and beyond those feelings. “It was something higher, holding all those other kinds of love within itself while at the same time being more genuine and pure than all of them.” He experienced them sailing along on a butterfly wing, surrounded by countless other butterflies.
The girl spoke to him a three-part message without using words:
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.
“You have nothing to fear.
“There is nothing you can do wrong.”
Alexander records these experiences while reaffirming that he is a realist who knows the difference between fantasy and reality yet also saying that flying with the beautiful girl was the single most real experience of his life.
The third place Alexander’s journey took him was an immense void beyond the clouds that was both pitch black and brimming over with light. He passed by flocks of transparent orbs that reminded him of angels or birds and made a beautiful chant-like sound, then found himself in the presence of the Creator. Though there seemed to be no distance at all between him and God, he could at the same time sense the Creator’s infinite vastness and could see how minuscule he was by comparison. Alexander was led in and out of this world, which he called the Core, by the beautiful girl on the butterfly wing.
In the Core he asked questions and received answers, all without speaking. He learned that there were an innumerable number of universes and that love was the center of all of them. Evil was necessarily present in trace amounts because without it there could be no free will, and without free will there could be no growth, meaning there would be no chance for us to become what God longed for us to be.
Alexander also described universes “whose intelligence was advanced far beyond that of humanity,” adding, “It will take me the rest of my life, and then some, to unpack what I learned up there… Knowledge was stored without memorization, instantly and for good … To this day I still possess all of it, much more clearly than I possess the information that I gained over all of my years in school.”
Science and Spirituality
After being in the presence of the Creator, Alexander felt himself pulled gently out of the Core, flying over the idyllic landscape of the Gateway with the beautiful girl beside him, then back into the ooze of the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View. Eventually he acquired the ability to move out of the ooze on his own and made many trips from there through the Gateway to the Core and back again. Each time he visited the Core he went deeper and learned more than the time before.
The overwhelming lesson and message of his experience was: You are loved. At its simplest, the message was Love. Not romantic love or any other commonplace version of the emotion, but rather the purest, most powerful, unconditional love. To Alexander this was the reality of realities, “the incomprehensibly glorious truth of truths that lives and breathes at the core of everything that exists or that will ever exist”
Alexander challenges critics who say this isn’t much of a scientific insight to be coming from a scientist. “I’m back from that place,” he notes, “and nothing could convince me that this is not only the single most important emotional truth in the universe, but also the single most important scientific truth as well…
“Science … doesn’t contradict what I learned up there. But far, far too many people believe it does, because certain members of the scientific community, who are pledged to the materialist worldview, have insisted again and again that science and spirituality cannot coexist.
“They are mistaken.”
The Sounds of Prayer
Eben Alexander reports that he made the trip to the Core and back an untold number of times, until at one point he came to the edge of the Gateway and couldn’t get through to it. To him it appeared that the gates of Heaven were closed. Heartbroken, he sank into a gloomy world of ever-increasing sorrow that was also an actual physical sinking.
He felt himself moving down through a wall of clouds. He could see shadowy images of faces and heard a murmuring sound. Then he realized that the sounds were people praying for him. He recognized the face of his pastor and his wife. Though Alexander was headed into the unknown, he somehow knew that wherever he went the Heaven he had experienced would always be with him, and that the Creator and the beautiful girl would be with him too.
He saw more faces that he recognized: his wife and sisters and others who had prayed for him, most of whom had kept vigil at the hospital. One face took on more detail and Alexander sensed something especially intense about it. It was someone pleading for him to return. It was the face of his ten-year-old son, Bond.
Let Nature Take Its Course
While Eben Alexander had been on his incredible spiritual journey, his friends, family, and colleagues kept vigil at the hospital in Lynchburg. They took turns holding his hand around the clock. Any hope of survival seemed slim. His physical condition had been grave when he arrived. The glucose level in the spinal fluid of a healthy person is around 80 milligrams per deciliter. A patient in imminent danger of dying from bacterial meningitis may have readings as low as 20. Dr. Alexander had a glucose level of 1.
Even at that early stage, the bacteria attacking his brain had likely already compromised all higher brain activity. The longer he was unconscious, the more likely he was to live the rest of his life in a vegetative state even in the unlikely event that he survived.
Doctors continued to try and figure out how Alexander had gotten E. coli bacterial meningitis. Absent injury or surgery, there is no way for this bacteria to gain access to the spinal fluid. A rare case was reported in Israel during a time Alexander was visiting there, but any possible connection was eliminated.
Alexander had had his seizure on Monday. By Thursday there was no improvement and, as far as the doctors knew, that whole time the bacteria had been ravenously devouring his brain tissue. If by some fluke he did wake up, Alexander would most likely not be able to speak or think or perform even at the most basic level. He would require constant nursing care for the rest of his life. Brain scans showed his brain completely shut down.
By Friday Alexander had been on three antibiotic IVs for four full days without responding. That night Bond spent the night by his father’s bed, holding his hand and begging him to wake up. The family decided to call their older son, Eben IV, home from college, believing that the end was near. The likelihood of survival was now in the three percent range. Sunday morning, the seventh day of Alexander’s coma, the doctors and family decided that if there was no change in another twelve hours they would stop the antibiotics, giving the bacteria free rein. One of the doctors explained to Alexander’s wife and sister that at this point, after a week in coma with severe bacterial meningitis, it was unreasonable to expect a recovery. Under the circumstances, it might be better to let nature take its course.
Hearing this news from the hall outside, Bond ran to his father crying, kissing his forehead and rubbing his shoulders, opening his eyelids with his thumbs and shouting into his unconscious eyes, “You’re going to be okay, Daddy! You’re going to be okay!”
His aunt Sylvia joined him at the bedside as his mother went into another room to make the call to Eben IV.
Then, without warning, Eben Alexander opened his eyes.
He sat up and tried to speak. As soon as the breathing tube was removed from his throat he looked around the room full of people, smiled broadly, and said, “Don’t worry, all is well.”
An Expert Witness
For several days after he woke up, Alexander had hallucinations and nightmares, interspersed with times when he was rational and lucid. No one could reasonably speculate about when the improvement would stop, thereby marking the new limits of his brain function. But Alexander already knew that he was well. “In fact,” he wrote in Proof of Heaven, “though at this point only I knew this, I was completely and truly ‘well’ for the first time in my entire life.” Eventually all of his brain function and memory, including all of his medical knowledge, was restored.
The story is remarkable. Apparently, there is no record of anyone in this condition returning to health as good as new. And the one person in history who recovers fully is a Harvard-trained neurosurgeon!
Eben Alexander was and is a one-of-a-kind expert witness in the realm of near-death experiences, life after death, and the supernatural spiritual world. All of the possible medical explanations for what he experienced while he was unconscious relied on some reaction within the physical body. Since there was no brain activity, there could be no organic physical response to anything. No drug-induced hallucinations, no signaling of neurons, no chemical imbalance, no memory re-boot phenomenon. Alexander makes a compelling case that he experienced a miracle, and his background in neurosurgery helps his case.
Alexander was eager to share his experience with others and write it down. Unsurprisingly, his colleagues celebrated his recovery but didn’t believe his account of heaven. Alexander’s brain, they said, was soaking in pus and that he himself knew what a brain could imagine when it was so gravely damaged.
Alexander sympathizes with his colleagues, admitting, “How could I blame them? After all, I certainly wouldn’t have understood it either — before… What I’d experienced was more real than the house I [was sitting] in… Yet there was no room for that reality in the medically trained scientific worldview that I’d spent years acquiring. How was I going to create room for both of these realities to exist?”
At his son Eben’s suggestion, Alexander wrote down everything he could remember about what happened when he was unconscious before doing any research on other accounts of near-death experiences. Young Eben advised that this approach would keep his father’s account from being influenced by others. As he wrote, Alexander worked to find words that expressed the magnificence and presence and vivid reality of everything that had happened.
The key lesson he learned and wanted to share was that the most important force in the universe is love. He also took from his experience that the soul or spirit or supernatural essence of a person is completely independent from their physical body and the material world. His experience had not been a product of his subconscious. When his brain shut down, he had no subconscious. During his travels to The Core and back, he’d had no brain function; his brain was functionally dead. Yet, from his vantage, he had never been so alive in his life before — or since.
The Worlds Met
After he finished writing down everything he could about his experience, Alexander says he eagerly began reading the vast amount of literature available on NDE (near-death experience). Though each account was unique, there were common elements in many of them that he also had experienced: a darkness giving way to a bright, vibrant landscape; angelic beings acting as guides; the sense of being out of time; an intense feeling of unconditional love.
He also read, and knew from his own patients, of instances where people saw individuals from other times in their lives, often someone who had died years before. One patient saw her late father in a dream. He was wearing a yellow shirt and a fedora that were part of a private joke her parents had shared before the patient was born. She had never seen or heard of these clothes herself but when she described them to her mother, her mother knew exactly what she was talking about.
That reminded Alexander of the mysterious and beautiful girl who had been his guide and with whom he felt such a connection. The mystery of her identity was soon solved, thereby revealing yet another miracle.
Alexander knew he had been adopted. His birth mother was an unwed teenager who gave him up when he was three months old. Over the years he had tried several times to connect with his birth family without success. At last in 2007 his birth sister answered a letter from him and that October, a little more than a year before his attack of meningitis, Alexander met his birth family. His biological parents had eventually married and had more children. His father had been a naval aviator and an airline pilot, which explained Alexander’s fascination with flying. He met his biological sister and brother, and also learned that he had another sister, Betsy, who had died ten years earlier. The family promised to send him a photo of her.
Four months after he left the hospital, Alexander received the picture of his late sister. She was standing on a pier in southern California with a beautiful sunset behind her. Taking his first look at her, Alexander noted her long brown hair and deep blue eyes. And “her smile, radiating love and kindness, seemed to go right through me, making my heart both swell and ache at the same time.”
The next morning Alexander was reading the story of a near-death experience by a twelve-year-old girl who had a journey to a beautiful place accompanied by her brother, only she didn’t have a brother. When she told her father about the story, he tearfully explained that she did in fact have a brother who died three months before she was born.
Alexander looked over at the photo of the sister he had never known. Suddenly he knew who she was. “… she wasn’t easy to recognize at first. But that was only natural. I had seen her heavenly self… But now there was no mistaking her, no mistaking the loving smile, the confident and infinitely comforting look, the sparkling blue eyes.
“It was she.
“For an instant, the worlds met” — the earthly world and the God-infused, love-filled cosmos Eben and Betsy had traveled together. “Seeing that photo made me feel like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream — until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.”
Since his recovery, Alexander has worked to reconcile his supernatural experience with his knowledge as a doctor who has pledged himself to science. As he explains, “I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew — knew completely — that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one.”
The Miraculous Mystery
The concepts of a miraculous recovery and a miraculous journey into the spiritual realm are a tough sell in the world of modern medicine. Yet Alexander’s fellow physicians were impelled to consider the possibilities in light of his unprecedented recovery. Scott Wade, an infectious diseases specialist who saw Alexander when he was admitted to the hospital reported, “Dr. Alexander presented to the hospital with seizures and markedly altered mental status, both of which are risk factors for neurological complications or death (mortality over 90 percent). Despite prompt and aggressive antibiotic treatment for his E. coli meningitis as well as continued care in the medical intensive care unit, he remained in a coma six days and hope for a quick recovery faded (mortality over 97 percent). Then, on the seventh day, the miraculous happened — he opened his eyes, became alert, and was quickly weaned from the ventilator.”
Alexander says his experience gave him a new and life-changing understanding of the relationship between the the material and spiritual worlds: “The physical side of the universe is as a speck of dust compared to the invisible and spiritual part. In my past view, spiritual wasn’t a word that I would have employed during scientific conversations. Now I believe it is a word that we cannot afford to leave out…
“[W]ith 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.”
Still, many doctors would disagree. A generation earlier, another doctor on another journey in search of miracles came to a different conclusion. We turn next to this doctor’s skeptical conclusion about miracles.
Addendum to Chapter 4
I (BD) have had a long-standing interest in near death experiences, reading Raymond Moody’s Life After Life as a teenager shortly after it came out in the mid 1970s. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying (published 1969) had gotten the ball rolling. Other books followed, and there is now a vast literature on the topic. Many of them present a rosy picture of the afterlife. Eben Alexander’s book is a recent example of the “rosy afterlife” approach. We chose it not only for its recency but also because of his background in neurophysiology and the abrupt turn that his NDE created for his metaphysical worldview.
That said, Alexander’s book is better put into perspective with additional readings. Maurice Rawlings was a cardiologist who faced patients dying of heart attacks, and he recounted many instances of patients experiencing NDEs describing themselves as going not to a heavenly sphere with sweetness and light but to a place of torment, i.e., hell. Rawlings wrote about this in a fascinating book titled Beyond Death’s Door (published 1978). Interestingly, many patients who would describe themselves in hell while Rawlings was resuscitating them had no recollection of this experience once they made it (if they made it) to the recovery room. Rawlings conjectured that patients were unconsciously suppressing the painful memories of such negative NDEs. Because he was a cardiologist, he saw patients as they were experiencing their NDEs in real-time. He regarded it as a deficiency in much of the NDE literature that it typically interviewed those who claimed to have experienced an NDE only after significant time had passed and thus when memory was more inclined to play tricks.
NDEs remain widely embraced and widely dismissed. For those who embrace them, some of the strongest evidence for NDEs as more than just a subjective response by the brain to impending death is knowledge gained by those experiencing the NDEs that could not have been gained through any natural or material process. Take someone who is on an operating table, claims to float outside one’s body, and then goes to an adjacent waiting room to witness some event or conversation taking place there among family members (which the family members then confirm). If the body is in the operating room and near death, then knowledge of what’s happening elsewhere is barred on a purely naturalistic worldview and thus implies a non-naturalistic worldview, at least so the argument goes. Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary make such an argument, successfully in my view, in their book The Spiritual Brain (2007).
 Alexander, Eben, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. (New York: Simon & Schuster), 2012. pp. 7-8; all quotations and details of Alexander’s experience are from this source unless otherwise noted.
 Ibid., p. 9.
 Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt, “There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences…” Trends in Cognitive Science, vol. 15, iss. 10, Oct. 2011: 447-9.
 Alexander, op. cit., p. 34.
 Ibid., p. 35.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Ibid., p. 10.
 Ibid., p. 29.
 Ibid., p. 38.
 Ibid., p. 40.
 Ibid., p. 41.
 Ibid., p. 49.
 Ibid., p. 71.
 Ibid., pp. 71-73.
 Ibid., p. 113.
 Ibid., p. 123.
 Ibid., p. 125.
 Ibid., p. 165.
 Ibid., p. 169.
 Ibid., pp. 183-184.
 Ibid., p. 171.