A neurosurgeon on consciousness beyond the body: “The materialist picture is doomed”

Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who has spoken at (for example) the Rhine Research Center, writes in the current issue of Newsweek about his personal discovery and conviction that consciousness exists beyond the body. His argument is especially intriguing because, although it is based on his own personal experience, it goes beyond the limp and lame argument that “I experienced it so I know it’s real!” to invoke his medical knowledge and expertise. Specifically, he points out that his otherworldly experiences occurred while he was in a coma, when his neocortex was shut down — at a time when, therefore, according to the brain-based model of consciousness, no experiences at all should have been possible.

Here’s the gist:

As a neurosurgeon, I did not believe in the phenomenon of near-death experiences. I grew up in a scientific world, the son of a neurosurgeon. I followed my father’s path and became an academic neurosurgeon, teaching at Harvard Medical School and other universities. I understand what happens to the brain when people are near death, and I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys described by those who narrowly escaped death … In the fall of 2008, after seven days in a coma during which the human part of my brain, the neocortex, was inactivated, I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death.

… I’m not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history. But as far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my 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.

… Today many believe that the living spiritual truths of religion have lost their power, and that science, not faith, is the road to truth. Before my experience I strongly suspected that this was the case myself. But I now understand that such a view is far too simple. The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already. This view is scientific and spiritual in equal measure and will value what the greatest scientists of history themselves always valued above all: truth.

— Dr. Eben Alexander, “Proof of Heaven: A Doctor’s Experience with the Afterlife,”  The Daily Beast (and Newsweek), October 8, 2012

For obvious reasons, this piece is being widely circulated around the Internet, and is eliciting comments and reactions galore. This is entirely appropriate, since it injects a truly fascinating perspective into the conversation on consciousness, the brain, the afterlife, and related matters.

Here’s a segment about Dr. Alexander and his experience and ideas on the Science Channel program Through the Wormhole:

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The Teeming Brain is a blog magazine exploring the intersection of religion, horror, the paranormal, creativity, consciousness, and culture. It also tracks apocalyptic and dystopian trends in technology, politics, ecology, economics, the arts, education, and society at large.

Posted on October 10, 2012, in Paranormal, Psychology & Consciousness and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Such arrogance – such presumption.

    People in near death situations have reported such experiences for thousands of years and nothing has changed. Interestingly enough, they always seem to have experiences corresponding to whatever religion they grew up in…

    Nothing will change. Some people will believe in their talking snakes and miracles, others, more grown-up, will concentrate on making the best use of the life they have right now.

    • I find your response interesting, Tom, for its own presumption. You presume to know definitively, categorically, as a matter of positive, established, and incontrovertible truth, that the very idea of an “afterlife” or of consciousness beyond the body/brain is false. And not only that, but you presume — arrogantly, it would seem — that it is automatically correct to regard such notions as childish, ludicrous, and worthy of contempt. I can’t help wondering where and how you acquired such a certainty, not only about the factual matters but about the value that is proper to assign to a proposition (that consciousness exists/persists/subsists beyond death and aside from the body and brain) based on an experience that, as you point out, people have reported for thousands of years. You take it as an established verity that all such claims and ideas have always been, and remain today, patently asinine. What are the axioms you’re working from, the foundational assumptions about consciousness and reality and what “can” and “cannot” be real that lie behind your claim and attitude? What are they based on? Are they reasonable? Are they arbitrary? Do they simply serve as a prejudice, in the most literal meaning of the word?

      • Thanks for publishing my response!

        > You presume to know…

        That is not so! I make no claims whatsoever about the truth above. I frankly am not sure at all what happens after death.

        My claim is that this particular event won’t effect any significant change in the rest of the world – but that’s simple induction, as there are a plethora of such “after life” experiences in the last couple of centuries, and none of them have yet had any great effect.

        Perhaps some later exceptional event will provide actual proof of the afterlife – it wouldn’t be conceptually hard, simply come back with information about our world that couldn’t have been gotten otherwise – but pending that, I have every right to be skeptical about this anecdote, because that’s exactly what this is, an anecdote with no hard information whatsoever.

        And I also added my opinion – that this is a waste of time: that individuals should concentrate on their lives and not on what might or might not happen after their deaths. I might care a great deal about the answer to that question – but there’s nothing I can do about it.

        (It probably comes out that I do think the whole Old Testament myths are, well, true to the fact, but I feel that few people really believe in a six day creation and all that…)

        • Greetings Tom,

          There’s quite a bit of serious research in the area of ‘afterlife studies’. One of the best contemporary groups working on the issue is the Windbridge Institute in Arizona ( http://www.windbridge.org )

          They’ve got some of their peer reviewed work and conference reports up on their website.

          Beyond that there is Ian Stevenson’s, Univ. of Virginia, work on reincarnation (not necessarily afterlife studies, but interesting, and somewhat related,) Gary Schwartz’ work at the Univ. of Arizona, and over 130 years of research conducted by the Society for Psychical Research, and various other groups. F.W.H. Myer’s classic Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death still remains an excellent resource, and some of his theories have found renewed vigor with research in physics on non-local fields, and in mathematics with dynamical systems models.

          • Thanks for the pointers, a few of which I was familiar with, but mostly not. I’ll wander around and look at ’em…

  2. Sam Harris takes apart this naive piece of schlock journalism on his blog today: http://www.samharris.org/blog/

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