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:
My wife is a Desperate Housewives fan, and we just finished watching last night’s (March 11) episode, and I’m here to report that I was fairly thunderstruck by the final scene. This is the episode that ends with the beloved character of Mike Delfino being murdered (a development that was revealed/leaked to the public ahead of time when somebody mentioned it in court last week amidst the lawsuit brought against the producers by a former cast member), and I was riveted by the scene’s unexpected and explicit portrayal of a “life review” along the lines of what’s reported almost universally by people who have had near-death experiences. Read the rest of this entry
Recently on Twitter I had a conversation with David Metcalfe and jadkr — worthy conversationalists indeed — about the ultimate outcome of the dread-filled confrontation between the individual self and the shimmering emptiness of the infinite, the void, the Godhead. The spur for this was my tweeting of a link to an interview with Nancy Evans Bush, former president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, about the phenomenon of negative NDEs, those that involve experiences of great distress and fear as opposed to the stereotypically reported experiences of love and comfort. Her own NDE, she said, which she experienced many years ago while giving birth, “was not a radiant experience; it was an utterly terrifying experience of the void.”
Our Twitter conversation finally came down to the question of whether the dread-filled response to the infinite, tinged with unpleasantness, sublime terror, and even — as I’ve tried to convey in my books (written from personal experience) — outright horror, is a permanent feature of the experience or a provisional one. David and jadkr averred that it’s the latter, saying that in many ways the negative NDE, and negative responses to the void in general, are entirely in line with, and can therefore be taken to some degree as resulting from, modern ego-bound notions of selfhood, and that, therefore, true maturation in matters of spiritual and psychological depth will eventually convey a person past them. For my part, although I agree with this, I’m also inclined to regard the dread-filled experience as permanent on a certain level, as an inherent experiential reality of the divine-human relationship. Much as orthodox Christian theology holds that an eternal relationship of love characterizes the “divine economy” of the Trinity (the inner transactional relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), so we humans in our finite, cosmically bounded ego selves are joined with the Godhead in an eternal — but not mutual — hypostatic union of divine dread. Moving past it into a deeper identification doesn’t change this truth, which still subsists whenever we inhabit the ego’s viewpoint.
So that was our discussion a few days ago. Now comes this fine essay/meditation from a writer for the newsletter of the C.G. Jung Society of Vermont to elaborate on these very things. Witness these excerpts, which expound my own point:
[J]ung made it clear…that confronting the Divine is never a pleasant experience for the ego. This is because of pride: the ego “does not like to think consciousness might lose its ascendancy.” The ego fancies it is in control and is forced to face its smallness and limitations when the Self appears. More broadly, Jung addressed this issue in his discussions of the numen, the numinous, the numinosum and numinosity.
[. . .] Some of the positive qualities of the numinosum include: sublimity, awe, excitement, bliss, rapture, exaltation, entrancement, fascination, attraction, allure, and what Otto called an “impelling motive power.” Not so pleasant are other qualities like: overwhelment, fear, trembling, weirdness, eeriness, humility (an acute sense of unworthiness), urgency, stupor (blank wonder), bewilderment, horror, mental agitation, repulsion, and haunting, daunting, monstrous feelings, that “overbrim the heart.” Otto speaks at length of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the fascinating mystery that makes us tremble (in awe).
[. . .] Jung understood that “to have fallen into the hands of the living God” — that is, to be confronted with the Divine — would produce an affect, a feeling response. Most translations of the Greek of Hebrews 10:31 use the word “fearful,” as the response brought up when a person confronts the Self…Jung felt that organized religions, with their rituals and dogmas, provide a “defense” against this experience. But those on the path of individuation cannot avoid it… [N]uminous dreams, synchronicities, and life experiences confront them frequently, calling up that “holy dread,” reminding the ego of its modest place compared to the Self.” (“Jung and the Numinosum,” March 5, 2010)
In the full essay, the writer makes it clear that Jung viewed the dread-filled response to the numinosum as both an organically occurring psychic coloration whose purpose is to lead one beyond the exclusive confines of ego identification and a permanent feature of the relationship between the ego and the Self. Which is, in fact, my own view as well.