Near-Death Experiences: A Watershed Moment for Science
Q: Peter, this interview is on near-death experiences, and is focused primarily on the book Proof of Heaven by Dr. Eben Alexander, describing his near-death experience or NDE. Can you tell us why, from a scientific standpoint, Dr. Alexander’s book is significant?
A: I consider Dr. Alexander’s book a watershed moment in science. There have been numerous accounts of near-death experiences or NDEs from people who stopped breathing and were considered clinically dead for various periods of time. Often they described otherworldly experiences of leaving their physical bodies and entering spiritual realms and deep spiritual states.
One of the main scientific questions that arises about NDEs is: are they an indication that one’s consciousness is something separate from the physical brain? If our consciousness is able to continue to exist without a functioning physical brain, then it would be able experience realities like NDEs even if the brain were to shut down.
Q: Can you explain how Dr. Alexander’s NDE resolves these issues?
A: Dr. Alexander’s illness, which was spinal meningitis, shut down all the areas of his brain considered by science to be involved in creating a near-death experience. His neocortex, the part of the brain that represents the “human” part of him and is normally associated with “thoughts,” was so badly infected that it was not functioning at all. All the clinicians who took care of him during his illness agree that his neocortex, the “thinking” part of the brain, was not functioning. The hospital data, including the brain scans taken while he was ill, fully support their conclusions.
At the nadir of his illness, doctors estimated Dr. Alexander’s chances of survival at one tenth of one percent, and even if he did miraculously survive, that he’d most likely be in a permanent vegetative state, unresponsive to anything. Amazingly, not only did he survive, he also made a complete neurological recovery and returned to full-time practice as a brain surgeon.
Q: During his illness, what would Dr. Alexander’s brain have looked like on a functional MRI scan?
A: A functional MRI scan lets us see what parts of the brain are actively functioning at the time the scan is done. His scan would have shown no activity at all in the higher brain centers and specifically, no significant metabolism by the neurons in the neocortex.
Clearly there was still enough blood flow to his brain to keep the tissue barely alive in spite of his infection. His brain wasn’t literally “dead”; it just wasn’t capable of any function like “thoughts.”
Q: What are the standard scientific explanations for near-death experiences?
A: Most neuroscientists would typically say that a near-death experience is merely a physiological response with several possible causes: 1) medications administered by physicians who are trying to revive a person close to death; or 2) the brain beginning to shut down due to lack of oxygen when a person stops breathing or his heart stops pumping due to a heart attack, a near-drowning, an electrical shock or similar events; or 3) a sign of an imminent multi-organ failure just prior to death.
Q: In his book, Dr. Alexander suggests that he is the ideal person to demonstrate the reality of near death experiences. Do you agree?
A: Yes. Dr. Eben Alexander is a top flight neuroscientist and neurosurgeon who understood all the details and scientific implications of his experience. He tells us that before his NDE he too did not believe in the reality of near-death experiences.
After he recovered from his coma it was his son, also a neurosurgeon, who recommended that he write down everything he could remember from his NDE before reading any books or research in this field. As a result, his account was uninfluenced by the experiences reported by others.
In my view, not only is Dr. Alexander the perfect person to demonstrate the reality of near-death experiences, but his illness is also the perfect scenario.
Q: Why is Dr. Alexander’s illness the perfect scenario to illustrate the reality of near-death experiences?
A: For one, the prolonged nature of his disease. Dr. Alexander contracted spinal meningitis, an infection of the covering of the brain and the spinal cord, caused by E-coli bacteria –– an infection which has a very high fatality rate. He was so badly infected that his spinal fluid, which would normally be clear, actually looked more like skim milk.
Most near death experiences involve people who’ve undergone a heart attack, electric shock or a near-drowning and have been unconscious for only a few minutes or certainly less than an hour, and who then recover. Dr. Alexander was in a coma and completely unresponsive for seven days, kept alive solely by medical equipment.
It is extremely rare for adults to get spinal meningitis caused by an E-coli infection. To survive seven days of an overwhelming brain infection is a near impossibility. When you add to this prolonged coma his well-documented lack of brain function, then Dr. Alexander’s NDE becomes the perfect scenario to illustrate the reality of near-death experiences.
Q: How has the scientific community responded to Dr. Alexander’s near-death experience?
A: One of the first things Dr Alexander did after he recovered was to sit down with his neuroscientist colleagues and say, “Look, I’ve had this experience,” and then he’d explain his entire experience to them. Then he asked them to play devil’s advocate and to present all the reasons why his near-death experience could only be the product of brain activity.
And even those colleagues who were very skeptical at first grudgingly said at the end, “Well, we can’t find any good explanation physiologically for why or how your experience was strictly a neurological phenomenon. As scientists, we can’t explain that.”
Even for dyed-in-the-wool skeptics, Dr. Alexander’s experience would be pause for thought. Even if they chose not to agree with his conclusions, they would have to admit that none of the standard scientific explanations for near-death experiences apply to his experience.
Q: Dr. Alexander maintains that it’s time for the scientific community to accept the reality of near-death experiences and that his is the perfect case to bring this about. He writes, “I began to realize that mine was a technically near impeccable near-death experience. Perhaps one of the most convincing cases in modern history.” Do you agree?
A: Yes, for two reasons. One I’ve already mentioned: since his brain was totally shut down, there was no way it could have been the physical cause of what Dr. Alexander experienced.
Two, and what I find most convincing about Dr. Alexander’s experience, is that when his brain was completely shut down and he was being kept alive by medical equipment, he was having such a profound near-death experience — one of the deepest and most complex that I’ve ever read about.
Q: In your opinion what were the profound aspects of Dr. Alexander’s experience?
A: First, the spiritual depth of his experience. Rarely do you find people coming back from an NDE saying, as he did, that they felt unified with God, unified with the universe, and that they had communed with God Himself.
Second, Dr. Alexander repeatedly experienced three very different after-death realms. His first stop appeared to be the lower astral world, an undefined, unpleasant area. From there he visited a much higher realm characterized by beautiful music and scenery, and after that, the highest level of all, which was total darkness surrounded by glimmering light.
When Dr. Alexander first returned to the lower astral world, he found that, by his will, he could call the beautiful astral music to come and lift him out of this lower astral experience. He could also, by his will, project himself into the deepest part of his experience where, he said, he could actually commune with God.
Unlike most near-death experiences, in which people have a single experience of a non-physical realm and are then soon back in their bodies, Dr. Eben was in these three after-death realms for a prolonged period and he went up and down on this gradation of consciousness repeatedly.
Q: Was there anything else unique about his experience?
A: Yes. In most near-death experiences people clearly know who they are as they go through the experience. They have a good idea of what is happening and why they are having the experience. Dr. Alexander, however, had no sense of his identity. He had no idea that he was Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon, and that he was having a near-death experience.
Dr. Alexander also experienced a total eradication of the sense of time. He couldn’t tell how long he’d been in the near-death experience. It could have been a moment or it could have been thousands of years. He was unable to classify it in timeframes we would normally use.
Q: It sounds as though he experienced a sense of timelessness.
A: Yes, and I think that sense of timelessness was a reflection of the depth of his experience – the fact that the spiritual nature of his experience was so deep. People who meditate deeply will sometimes lose all sense of time and space and not know if they’ve been sitting in meditation for five or fifty minutes.
But unlike someone sitting in meditation, Dr. Alexander’s body wasn’t functioning at all. He was barely kept alive by machines. I believe that because his spiritual state was so totally disconnected from his body, he was able to have a depth of experience similar to that of advanced yogis who report that they can leave their bodies for prolonged periods of time.
Q: Some people have criticized Proof of Heaven because, in their opinion, Dr. Alexander’s account of what happened to him is not in line with “typical” near-death experiences. Do you agree?
A: No, I don’t. I would say is there is no “typical” near-death experience, but there are common features and his NDE certainly had plenty of those.
Q: Can you give a few examples?
A: Yes. He was met by a guide who helped him. He had the experience of going to higher spiritual realms, and of communicating by thought, rather than verbally. He didn’t see any relatives that he recognized at the time, but he certainly saw other beings who were human and also an exquisitely beautiful pastoral setting populated with people.
Months later he realized, when he first saw her photo, that his angelic guide at the higher spiritual levels was his deceased biological sister. He had never known her because, while still an infant, he’d been adopted by another family.
Like many people who have NDEs, Dr. Alexander experienced a deep spiritual and emotional healing, which he describes very movingly in the book. Dr. Andrew Newberg, one of the leading researchers in the field of near-death experiences, reports that people are often changed for the better by near-death experiences, and will commonly report being much more spiritually focused after an NDE.
Q: I understand that Dr. Newberg has also identified the main difficulty of studying near-death experiences scientifically: that we never know when they are going to happen?
A: Yes. The vast majority of them we cannot predict. Nonetheless I think we’re moving closer to the time when the scientific community will accept the reality of near-death experiences.
Decades before science accepted the idea that the brain was changeable, Paramhansa Yogananda said that meditation will change your brain. He also said meditation will change your genetic material, your DNA. As astounding as these statements sounded at the time, our scientific knowledge now confirms that both these things are true.
We’re now in the next round of understanding more completely how consciousness is involved in near-death experiences, and Dr. Alexander’s ground-breaking book is a major step in that direction. Not only was he profoundly changed by his experience, he also considers his near-death experience a unique opportunity to make near-death experiences more acceptable to scientists who have yet to grasp the overriding importance of consciousness. He writes:
Medically speaking, that I had recovered completely was a flat-out impossibility. But the real story lay in where I had been, and I had a duty not just as a scientist and profound respecter of the scientific method, but also as a healer to tell that story — a story that I feel as time passes happened for a reason.
Not because I’m anyone special. It’s just that with 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.
Peter Van Houten lives at Ananda Village and is the founder and Medical Director of Sierra Family Medical Clinic near Ananda Village.