Dr. Eben Alexander on His Near-Death Experience—and What He’s Learned About Consciousness
In 2008, Eben Alexander, M.D., an academic neurosurgeon for over twenty-five years, including fifteen years at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston, fell into a deep coma due to bacterial meningitis, from a particularly vicious strain of ecoli. After a week in a deep coma, his doctors put his survival rate well below 10 percent, with the caveat that if he did somehow emerge, he would be in a nursing home for the rest of his life. Not only did he make a full and miraculous recovery, but he recounted an incredibly deep and profound near-death experience from his time in this coma, when the neocortex of his brain was completely shut down. He was effectively dead, without a functioning brain—and from a materialist view of science, certainly not a brain that could manifest his experience, which he documents in great detail in the New York Times #1 bestseller, Proof of Heaven.
As a neurosurgeon, he had heard stories from patients about their own NDE’s, which he had casually dismissed as hallucinations, never taking the time to entertain or explore what his patients recounted, or what it could possibly mean. As he writes in Proof of Heaven, “Like many other scientific skeptics, I refused to even review the data relevant to the questions concerning these phenomena. I prejudged the data, and those providing it, because my limited perspective failed to provide the foggiest notion of how such things might actually happen.” He goes on to add, “Those who assert that there is no evidence for phenomena indicative of extended consciousness, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are willfully ignorant. They believe they know the truth without needing to look at the facts.”
Since his near-death experience, Alexander has taken a bit of a right turn to explore, as the philosopher David Chalmers calls it, “the hard problem of consciousness,” which essentially boils down to whether the brain creates consciousness, or whether we are spiritual beings living a physical existence, where the brain functions as more of a filter. In Alexander’s latest, even more fascinating book, Living in a Mindful Universe, he explores the science behind all of it in great detail, as well as discussions about everything from where the brain stores memories (hint: nobody knows), to what the other side might be able to teach us about our reality today.
A Q&A with Eben Alexander, M.D.
What is the materialist view of consciousness?
Conventional science can be called reductive materialism, or physicalism—basically, that only the physical world exists. This means that thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and memories are merely epiphenomena of the physical workings of the brain, and thus have no real existence in their own right. Thus, according to materialism, consciousness is no more than the confusing result of the chemical reactions and electrical fluxes in the substance of the brain. Major consequences of this view are that our existence is birth-to-death, and nothing more, and that free will itself is a complete illusion. If conscious awareness is nothing more than chemical reactions, there is no place for “free will” to play a role.
“The brain is more a prison from which our conscious awareness is liberated at the time of bodily death, enabling a robust afterlife that also involves reincarnation.”
My new view, and one that is emerging in neuroscience and philosophy of mind, is the exact opposite: that soul/spirit is what exists, and projects all of apparent physical reality from within itself. The brain is more a prison from which our conscious awareness is liberated at the time of bodily death, enabling a robust afterlife that also involves reincarnation. Our choices matter tremendously, and thus free will is a crucial component of evolving reality.
What do we know about the brain and what can we prove?
We know a tremendous amount about the brain and its workings, including the evidence that it is not the producer of consciousness at all. The best clinical examples are terminal lucidity, acquired savant syndromes, and hallucinogenic substance studies. In the cases of terminal lucidity, elderly demented patients become much more reflective and communicative around the time of death, in ways that would be impossible if the brain were somehow producing consciousness. Acquired savant syndrome occurs when some form of brain damage—such as a head injury, stroke, or autism—allows for superhuman mental feats of memory, calculation, gnosis, etc. The emerging evidence from functional MRI (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) studies of patients on serotinergic hallucinogenic drugs (like psilocybin, DMT [ayuhuasca], LSD, etc.) reveal the most profound of such drug experiences are associated with the greatest shutting down of the physical brain’s activity. This shocking finding of such experiments is fully consistent with my own amazing explosion of rich, vibrant, ultra-real conscious awareness—that accompanied the progressive damage to my neocortex during severe gram-negative bacterial meningitis, rendering me comatose for a week in November 2008.
“We need to accept that full explanation of mind and consciousness must involve investigation beyond just the physical substance of the brain.”
Search for “the hard problem of consciousness” to find more of the absolute dead end this kind of thinking has yielded about the nature of consciousness, and the relationship between brain and mind. From a physicalist perspective, the problem of how consciousness might arise from the physical brain becomes the impossible problem. We need to accept that full explanation of mind and consciousness must involve investigation beyond just the physical substance of the brain. One of the most renowned neurosurgeons in the 20th century, Dr. Wilder Penfield of Montreal, spent his career studying the effects of electrical brain stimulation in awake patients, and is thus a scientist in better position than most others to discuss this mind-body problem in detail. In his 1975 book Mystery of the Mind, he made it very clear that the brain does not explain the mind, thus is not the producer of consciousness itself, nor is it the harbor of “free will,” or even the repository of memory storage.
Why do you believe there is such a chasm between materialist or physicalist science and those who believe that the soul survives death/is not created by the mind? Why is it so difficult for both belief systems to coexist?
The scientific revolution began approximately four hundred years ago, when the likes of Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and others were trying to define the laws of causality in the physical world. If they strayed too close to the realm of mind or consciousness, they risked being burned at the stake. Over the centuries, physics was viewed as the study of the physical world, and thus, from a scientific perspective, the physical was the basis of all of reality. This necessitated the supposition that humans and their awareness of the world was just another subcategory of the physical. The problem is they failed to realize that subjective reality is the only thing any human being can possibly know to exist, and that our mind is intimately involved not only with perceiving the world around us, but also in generating the emerging reality.
Quantum physics, the most proven theory in the history of science, insists on putting consciousness back in primary position as the initiator of all of emerging reality, yet the modern physics community has difficulty relinquishing the many-century notion that the world can be explained through physical matter alone. Many quantum physicists are advised to “shut up and calculate.” That is, to pay no attention to the completely counterintuitive and bizarre properties of the subatomic world that appear in quantum mechanics experiments.
“The problem is they failed to realize that subjective reality is the only thing any human being can possibly know to exist.”
Materialism is the easy science, the low-hanging fruit, and very much held onto by those who simply want to claim some knowledge of reality, even though it fails miserably at explaining anything about conscious awareness itself, or all manner of human experiences, both mundane and exotic. The answer comes in adopting a much grander world view, notably that of metaphysical idealism: that consciousness is fundamental in the universe, and that all else, including the observable physical universe, emerges from consciousness.
As a neurosurgeon, it seems that your opinion about the function of the brain has changed, from believing it creates consciousness to wondering if it isn’t some sort of filter. What do you believe the function of the brain really is, and what does science currently support?
Filter theory makes the most sense to me—that the physical brain serves as a filter, only allowing in limited states of conscious awareness. The brain certainly manages many functions of the human body and gives us our linguistic capabilities and ability to analyze and solve problems. But these seemingly superior traits (as compared to other species) often serve to limit us from the full spectrum of what is possible. The production model of physicalism (that is, that the physical brain creates consciousness out of the purely physical matter of the brain) is the least reasonable of the options to explain consciousness, and fails miserably at providing any explanatory potential.
Is there a way to prove any of this?
The evidence that the materialist “brain-produces-consciousness” model is wrong is all around us. To the scientific-minded who want to pursue it, I recommend Ed Kelly’s two extraordinary books Irreducible Mind and Beyond Physicalism. Conventional science has been guilty of suppressing and denying a mountain of evidence over decades, simply calling all manner of such human experiences (remote viewing, out-of-body experiences, precognition, past life memories in children, NDEs, shared death experiences, etc.) “hallucinations,” instead of studying them in more detail and trying to understand them. Sooner or later, sheer frustration about the failed world view of materialism is inevitable, and the result will be the extinction of that world view, in favor of one far more capable of explaining the wide variety of human experiences to be fathomed.
For people who want to explore their consciousness on a deeper level, what do you suggest? Is there anything that you’ve experienced since that is NDE-like?
The worldview of idealism (that our consciousness creates all of unfolding reality) opens the door to the extraordinary potential each and every one of us has to influence our lives. We are all a part of this consciousness and it’s incumbent on each of us to uncover the truth of who we truly are.
“The veil is part of the ‘programmed forgetting,’ an intentional loss of memories from past lives and between lives that gives us ‘skin in the game.'”
Beginning around two years after the coma (in 2010), I started investigating binaural beat sound technology, a form of brain entrainment, utilizing a timing circuit in the lower brainstem. I wanted to duplicate the neocortical inactivation experienced during my coma, but without coming so close to death. Binaural beats have been crucial during my soul journey of the last few years, allowing me to reconnect with the realms, beings, and fundamental forces of love that I first encountered during my NDE. In particular, I’ve found the tones developed by Kevin Kossi and Karen Newell of Sacred Acoustics to be especially powerful. I have partaken in past life regressions, and feel they also help in this journey of discovery, but tend to default to self-generated investigations by exploring within consciousness through Sacred Acoustics audio recordings. I have had broad success at revisiting the spiritual realms I encountered during my coma and continue to develop my connection with my higher soul.
Can you tell us more about binaural beats?
Binaural beats are a phenomenon discovered by mid-nineteenth century Prussian physicist Heinrich Wilhelm Dove, who found that presentation of slightly different frequency, pure tones to the two ears (varying by anywhere from less than 1 Hz to ~ 25 Hz with each other) engendered a wavering sensation in the perception of the sound. The frequency of the wavering results from the arithmetic difference between the two tones, i.e. 100 Hz in one ear combined with 104 Hz in the other ear leads to a 4-Hz wavering sound. Others have investigated the alterations in consciousness associated with this binaural beat phenomenon, especially in enhancing out of body and remote viewing experiences.
Various benefits of binaural beats include reducing constant mind chatter, improved sleep, less anxiety, emotional release, spiritual guidance, enhanced intuition. Everyone is unique and it is important to try firsthand to see for yourself what results might be achieved. Karen and I regularly teach workshops on how precisely to do this, and free training videos are available at Sacred Acoustics, along with a free 20-minute sample recording.
Why do you think the veil exists, i.e., what do you believe that we are here to learn?
I believe that fundamentally the universe exists so that sentient beings can learn and teach in this “soul school,” the sum result of which is the evolution of consciousness itself. Such learning necessitates that we not be privy to all that is known by our higher soul. However, we reconnect with the spiritual realm after bodily death, in the process of a life review; encounters with the souls of those in our soul group; and re-immersion into that ocean of unconditional love represented by God and similar concepts by those who have had such rich, spiritually transformative experiences. We can also access our higher soul through prolonged and extensive programs of “going within,” or meditation, practiced throughout our lives.
The veil is part of the “programmed forgetting,” an intentional loss of memories from past lives and between lives that gives us “skin in the game.” That is the emotional buy-in to our status as “individual souls” to live our lives to the fullest. Hardships serve as the engine for our soul’s growth and the growth of other souls with whom we are connected.
Eben Alexander, M.D. spent more than twenty-five years as an academic neurosurgeon, including fifteen at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston. In 2008, he had a near-death experience that has led him to deeply explore the complexities of consciousness, which he writes about in the books: Living in a Mindful Universe, Proof of Heaven, and The Map of Heaven.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.
Related: What Is Consciousness?