AngelicView: Dr. Eben Alexander, Neurosurgeon, tells of his experience with a profound NDE when he had bacterial meningitis. And so he is a near-death experiencer who became a near-death experience researcher from a neurophysiological standpoint.
There is a video and a transcript of the video. The video is about 55 minutes, and I can read a transcript in a fraction of that time, so I’ll post each one here.
Interview reveals how a near-death experience changed everything neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander thought he knew about consciousness, spirituality, and life after death.
Alex Tsakiris: Can we really then hope to get out of the consciousness loop that we’re in now? Or is there something fundamental to the way that we’re constructed that’s going to keep us limited in how much we can really?
Dr. Eben Alexander: What I think is going to happen is that science and spirituality, which will be mainly be an acknowledgement of the profound nature of our consciousness, will grow closer and closer together.
One thing that we will have to let go of is this kind of addiction to simplistic, primitive reductive materialism because there’s really no way that I can see a reductive materialist model coming remotely in the right ballpark to explain what we really know about consciousness now.
Coming from a neurosurgeon who, before my coma, thought I was quite certain how the brain and the mind interacted and it was clear to me that there were many things I could do or see done on my patients and it would eliminate consciousness. It was very clear in that realm that the brain gives you consciousness and everything else and when the brain dies there goes consciousness, soul, mind—it’s all gone. And it was clear.
Now, having been through my coma, I can tell you that’s exactly wrong and that in fact the mind and consciousness are independent of the brain. It’s very hard to explain that, certainly if you’re limiting yourself to that reductive materialist view.
Today we welcome Dr. Eben Alexander to Skeptiko. Dr. Alexander has been an academic neurosurgeon for more than 25 years, including 15 years at Harvard Medical School in Boston. In November of 2008, he had a near-death experience that changed his life and caused him to rethink everything he thought he knew about the human brain and consciousness.
Dr. Alexander, welcome to Skeptiko.
Dr. Eben Alexander: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, your story is really quite amazing. For those who haven’t heard of it and aren’t aware of what you went through, do you want to tell us a little bit about your experience?
Dr. Eben Alexander: Yes. It really struck out of the blue. I’d been quite healthy up until that time. In fact, I was in reasonably good shape because my older son had been putting me through a big workout, anticipating a climb of a 20,000 foot volcano in South America.
Alex Tsakiris: Wow.
Dr. Eben Alexander: Luckily I was in pretty good shape. At 4:30 in the morning, November 10, 2008, I got out of bed. I was getting ready to go up to work. I was working in Charlottesville at the time and I had severe sudden back pain, much worse than I had ever experienced. Literally within 10 or 15 minutes, it got me to a point where I could not even take a step. I was really in tremendous agony.
My wife, Holly, was rubbing my back. Then my younger son, Bond, came in and saw I was in a lot of distress and he started rubbing my temples. I realized when he did that that I had a severe headache. It was like he took a railroad spike and put it through my head. But I was already really going down very quickly. I didn’t know it at the time.
I found out much later that I had acute bacterial meningitis and it was a very unusual bacteria. One that the incidence of spontaneous E. coli meningitis in adults in the U.S. is about 1 in 10 million per year. So it’s really rare. We never found out where it came from. But at any rate, it was in about 2 to 2-1/2 hours it drove me deep down and in fact, my last words really were to my wife, “Don’t call 911. Trust me, I’m a doctor.”
Luckily she overruled that and she did that because she saw me having a grand mal seizure on the bed. Of course I don’t remember that and I really don’t remember anything that happened for the next week because I was gone. I was very sick during that time as I heard later. In fact, I was so sick that I was on a ventilator the whole week.
They did several lumbar punctures trying to guide therapy. I was on triple antibiotics very early on, due to a very good medical team. They did a lumbar puncture about the second or third day into this and my cerebral spinal fluid glucose, which is normally around 60 to 80 and in a bad case of meningitis might drop down to about 20, well my glucose went down to 1. So I was really sick.
Alex Tsakiris: So at this point, nothing should be going on in your brain and yet something was happening in your conscious awareness.
Dr. Eben Alexander: Yeah, I’d say that’s correct. To me, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the last three years trying to explain this and that explanation initially, all I was doing was trying to explain it neuroscientifically. Meningitis is very helpful because it’s probably better than anything else at really diffusely wiping out the neocortex. But one can always argue that there’s some idling function at a deep level that might still survive.
In fact, one of the hypotheses that I entertained about all this was because the experience that I’ll describe to you seemed very hyper-real and extremely crisp and vivid, much more real and interactive than sitting here and talking with you right now. I mean, it was extraordinary. That is something that is often described in near-death experiences and of course one of my early hypotheses was well, maybe there’s some differential effect against inhibitory neuronal networks that allowed over-expression of excitatory neural networks and gave this illusion of kind of a hyper-real situation.
I can tell you from having lived through it that it was so powerful and so beyond that kind of explanation that I wasn’t very hopeful that that would work out in the end. But I figured I needed to give it a chance and look at the microanatomy in the cortex and the different connections with the thalamus and basal ganglia and see if I could come up with some way that one might have an illusion of hyper-reality.
I can tell you because of the kind of content of the experience and the powerful, overwhelming nature of it and the fact that it was so complex, I think much of what I remembered from that experience, I don’t think my brain and mind could possibly manage that even now.
I mean, the kind of mental function that occurs when you’re in that hyper-real state, the way that information comes in from spiritual beings and kind of the interaction with them is so intense and extraordinary, it’s really inexplicable in earthly terms. But it would basically outrun any of those kind of theories. That was something I was looking for. In fact, I never found an anatomic distribution that would support that over-activity of excitatory pathways.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Thanks for doing that. I think we’ve jumped a little bit ahead of the story. For those who don’t know, tell us a little bit about your NDE.
Dr. Eben Alexander: Okay. Well, you were asking what it is like when one has their cortex shut down like that, and in fact, for one thing I was surprised that I remembered anything because as a neurosurgeon having had many patients who were in comas for various reasons and had a lot of them recover, my understanding was that in general you don’t really remember anything.
Even when the patients seem to be interacting I knew that usually if they’d been sick, for instance with meningitis, that they really wouldn’t remember much of it. Occasionally there were exceptions to that. You’d have patients who would remember very remarkable things from deep inside, but before I had always kind of explained that away with the standard answers. “Oh, that’s what the brain does when it’s very sick.”
What I do remember from deep inside coma, for one thing my first awareness was I had no memory whatsoever of my life. I had no language, no words. All of my experience in life, knowledge of humans, Earth, the universe, all of that was gone. The only thing I had was this very kind of crude existence. And I call it in my book the “earthworm’s eye-view,” because it really was just a crude, kind of underground.
I have a vivid memory of dark roots above me and there was a kind of monotonous pounding, a dull sound in the background pounding away eternally. It was just murky and gross. Every now and then a face, an animal or something would boil up out of the muck and there might be some chant or roar or something. Then they’d disappear again.
It sounds very foreboding to talk about it right now, but in fact, since I knew no other existence I don’t remember being particularly alarmed when I was in that setting. I think that that was the best consciousness that my brain could muster when it was soaking in pus. It turns out that that seemed to last for a very long time. Given that it was my first awareness of anything, it actually seemed to be years or eternity. I don’t know. It seemed like a very, very long time.
Then there was a spinning melody, this bright melody that just started spinning in front of me. Beautiful, beautiful melody compared to that dull pounding sound that I’d heard for eons. It spun and as it spun around, it cleared everything away. This was the part that was so shocking and so hard to explain. It was as if the blinders came off and the reality there was much more crisp, real, and interactive and fresh than any reality I’ve ever known in this earthly existence. That part is very shocking and hard to explain when you go through it, and yet what I’ve found since then is that a lot of people who have had NDEs discuss the same kind of hyper-reality. But it’s very shocking to see it.
For me, I was a speck on a butterfly wing. I had no body awareness at all. In fact, I had no body awareness through this entire kind of deep coma experience. I was a speck on a beautiful butterfly wing; millions of other butterflies around us. We were flying through blooming flowers, blossoms on trees, and they were all coming out as we flew through them.
Beside me on the butterfly wing was a beautiful girl. I remember her face to this day. Absolutely beautiful girl, blue eyes, and she was dressed in–what I was trying to write all this up in the months after I came back—I described as a kind of peasant garb. I can remember the colors very well. Kind of a peach/orange and a powder blue, just really beautiful.
She never said a word to me and she was looking at me and her thoughts would just come into my awareness. Her thoughts were things like, “You are loved. You are cherished forever. There’s nothing you can do wrong. You have nothing to worry about. You will be taken care of.” It was so soothing and so beautiful, and of course as I said, my language wasn’t really working then. So those particular words were words I had to put on it when I came back out. But a lot of this flowed perfectly when I came back out.
In fact, I didn’t read anything about near-death experiences or about physics or cosmology because of the advice my older son, Eben IV, who was majoring in neuroscience at the University of Delaware advised me. Three days after I left the hospital, when he came home for Thanksgiving back in 2008, he said, “Well, if you want to write this up as a useful report, don’t read anything. Just write everything down you can remember.”
I spent the next two months typing everything I could remember in the computer. It came out to about 100 pages of memories from this deep experience within the coma. I think from that beautiful valley scene on the butterfly wing, waterfalls, pools of water, indescribable colors, and above there were these arks of silver and gold light and beautiful hymns coming down from them. Indescribably gorgeous hymns. I later came to call them “angels,” those arks of light in the sky. I think that word is probably fairly accurate.
On this butterfly wing, the first time I was there, I remember having this sensation. It was as if there was a warm summer breeze that just blew by. Then everything changed and the scene stayed the same but I became aware. Again in looking back on it, that was my awareness of a Divine presence of incredibly indescribable, kind of a superpower of divinity. Then we went out of this universe.
I remember just seeing everything receding and initially I felt as if my awareness was in an infinite black void. It was very comforting but I could feel the extent of the infinity and that it was, as you would expect, impossible to put into words. I was there with that Divine presence that was not anything that I could visibly see and describe, and with a brilliant orb of light. There was a distinct sensation from me, a memory, that they were not one and the same. I don’t know what that means.
In my awareness, when I say I was aware, this goes far, far beyond the consciousness of any one—this is not Eben Alexander’s consciousness aware of being in that space. I was far beyond that point, way beyond any kind of human consciousness, and really just one consciousness. When I got there they said that I would be going back, but I didn’t know what that meant.
They said there were many things that they would show me, and they continued to do that. In fact, the whole higher-dimensional multiverse was that this incredibly complex corrugated ball and all these lessons coming into me about it. Part of the lessons involved becoming all of what I was being shown. It was indescribable.
But then I would find myself—and time out there I can say is totally different from what we call time. There was access from out there to any part of our space/time and that made it difficult to understand a lot of these memories because we always try to sequence things and put them in linear form and description. That just really doesn’t work.
But suffice it to say that I would find myself back at the earthworm eye-view. What I learned was that if I could recall the notes of that melody, the spinning melody, that would start the melody spinning again and that would take me back into that beautiful, crisp, clear hyper-real valley on the butterfly wing. My guardian angel was always there and she was always very comforting.
Then we would go out into what I came to call “the coral,” which was outside of the entire physical universe. Again, they would show lessons and often those lessons would involve becoming a tremendous part of what they were demonstrating.
So much of it is just indescribable and so much of it there are reasons why we cannot bring a lot of that back. And there are reasons, in fact, it’s why I’ve come to see that we’re conscious in spite of our brain. To me that makes a lot more sense.
I go into detail about all that in my book, but it turns out that I would oscillate from this beautiful, idyllic place in the core, coming back down into earthworm eye-view, and it seems it was three or four times. Like I said, sequencing was so strange because when I was in the earthworm eye-view, everything seemed to be one kind of soup of just mixed foam. It was very hard to put sequence on it but it was very clear to me that several times I would use the memory of those notes and spin that melody and go back in. They would always say, “You are not here to stay.”