In 2008 Eben Alexander fell into a coma and had a Near Death Experience. He was suffering from an ultra rare form of bacterial meningitis which caused extensive damage to his brain, giving him a 97% mortality rate. Proof of Heaven is his account of what happened and it’s a fascinating read. What makes this case of NDE particularly interesting is that Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon so is uniquely qualified to explain exactly how and why his experience couldn’t be a mere hallucination.
The book recounts in detail what happened during the week he was in a coma, pieced together from his medical records and testimony by his family and the doctors who helped him to recover. Woven into the narrative of his brain being eaten by E. Coli is an account of Alexander’s childhood and family history. This is significant and poignant because he was adopted as a child and had always dreamed of finding his biological parents.
More Real than Reality
Alexander had no memory of his earthly identity during his NDE, which is unusual and probably due to the fact that the part of the brain normally connected with conscious experience wasn’t functioning. This may have allowed him to ‘go deeper’ and have a more archetypal experience. He vividly describes how his experience moved between different levels, or perhaps you could say dimensions.
He starts in the underworld in a realm he calls the Earthworm’s Eye View which is characterised by a throbbing darkness filled with writhing primordial beings. After enduring this for a while, a light appears, accompanied by beautiful music. This Spinning Melody seems to be a kind of vortex of sound and light which opens a gateway into the next realm or dimension. He describes a green, lush world like earth, but ultra real. Here he meets a beautiful (of course!) girl sitting on a butterfly wing who becomes his guide to the afterlife. She transmits knowledge to his mind directly, without words, which he translates:
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
“You have nothing to fear.”
“There is nothing you can do wrong.”
Then comes a description of shimmering beings which reminded me a little of the visions of Old Testament prophet Ezekiel (quoted in Escaping the Crystal Sphere). Alexander describes how “flocks of transparent orbs, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamer-like lines behind them.” They emit a booming chant of joy, almost as if they are propelled by sheer ecstasy.
Finally, he arrives at the Core and meets God. There’s no beard or anthropomorphic nonsense here, just an immense void which is dark and yet filled with light. In the form of an Orb, the Girl on the Butterfly Wing translates and gives answers to his many questions; answers he is still learning to understand after returning to this world.
The ‘Problem’ of Consciousness
Before he experienced it for himself, Dr Alexander was a sceptic. He believed the brain creates consciousness and that people who reported experiences like his were making them up. Like most neuroscientists, he had never even read the many reports on Near Death Experiences, and it was only after his NDE that he did so. Needless to say, he is no longer a sceptic.
Proof of Heaven includes an interesting discussion on the so-called ‘problem’ of consciousness, as well as a break down of the various hypotheses often used to explain away NDEs. This book makes a welcome addition to the literature on the subject, as Alexander says: “Those who assert that there is no evidence for phenomena indicative of extended consciousness, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are wilfully ignorant. They believe they know the truth without needing to look at the facts.”
His experience shows that the death of the body and brain does not mean the death of consciousness. What he saw shouldn’t be interpreted literally though. While many people undergo similar experiences in a NDE, what they see and how they interpret what they see is culturally conditioned. Somebody raised in a Western or Christianised culture might report seeing angels or a figure like Jesus, but somebody from an Eastern or Buddhist culture might describe bodhisattvas or devas.
Proof of Heaven is not ‘proof’ of heaven. It is compelling evidence for the survival of consciousness and for the brain not being the source of that consciousness.
Sceptic Attack and Debunking
Perhaps it was the provocative title or the fact that Dr Alexander presents what he calls a perfect storm of a NDE, but the inevitable backlash erupted shortly after the book was published. Sceptics rushed to debunk the book and its author. They pointed to the malpractice lawsuits against Dr Alexander and the fact that the account of his experience wasn’t reliable.
There was a particularly nasty hatchet job published by Esquire, written by Luke Dittrich, which framed Alexander as a liar. The article itself is behind a pay wall, but The Wire published this which references it. Key points in Alexander’s story were seized upon and taken out of context. It may be true that he tweaked the weather when describing events, but that can be put down to artistic licence.
However, the comments made by one of the doctors who treated Alexander were more serious. Dr Potter was quoted as saying Alexander was ‘conscious, but delirious’, which would seem to falsify his entire account. But this relates to only part of his experience, and Dr Potter has since claimed her words were taken out of context and used to misrepresent the facts. The International Association for Near Death Studies has published a debunking of the Esquire article which is worth reading to get the full picture. You can read it here:
It’s a shame this happened, but not surprising. As IANDS says, Proof of Heaven is the opposite of what Luke Dittrich claimed. Alexander’s experience couldn’t have been a hallucination or a fantasy because his neocortex wasn’t functioning. He almost died, and his love for his family brought him back to life. He returned with a larger view of reality and a deeper understanding of the nature of consciousness and what it means to be human.
I recommend this book not just because it presents the facts about Near Death Experiences from a neurological perspective, but also because it’s a great story. Eben Alexander’s entire life prepared him for this experience. He needed to learn how much he was loved, and I suspect that’s something most of us could do with remembering.