The Great Being saith: The man of consummate learning and the sage endowed with penetrating wisdom are the two eyes to the body of mankind. God willing, the earth shall never be deprived of these two greatest gifts.
(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, page 171)
Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon with a dramatic conversion experience behind him. Seven days shifted him from sceptic to believer in the afterlife. Experiences he had had as a medic were completely reconstrued (page 87):
. . . . a coma patient was a kind of in-between being. Neither completely here (the earthly realm) nor completely there (the spiritual realm), these patients often have a singularly mysterious atmosphere to them. This was, as I’ve mentioned, a phenomenon I’d noticed myself many times, though of course I’d never given it the supernatural credence [before].
His recovery, his NDE apart, was to be a minor miracle (page 89):
. . . they did not know of anyone making a full recovery from bacterial meningitis after being comatose for more than a few days. We were now into day four.
The fact that he is now talking and walking let alone writing this book was highly improbable, verging on downright impossible (page 92):
I’m not going to include any plot spoilers in this review. Though the book has been sniffed at by sceptics who feel Eben has gone soft in the head, I can assure you his experience was truly remarkable and his account of it sober and convincing.
Well, I would be convinced, wouldn’t I, since he confirms all my biases. I can only say that I do expose myself to the writings of those with whom I disagree, fighting my confirmation bias at least to that extent, but their arguments always seem to fall short of what I regard as measured and weighty (see below for more on that).
Coming out of Coma
Instead of recounting the experience in itself, I’ll pick up the narrative from when he comes back into the body and focus on what his experience could be said to have demonstrated. About his return from his coma he writes (page 117):
My mind—my real self—was squeezing its way back into the all too tight and limiting suit of physical existence, with its spatiotemporal bounds, its linear thought, and its limitation to verbal communication. Things that up until a week ago I’d thought were the only mode of existence around, but which now showed themselves as extraordinarily cumbersome limitations.
He acknowledges that on his return he was also the victim of something (page 118) called ‘ICU psychosis.’ However, he does not agree that this state accounts for his NDE experience (ibid.)
Some of the dreams I had during this period were stunningly and frighteningly vivid. But in the end they served only to underline how very, very dissimilar my dream state had been compared with the ultra-reality deep in coma.
The whole coma experience had been totally convincing (page 130):
What I’d experienced was more real than the house I sat in, more real than the logs burning in the fireplace. Yet there was no room for that reality in the medically trained scientific worldview that I’d spent years acquiring.
I can tell you that most skeptics aren’t really skeptics at all. To be truly skeptical, one must actually examine something, and take it seriously. And I, like many doctors, had never taken the time to explore NDEs. I had simply “known” they were impossible.
Among the reasons he has for being convinced of the reality of his own experience and the validity of its implications is his view that the illness he had was as close to death as you can get (page 133):
He finds all the usual candidates that sceptics adduce to explain away an NDE, such as anoxia and drug/temporal lobe effects, completely unconvincing. Also, as he was utterly unaware of any of the literature on NDEs, he had no expectations to subtly influence his experience, and in any case, as you will see when you read his account, his experience was untypical in certain key respects. He outlines the explanation which he regards as the most plausible reductionist candidate (page 142):
The final hypothesis I looked at was that of the “reboot phenomenon.” This would explain my experience as an assembly of essentially disjointed memories and thoughts left over from before my cortex went completely down. Like a computer restarting and saving what it could after a system-wide failure, my brain would have pieced together my experience from these leftover bits as best it could.
He find this also unconvincing (ibid.):
Everything—the uncanny clarity of my vision, the clearness of my thoughts as pure conceptual flow—suggested higher, not lower, brain functioning. But my higher brain had not been around to do that work.
This is what makes the NDE which resulted from a coma induced by bacterial meningitis so compelling as evidence. There were no higher brain functions to stitch together the kind of coherent experience he went through and could recall in such rich detail. He is scathing now about this panoply of reductionist pseudo-explanations (page 142-143):
There was for him no escaping the probability that what he had experienced was real (page 144):
. . . when I added up the sheer unlikelihood of all the details—and especially when I considered how precisely perfect a disease E. coli meningitis was for taking my cortex down, and my rapid and complete recovery from almost certain destruction—I simply had to take seriously the possibility that it really and truly had happened for a reason.
He puts the basic reason very simply (page 144): ‘Medically speaking, that I had recovered completely was a flat-out impossibility, a medical miracle.’
The Nature of Consciousness
This leads him to look at an experience whose true significance he had missed when viewing life through the lens of his sceptical persona (page 146):
Many others have seen that astonishing clarity of mind that often comes to demented elderly people just before they pass on, just as John had seen in his father (a phenomenon known as “terminal lucidity”). There was no neuroscientific explanation for that.
It is a short step from such a perspective to the even more radical revision of his concept of consciousness as a whole (page 150):
Far from being an unimportant by-product of physical processes (as I had thought before my experience), consciousness is not only very real—it’s actually more real than the rest of physical existence, and most likely the basis of it all. But neither of these insights has yet been truly incorporated into science’s picture of reality.
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.
His point about the astonishing fact that consciousness exists is also one that I have tackled before, both on my blog (see links in this sentence) and in the lion’s den of the Birmingham Medical School (page 154).
There is nothing about the physics of the material world (quarks, electrons, photons, atoms, etc.), and specifically the intricate structure of the brain, that gives the slightest clue as to the mechanism of consciousness.
In fact, the greatest clue to the reality of the spiritual realm is this profound mystery of our conscious existence.
The Great Being
I’d like to close with his carefully worded observation about the nature of God, which describes the sense he had of being closely connected in his NDE with that Great Being while at the same time this entity was nonetheless inherently beyond his comprehension and totally irreducible to anything he could ever comprehend (page 106):
While in the Core, even when I became one with the Orb of light and the entire higher-dimensional universe throughout all eternity, and was intimately one with God, I sensed strongly that the creative, primordial (prime mover) aspect of God was the shell around the egg’s contents, intimately associated throughout (as our consciousness is a direct extension of the Divine), yet forever beyond the capability of absolute identification with the consciousness of the created.
All in all this is a carefully written and rigorously examined account of a truly extraordinary experience whose reality I do not doubt, even though it is just the testimony of one person. I recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in this aspect of life.