Near-death experiences are all too common in popular mythology, but scientists have long dismissed them as fantasies, dreamed up by those who are seriously ill or injured. Dr. Eben Alexander was one such skeptic. But in 2008, the American neurosurgeon was attacked by a rare illness, bacterial meningitis, that put him through a seven-day coma. Less than one in ten million adults contract bacterial meningitis. The majority of these victims die, and the few who survive usually remain in a near-vegetative state for the rest of their lives.
Just as the doctors were about to stop Alexander’s treatment, he opened his eyes. The real miracle, however, was not his recovery. Alexander reported that he had undergone a journey into the afterworld where he encountered an angelic being, “a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes,” who guided him on a winged butterfly into the deepest realms of super-physical existence. There, submerged in a primitive, jelly-like substance, he remembers speaking with Divine source of the universe itself. In his autobiography, Proof of Heaven, published earlier this year, Alexander interprets this being as the all-loving God. The memoir captures in vivid detail the mystery and religiosity of a near-death experience, but it is also an intellectual project, attempting to reconcile the scientific skeptic with the faithful believer.
Alexander’s narrative shifts fluidly between his encounters with the after-life and what occurs in the physical world, during those seven days on the hospital bed. The clash between his rational, objective, scientific observations and the wild, mystical-sounding world of his near-death experiences gives his memoir a sci-fi, almost surreal quality. He argues, however, that his neo-cortex, a part of the brain that interprets emotions and controls executive function, was 100% deactivated—a fact corroborated by his hospital records. This means that his experiences while comatose cannot adequately be explained as a dream, hallucination, or any other mental phenomenon.
Alexander recounts how he once could not reconcile his knowledge of neuroscience with belief in heaven, God, or the soul.
Adding to the memoir’s philosophical heft and personal appeal, Alexander recounts how he once could not reconcile his knowledge of neuroscience with belief in heaven, God, or the soul. Knowing full well that this book might jeopardize his medical reputation, Alexander felt compelled to convince skeptics, especially those in his field, that an afterworld could really exist. Science, he insists, simply cannot explain his experience. “Our spirit is not dependent on the brain or body,” he declares. “It is eternal, and no one has one sentence worth of hard evidence that it isn’t.”
While Proof of Heaven is an engaging read, his appeal to science still leaves many questions unanswered. In particular, his argument is founded on the idea that hallucination can only occur in the neocortex. Since his was clinically dead, the experience must therefore have been genuine. But does this process of elimination provide real proof of an afterlife? Or does it simply point to the limitations of scientific knowledge, or the possibility of a false memory? Alexander may have written this book to persuade skeptics, but the irony may be that it merely caters to those who already believe. Perhaps more important than the empirical question of proving heaven’s existence is this philosophical one: where does science end, and faith begin? Perhaps the value of Alexander’s memoir lies in the questions it opens up, not the ones its claims to answer.
Nisreen Shiban is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.