A Neurosurgeon’s Journey to Worlds Beyond: An Interview with Dr. Eben Alexander

Dr. Eben Alexander (Photo Credit: Deborah Feingold Photography)

Dr. Eben Alexander (Photo Credit: Deborah Feingold Photography)


Today the intellectual world is facing an insurrection. It has nothing to do with politics or economics. It is about worldviews. Contemporary intellectual thought is hidebound by a materialistic view of the universe that automatically shuts out anything of the “spiritual,” or, God forbid, “mystical.” More and more evidence is coming to light that refutes this narrow view of reality. And more and more intellectuals are standing up against it.

Eben Alexander is one of the most famous examples. An American neurosurgeon, in 2008, he fell into a coma during a case of severe meningitis and – at a time when, from the conventional point of view, he should have had no consciousness whatsoever – he had a profound and inspiring vision of worlds beyond this one.

Alexander describes this journey in the best-selling Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. The book sent a shock through the United States, and gained Alexander a place on the cover of Newsweek as well as the usual attempts at debunking. Since then he has travelled and given lectures to many audiences. His latest book, The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife, co-authored with my good friend and Quest contributor Ptolemy Tompkins, was published last November.

In July 2014, at the invitation of the Theosophical Society in America, Alexander spoke to an audience of some 450 people in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and later addressed the TS’s Summer National Convention. He also did the following interview. Karen Newell was also present. She is his associate in Sacred Acoustics, a company that creates audio meditations combining various kinds of sound to stimulate higher states of consciousness.

This interview originally appeared in Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America, in the Winter 2015 issue.

Richard Smoley (RS): Perhaps you could start by telling us a little bit about your journey. 

Eben Alexander (EA): I’ve spent more than twenty years in academic neurosurgery and thought I had some idea of how brain-mind consciousness worked. I fully logged into the reductive materialistic mindset of neuroscience of the twentieth century, which says there is something about the neurons of the brain and their firing that gives you consciousness. Even though nobody had a clue of how that worked, I thought we just needed to study it more and figure it out.

That’s why my illness, which came on in November 2008, was so revolutionary to my thinking. I had to go back and question everything I ever thought I knew about reality. I had a very severe case of bacterial meningitis. Only in looking back, months and months later, did I start to realise what a perfect model for human death meningitis is, especially the severe form that I had: it basically dissolves the neocortex.

Modern neuroscience says the neocortex – the whole outer surface of the brain – is the part that gives rise to all the details of conscious experience. As this disease wipes out your neocortex, what is the next step? It would have been very clear to me as a neuroscientist that the next step is nothingness. Any doctor who knows anything about gram-negative bacterial meningitis and the details of my illness would realise that people don’t go in that state and come back with hallucinations, dreams, or exotic stories – they come back with nothing. In fact the reality is they usually don’t come back at all. Just the opposite happened, and that part was a mind-bender.

The extraordinary odyssey that I went through, and that I describe in my book Proof of Heaven, should not have happened at all, according to all the modern notions saying that the brain creates consciousness. And yet I was left with this absolutely astonishing ultra-real experience and an odyssey that seemed to go on for months or years, although it fit within seven earth days.

To me that was the central mystery. How is it that when you destroy the neocortex, you actually take the blinders off and allow consciousness of a far richer and more real and comprehensive knowing to come into existence? That was what drove me to come to some explanation.

RS: How do you now view that relation between brain and mind?

EA: Before the coma, as a neuroscientist who felt that the brain creates consciousness, I paid no attention to near-death experiences, because I would have said that they’re a flickering of a dying brain.

But they’re far more than that. In fact, they are not created by a dying brain at all, they’re linked to a much more substantial, conscious, eternal spiritual being. Near-death experiencers have been telling us for decades about a reality that is much more real than this one. So has the afterlife literature going back thousands of years.

I give talks around the world about all this. And I’ll have people who come up to me who know nothing about any of this literature but who share with me their own stunning personal stories of near-death experiences, after-death communications, past-life memories in children, and reincarnation stories. There’s just no way to pretend that it’s some mass hysteria, that it’s all some trick of the brain. This is something far more profound.

So I’ve come to realise that consciousness, soul, or spirit is the thing that truly exists at the core of all that is. Before my coma I would have been tempted to try and tell you that, as conventional scientific teaching says, the brain, the chemistry, the biology creates an illusion of reality, an illusion of free will. In fact that is absolutely backwards. What truly exists is consciousness, soul, or spirit.

Even modern physics is in a headlong rush to tell us that there is no material to the material world. It’s vibrating strings of energy and higher-dimensional space-time. And it is consciousness that is essential to emerging reality. The only thing we know exists is our own consciousness. But we’re so immersed in this consciousness that it’s very difficult to separate ourselves from it.

Any possible model, or any kind of scientific explanation of the nature of reality, must begin with a far more robust explanation of what consciousness is, because it is not created by the brain. The brain is a reducing valve or filter. That idea was gaining in popularity in the late nineteenth century with very brilliant thinkers – William James, Carl Jung, Frederic Myers – and yet it lost its attraction during the heyday of the twentieth century, when science got sucked into purely materialistic explanations.

RS: So what is consciousness?

EA: Consciousness, I would say, at its core level, is the observer, the awareness. We’re so consumed with this worship of the ego, the self, the linguistic brain, and rational thought that we lose sight of the fact that our own consciousness is actually something far deeper and more mysterious. It is that awareness part of us, the part that knows of its own existence and of the existence of a universe.

The little voice in my head, that linguistic human brain, which is so tightly tied to rational thought and also to ego and self, can make a request, state an intention, offer up some gratitude, but there is far greater wisdom as one gets deeper and deeper into consciousness. This is something that meditators, Tibetan monks, those who have been deeply into consciousness study over millennia, have been trying to tell us. And yet only now is science beginning to recognise that deep within consciousness itself we can find the evidence that we can be linked to something far, far greater than we are told by that minuscule view that the brain creates consciousness. In fact, when you realise it works the other way around, we can come in touch through deep meditation with consciousness. We come to realise consciousness is not local.

Before my coma I was a conventional neuroscientist who believed that we can only know things through our physical senses. Since then I’ve come to realise that things like telepathy, precognition, near-death experiences, after-death communications, past-life memories in children, the tremendous scientific literature on reincarnation, are proving to us that consciousness is not local.

It’s important to understand nonlocal consciousness. In the scientific community I steer people to that wonderful book from the University of Virginia, Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the Twenty-First Century by Edward Kelly. It’s 800 pages of hard-core scientific data and analysis showing very clearly that the brain does not create consciousness. As I said earlier, it’s more of a reducing valve or a filter. This helps us to understand that mystery of quantum mechanics, which was proving, a hundred years ago, that consciousness is fundamental in the existence of any part of reality emergent in this universe. Consciousness is filtered in through the brain; it is not created by the brain.

RS: You say that the materialistic model of the brain and mind is being increasingly challenged within science itself. Do you see much evidence of this, particularly in psychology and neurology?

EA: A number of respected scientists around the world, some of whom have their training in psychiatry, some in psychology, are realising that the “hard problem” of consciousness is the most vexing conundrum known to all of human thought. This is saying that, in spite of the increasing devotion of study to the brain, no neuroscientist on earth can offer the first sentence about how the physical brain might create consciousness.

A lot of the neuroscientists who study this problem realise that the more we know about the physical brain, the more we realise it’s not the creator of consciousness. It’s very clearly related to consciousness, but again it’s more of a reducing valve or filter.

Often colleagues will challenge me and say, “Wait a minute! You’re saying this whole mystery of being deep in your coma as your brain was being destroyed by bacterial meningitis actually was the blinders coming off – when your awareness was getting more crisp and real.” They say that makes no sense.

I would reply by pointing out two commonly observed clinical phenomena. Neurologists and neuroscientists are aware of some of these examples. One is “terminal lucidity,” which I point out in my book Proof of Heaven. Often when they get closer to death, elderly and demented patients can have these oases of very clear thinking, memory, interaction, great clarity of thought that completely defies any kind of explanation.

The other commonly observed phenomena have to do with what is called the idiot savant or acquired savant syndrome, where some kind of brain damage, like a stroke or head trauma, uncovers some oasis of superhuman mental functioning. These savant syndromes are very, very common. I had many of them when I was active in neurosurgery. I would see where people would have some kind of brain damage, and it actually uncovered this incredible superhuman ability – of memory, calculation, ability to graphically represent things, musical creativity – that emerged out of nowhere.

Wilder Penfield, one of the most renowned neuroscientists of the twentieth century, probably still holds the record for electrical stimulation of the brain in awake patients – tens of thousands of episodes in his work on epilepsy. He worked in Montreal and wrote a book in 1975 called Mystery of the Mind: A Critical Study of Consciousness and the Human Brain. In the book, he gets clearly into his conclusions that never once, in all those tens of thousands of stimulations, did he uncover an event that seemed to be a free-will event of conscious experience. The patients always felt like they were puppets on a string, no matter what the memory, experience, whatever they went through – they always knew it was something “triggered.” Never once was there anything that resembled a free-will type event.

To Penfield it was very clear. To me, the evidence for this is completely consistent with my journey as described in Proof of Heaven and my conclusions and understandings about consciousness. If you’re trying to find free-will and consciousness, or soul, or spirit, they’re just not created in the brain at all. In fact, the brain is basically shackles. That’s essentially what near-death experiencers have been trying to tell us for millennia. Mystics who have had similar spiritually transformative experiences have been trying to put it out there that in fact, when we’re freed from shackles of the physical brain and released from that illusion of here and now, we actually come into a much higher knowing.

RS: My understanding of most near-death experiences is that they are overwhelmingly positive. But there are some negative experiences, where people encounter hells or devils or demons. How does this fit with your picture?

EA: When you look at a large number of NDEs, say somewhere around 95-98 percent of them seem to be very positive, very loving. This can be quite independent of the circumstances around the demise of a given patient. They often are shown beautiful scenes of unconditional love, love of an infinitely powerful spiritual being, often messages conveyed by the souls and spirits of departed loved ones that are very positive and loving.

As for the experiences that are negative: those who have read the book Proof of Heaven realise that I started out in a very dark, foreboding, underground realm, which I call the earthworm’s eye view. If I had come back from my near-death experience having only been to the earthworm’s eye view, I probably would have had what people describe as a hellish near-death experience.

Talking with other near-death experiencers and reviewing thousands of near-death cases, I believe that in many ways the hellish ones are incomplete. They are not going in with the power and the oomph to blast through to those higher realms. To me it was very clear that unconditional love has tremendous power – to heal at all levels, to heal the individual soul, to heal soul groups, to heal all of humanity, to heal all of life on earth, to heal all of consciousness existent in this material universe.

There can be dark forces, but by knowing that connection to the divine, the infinite power and love of that divine, we are able to bring that light and love into any realm we exist in. That includes this material realm; that includes the lower spiritual realms, including that earthworm’s eye view.

In my journey, as I describe in Proof of Heaven, I would cycle through and ascend through higher and higher levels through a gateway realm with a beautiful idyllic valley, butterfly wings, and angelic choirs, with lots of spiritual beauty, but with earth-like features. I would then ascend to higher and higher realms all the way to the core: infinite inky blackness, but filled to overflowing with the divine, that power of unconditional love in its healing capacity and also the brilliant light of that orb, brighter than a million stars. I knew that completely outside of our duality.

But then I would tumble back into that earthworm’s eye view. And very quickly in that journey I came to realise the importance of sound, music, vibration, which is part of the work I do now with Sacred Acoustics, with Karen Newell: using sound to enhance these abilities of our souls to transcend. That’s why the work of Sacred Acoustics has so much to do with meditation and getting into deep meditative states.

All of that is coming to realise that love has infinite power to heal. And I came to see in my journey that this is not a battle between good and evil, where they are equal and counterbalanced and maybe good and love will win out or maybe evil and darkness. Evil and darkness are the absence of that love and that light. By remembering our divine connection to that oneness and to the infinite healing power of that creative source, we can bring that light and that love into any aspect of the material realm and the lower spiritual realms.

RS: Could you say more about your work with Sacred Acoustics? What do you recommend for people who want to have a sense of that unconditional love while being connected with this earthly realm?

EA: You don’t have to die, or almost die, to get this. As a conscious being, you have all the tools you need to go within consciousness to come to see much deeper truth. I recommend meditation, Centering Prayer – sometimes it comes to us as a gift of desperation through the hardships of life, because in fact those hardships and difficulties, even illness or injury, are often a beautiful gift. That is often how we get a revelation about our deep connectedness with each other and with the divine.

About two years after my coma, I was introduced to the Monroe Institute and the work of Robert Monroe, who wrote three wonderful books on his journeys. He was a pretty straight-laced guy who ended up having spontaneous out-of-body experiences. Over four decades he came to realise that you can use sound – specifically slight differences in the frequency of sound presented to the two ears – to do some very interesting things with consciousness. I was attracted to it two years or so after my coma, when people approached me who knew a bit about hemispheric synchronisation, brain entrainment, what Monroe called hemi-sync. And they suggested to me that maybe I could revisit some of the realms that I had experienced in coma, when my neocortex was being ravaged by the meningitis. But I could do it in a reversible fashion by using two differential frequencies to the two ears.

There’s a particular circuit in the brain that is a very accurate timing circuit. That circuit is right next door to a circuit in the brain stem that modern neuroscience would tell you (with our very primitive notions about consciousness) seems be an ignition system for all of consciousness. My idea was that with this synchronisation of electrical activity to the hemispheres using differential sound inputs to the two ears, I might synchronise the electrical activity. This would take away the information processing aspect of the neocortex and allow my consciousness to be set free, just as it was when meningitis was destroying my neocortex.

This is the work that I now do in conjunction with Sacred Acoustics; those that are interested should visit sacredacoustics.com. It has to do with a sophisticated use of patterning of these sound inputs to the two ears to enable consciousness to be set free. 

RS: Which spiritual figures have you found most inspiring?

EA: I grew up in a Methodist church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. My father was very influential in my life, and he had a very strong religious belief in his own right. He had grown up in eastern Tennessee during the Depression. He had been a combat surgeon in the Pacific during the Second World War, and then he went on to head up a neurosurgery training program. So he was very scientific, but also deeply religious and truly spiritual. And I had grown up trying to follow, as best I could, in his footsteps.

Of course, being a child of the ’60s and ’70s, I realised that science is the pathway to truth. And as much as I wanted to believe what I was taught in my Methodist church, through those years of working in academic neurosurgery I found it more and more difficult to explain the survival of consciousness after the death of the brain and the body. As I said earlier, I bought into the modern twentieth-century neuroscientific view that the brain creates consciousness. And that, of course, means that it’s birth, death, and nothing more, and none of us has free will, and consciousness is an illusion.

My coma journey showed me that every bit of that is false. As I started to study more and more about NDEs and was led into the afterlife literature and into the writings of mystics and prophets going back thousands of years, what struck me was their similarity: they all converge on a much deeper truth. It turns out that the linguistic brain is in many ways our enemy in trying to come to a much deeper understanding. We can actually communicate in deeper ways, too, that have to do with a much purer form of consciousness. This is why I’m such a tremendous fan of meditation and encourage people to develop a daily practice of meditation.

The more I started giving talks about my experience, the more I started hearing back from Kabbalists, from Christian mystics, Sufis, Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists who had a very deep spiritual awareness through some experience. They were all talking about the same thing.

RS: Is there anything you’d like to add?

EA: A central message in Proof of Heaven is that consciousness is at the core of all existence. I think the most important aspect of that lesson, which is brought back by so many near-death experiencers and other spiritual journeyers, is that we are all eternal spiritual beings, and in fact our very consciousness is a direct link to the infinitely loving creative source at the core of all being. As so many who have had these experiences will tell you that unconditional love is infinitely healing.

It’s important for all of us to realise that we’re eternal, spiritual beings, that we come back in multiple reincarnations in our ascendance toward that oneness, and that we’re all in this together. Consciousness binds us all, not just as humans, not just as all life on earth – all of conscious life throughout the universe.

My journey showed me that the human brain and mind will never have a theory of everything. We can never possibly understand the grand workings of this universe in its greatest sense, the workings of that great creator. Never! But the journey is absolutely wonderful beyond description, and that is what we are all a part of, and we are all doing it as eternal spiritual beings bound together as one.

Any frictions between schools of religious thought, frictions between science, philosophy, and religion and spirituality, are false boundaries that have to do with the linguistic brain trying to define and to limit. Whereas we really have to take a top-down approach. We can all do that by exploring our consciousness through prayer and meditation.

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RICHARD SMOLEY has over thirty-five years of experience studying esoteric spirituality. His recent work, Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History, is composed largely of articles written for New Dawn. Smoley is the former editor of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions. Currently he is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America and of Quest Books. His new book is The Deal: A Guide to Radical and Complete Forgiveness.

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