What happens when we die? Human beings have asked this question probably more than any other, with “Does God exist?” and “What is the meaning of life?” coming in as close seconds. All three, of course, are intertwined, but while the reality of the deity and the solution to life’s riddle may be grasped in the here and now, what happens when we give up the ghost seems to be something we can know only by doing just that. It seems that the only way we can know for certain what happens after death is by dying. And while the attraction of that ultimate mystery is strong, the means of solving it appear, to most of us at least, somewhat less attractive.
But is it really the case that the answer to what happens after death lies beyond a threshold which, once crossed, cannot be uncrossed? While messages from the dead fill folklore, myth, and séances, and religions around the world and through the ages have in different ways assured their devotees of the reality of an afterlife, many of us are nevertheless not entirely certain that anything awaits us beyond the grave – except perhaps annihilation, which is, of course, the standard modern view. In recent times, however, assurances of a continuity of consciousness beyond the brain have come, not from the camp of religion, mysticism, or the occult, but from that of their often sworn enemy, science.
In 2001 a paper appeared in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet purporting to show evidence supporting the reality of Near-Death Experiences, or NDEs. In “Near-death experiences in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands,” the Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel and his research team presented the results of a twenty-year long study of the strange experiences reported by patients who survived heart failure. That these patients reported being aware of anything during cardiac arrest was strange enough. The standard view is that when the heart and lungs stop so do the brain and consciousness. What should have happened was that they experienced nothing at all. Nevertheless they did.
The patients Lommel studied reported that during the period of unconsciousness brought on by their seizure, they experienced some very remarkable things indeed. Many recounted feelings of bliss and intense happiness; many spoke of a bright white light, of a tunnel, of seeing deceased relatives and of going through a kind of “life review,” in which their entire lives, as the cliché goes, “passed before their eyes.” Many spoke of having an “out-of-the-body experience,” of seeing themselves and their nurses and doctors from some vantage point near the ceiling. Many spoke of guides, angels and spirits, come to comfort them. Many also assured Lommel that the experience was entirely beneficial, that it relieved them of their fear of death, that it had transformed them in some way, and that it gave them the certainty that the life we know here on earth is not the only one.
Lommel’s Lancet paper understandably caused an uproar, yet the research was impressive. The statistics Lommel and his team provided seem to show that the usual explanations given to account for NDEs – from the mainstream scientific view – did not, at least in these cases, work. Lommel studied some 562 survivors of cardiac arrest and he discovered that up to 18% of them reported having had a NDE. Of these, none could be chalked up to oxygen deficiency to the brain, the effects of drugs, or the other physiological or psychological reasons usually offered as a way of explaining the phenomenon. Lommel and his team concluded the NDE was an actual, objective event and that it argued in favour of some kind of ‘post-death’ survival.
Perhaps even more controversial, the findings also seemed to offer proof that consciousness can exist outside or even without the brain. While most mainstream scientists will merely snort at the idea of an afterlife, they will positively bellow at the suggestion consciousness is anything more than a by-product of that three-pound mass of grey matter. According to a number of prestigious neuroscientists and philosophers of mind – I talk about some of them in my book A Secret History of Consciousness – consciousness is absolutely, positively, 100% produced by the brain.
Lommel was unrepentant and in 2007 he produced a book, Consciousness Beyond Life [available from New Dawn, see page 79], based on his paper, presenting his case studies in greater depth and bringing his research to a wider public. The results were encouraging. The book was a bestseller in the Netherlands, then repeated its success in Germany, the UK and the US. Lommel has presented his ideas in interviews and videos and on television. Lommel’s work has, of course, attracted criticism. Yet his findings seem to stand and for the open-minded provide the kind of ‘hard’ evidence that scientists dismissive of any non-materialist accounts of consciousness demand, in order for them to consider changing their minds in any way about the matter.
A Neurosurgeon Visits “Heaven”
Lommel was not the only medical practitioner to take NDEs seriously and to subject them to study. Even more controversial than Lommel’s findings was the account by the American neurosurgeon Eben Alexander of his own NDE. Alexander had twenty-five years’ experience studying the brain and teaching others how to study it, at institutions such as the Harvard Medical School. Like most of his colleagues, he accepted the dogma that the brain produces consciousness. Then, in 2008, a bacterial infection – a rare form of meningitis – had him in a coma for a week and taught him otherwise. His chances of recovery were slim at best, and his family was advised that if he did survive, he would be little more than a vegetable: the infection had caused irreparable brain damage. Yet on the seventh day under a ventilator Alexander opened his eyes and came to. This was miracle enough. But the story Alexander had to tell was even more remarkable.
The white light was there, and also beautiful melodies, angelic choirs, fantastic landscapes with strange plant life, waterfalls, crystal pools, and thousands of beings, dancing, and a girl who came to him on a butterfly wing. During the week of his coma, when his brain shouldn’t have produced the slightest hallucination – should have produced no consciousness at all – Alexander went on a journey to “higher realms” and eventually to what he calls the “Core,” a centre of reality “filled with the infinite healing power of the all-loving deity,” the source of everything. He was privy to fundamental realities, for which “God seemed too puny a little human word.” He speaks of experiencing a “higher dimensional multiverse” and an “oversphere” and that his notions of time, space, and everything else were radically changed. During his coma he underwent a kind of spiritual evolution, from what he calls the “Earthworm’s Eye View” to the Core, many times, learning truths about the nature of existence and our part in it. One truth was about the reality of the afterlife, knowledge of which Alexander has tried to pass on to his many readers in his bestselling books Proof of Heaven and Maps of Heaven.
Like Pim van Lommel, Alexander came to believe that human beings are much more than their physical bodies and consciousness is something more than a by-product of the brain. They disagree with the philosopher John Searle who argues that the brain produces consciousness as the liver does bile. Consciousness, they argue, is not localised in or produced by the brain because consciousness itself is the ultimate reality, not the physical world – an insight echoed down the ages by mystics and visionaries, but which in recent times it seems some scientists are cottoning on to as well. They see it as a way out of the cul-de-sac reached by trying to solve the ‘hard problem’ in mainstream neuroscience: how does a neuron, a physical phenomenon, become a thought, a mental one? The answer is it doesn’t. It’s the other way around.
Whatever we might think of Alexander’s account of the afterlife and his ideas about mankind’s spiritual evolution – he has since become a popular advocate of the union of science and spirituality with appearances on ‘Oprah Winfrey’ and other talk shows – the notion of a non-local consciousness has a history. What was remarkable about the cases Lommel studied and Alexander’s own, was that they reported vivid inner, transformative experience during a time when the brains involved should have been incapable of ‘producing’ anything. If brains ‘produce’ consciousness, this should have been impossible, rather like a flashlight shining without the battery. Some studies done in the 1960s suggest consciousness may not need much brains at all. In 1965 John Lorber, a specialist in hydrocephalus – “water on the brain” – published a paper as remarkable as Lommel’s. In “Hydranencephaly with Normal Development,” published in Developmental Medicine and Child Psychology for December 1965, Lorber presented several case studies in which people with little or no cerebral cortex functioned normally. In one case the subject had an IQ of 126 and an honours degree in mathematics. Two girls born in the 1960s had fluid where their cerebrums should have been, with no evidence of a cerebral cortex, yet both had perfectly normal intelligence. Unlike ‘The Wizard of Oz’s Scarecrow, they, and the other cases Lorber studied seemed to get on perfectly well without a brain.
Such cases, though well documented, may push the believability barrier, but we need not resort to these extremes to argue the brain does not ‘produce’ consciousness. In the late nineteenth century the philosopher Henri Bergson argued eloquently that, rather than produce consciousness, the brain served an eliminatory function, acting as a reducing valve, filtering reality and allowing only what was necessary for survival to reach conscious awareness. Rather than produce consciousness, the brain edits it down to something manageable, otherwise we would be overwhelmed by reality’s complexity, a condition common to many mystics. Aldous Huxley resorted to Bergson’s idea when, in The Doors of Perception, he tried to account for the effects of the drug mescaline on his consciousness. The mystical effects of the drug, Huxley believed, were due to its ‘opening’ the filters of the brain, allowing more consciousness than needed for mere survival to flood into awareness. The fact that in the cases Lommel studied and in Alexander’s own, the brain was out of commission, seems to support the Bergson/Huxley thesis. With the filters off, much more of Reality – what Huxley called “Mind at Large” – became available. If the brain “mutes” reality, allowing, as Huxley said, only a “thin trickle” to enter consciousness, in the NDE the taps seem to be on full blast. The analogy is apt as our kitchen taps do not ‘produce’ the water in our sinks, but quite the opposite, they stop it from running. It’s already there in the pipes.
Some variant of Bergson’s idea is popular among ‘alternative’ scientists, such as the biologist Rupert Sheldrake who speaks of the brain acting as a kind of “tuner,” “selecting” different “wavelengths” of reality, rather as a radio works by cutting out all transmissions except the one you wish to hear, or as a television that picks up a broadcast but is not responsible for it. Neither my radio nor my television ‘produces’ the programs they play. They ‘receive’ them from the broadcaster, and Sheldrake and other scientists and philosophers like him, see the brain as a kind of inner TV, picking out different ‘channels’, broadcast by – well, we’re not quite sure. The general idea is that consciousness is the fundamental reality; rather than being stuffed into the cramp confines of our skulls, it pervades the universe. This is the “panpsychism” that philosopher David Chalmers advocates, following in the philosophical footsteps of Bergson and his contemporary Alfred North Whitehead, who, in different ways, envisioned some version of Mind at Large. Needless to say – or perhaps not – such an idea as an all-pervasive consciousness or mind is, of course, a staple part of many pre-modern worldviews.
Another who accepted the idea of Mind at Large was, oddly enough, an early investigator into NDEs, although in his aptly posthumous Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903), the first “scientific” study of the afterlife, F.W.H. Myers did not call them that. Myers spoke of the “subliminal mind,” by which he meant something different than Freud’s “unconscious,” which Myers’ coinage preceded by some years. It was Huxley who in his foreword to Myers’ classic compared his “subliminal mind” to an “upstairs” in the “house of the soul,” rather than Freud’s “garbage-littered basement.” This upstairs had some unusual characteristics and in the late nineteenth century Myers and his fellows in the Society for Psychical Research devoted their lives to studying them. Take, for example, the remarkable experience of Dr A. S. Wiltse who in 1889 “died” from typhoid fever. Wiltse was pronounced dead but found himself “waking up” inside his body, and gradually being “released” from it. He felt himself emerge from his body and found that he could walk away from it. No one noticed him and, stranger still, he found that he could walk through people. Wiltse then found himself confronting huge rocks standing beneath storm clouds. A voice told him that if he continued past them he would enter eternity but if desired he could return to life, a common choice in many modern NDEs. He then “woke up,” four hours after being pronounced dead, and told of what he saw.
Myers’ account of Dr Wiltse’s experience was preceded by an even earlier one. In 1871 Albert Heim, a professor of geology, fell some seventy metres while climbing in the Alps. During the few seconds of his fall, Heim experienced a panoramic “life review,” seeing his whole past “take place in many images, as though on a stage at some distance from me.” Like many who have experienced an NDE, he saw a “heavenly light” and was free from fear and anxiety. Conflict was “transmuted into love” and he found himself moving “painlessly and softly” into a “splendid blue heaven.” Heim survived his fall but the experience so moved him that he began to collect accounts of similar experiences by other climbers. Forgotten for years, Heim’s work was re-discovered when what we might call the “NDE and afterlife boom” of the 1970s and 80s, in the work of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, Raymond Moody, Kenneth Ring and others, brought it back to light. Another fairly well-known account of a NDE is that of C. G. Jung, who, in 1944, following a heart attack, found himself orbiting the earth and confronting a strange temple and Hindu floating in space. Jung was about to cross the threshold like Dr Wiltse when he found himself whisked back to earth, disappointed at the prospect of coming back to life.
Do Lommel and Alexander bring anything new to this study? Their scientific and medical credentials certainly bring new attention to it, although to be sure, not all of it is positive, and the claims and expertise of both have come under heavy scrutiny and criticism. But part of what makes their and other studies convincing – at least to the open-minded – is the similarity between the accounts they study and older reports on what happens when we die. As Ptolemy Tompkins in The Modern Book of the Dead makes clear, there is much overlap between accounts of the afterlife found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, to speak of only the two most famous earlier reports on the beyond. And these two share much with recent investigations, such as the insights about the “life between death and rebirth” gleaned by the “spiritual scientist” Rudolf Steiner through his access to the “Akashic Record.” For instance, Steiner too makes the “life review” a central part of the process of dying, in preparation for reincarnation.
But, as Tompkins makes clear, there are also differences. The Swedish scientist and religious philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, who wrote much about the brain, journeyed to heaven, hell, and also to an intermediary realm he called the “spirit world,” not through a NDE but through inducing visionary states. He gave his own “proof” of the higher spheres in his book Heaven and Hell, yet his account is somewhat different from Eben Alexander’s, while both Swedenborg’s and Alexander’s differ considerably from Steiner’s.
Enough similarities exist among these accounts to suggest that in some way they and other voyagers were encountering different parts of the same inner landscape. And if the ‘proofs’ of heaven we have glanced at here are at all reliable, it is one that, at some point, we all will have an opportunity to journey through, in this life and the next.
2. John Searle The Mystery of Consciousness, Granta Books, 1997, 6
3. Gary Lachman A Secret History of Consciousness, Lindisfarne Books, 2003, xxv-xxvi
4. Aldous Huxley, Foreword, F. W. H. Myers, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, Dover Publications, 2005, 7
5. Ibid. 212-217
6. The “life review” has a solid basis in the brain, as the neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield discovered. While operating on a patient who was conscious – the brain feels no pain – Penfield discovered that when certain parts of the brain were stimulated, the patient “relived” experiences of his past with what we would call “total recall.” It seems the brain in some way stores every experience we’ve ever had and, with the requisite trigger, can “replay” them. The “life review” seems a more intense and total experience of this.
7. Quoted in Colin Wilson, Afterlife, Doubleday, 1987, 215-16
8. Gary Lachman, Jung the Mystic, Tarcher/Penguin, 2010, 186-88
9. Gary Lachman, Swedenborg, Tarcher/Penguin, 2012, 87-98
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