Neurosurgeon Visits Heaven and All He Got Was a Crummy Newsweek Cover Story


Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon. He is also a Christian. He is somewhat more convinced of his beliefs now. A few years back, he was more nominal than anything else.

I didn’t begrudge those who wanted to believe that Jesus was more than simply a good man who had suffered at the hands of the world. I sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God somewhere out there who loved us unconditionally. In fact, I envied such people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided. But as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself.

Then he developed bacterial meningitis. He’s OK now. But it’s more than just his recovery that has enflamed his conviction that there is a loving and personal God. It’s what he experienced while in a coma:

Very early one morning four years ago, I awoke with an extremely intense headache. Within hours, my entire cortex—the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion and that in essence makes us human—had shut down. Doctors at Lynchburg General Hospital in Virginia, a hospital where I myself worked as a neurosurgeon, determined that I had somehow contracted a very rare bacterial meningitis that mostly attacks newborns. E. coli bacteria had penetrated my cerebrospinal fluid and were eating my brain.

When I entered the emergency room that morning, my chances of survival in anything beyond a vegetative state were already low. They soon sank to near nonexistent. For seven days I lay in a deep coma, my body unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline.

Then, on the morning of my seventh day in the hospital, as my doctors weighed whether to discontinue treatment, my eyes popped open. …

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.

But that dimension—in rough outline, the same one described by countless subjects of near-death experiences and other mystical states—is there. It exists, and what I saw and learned there has placed me quite literally in a new world: a world where we are much more than our brains and bodies, and where death is not the end of consciousness but rather a chapter in a vast, and incalculably positive, journey.

OK. Not an absolutely unique experience, as he admits. There was that kid who went to heaven. And there are all those near-death experiences with a light and a tunnel and some family member waiting on the other side asking how the Yankees are doing.

But Dr. Alexander’s experience was quite … detailed:

For most of my journey, someone else was with me. A woman. She was young, and I remember what she looked like in complete detail. She had high cheekbones and deep-blue eyes. Golden brown tresses framed her lovely face. When first I saw her, we were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, which after a moment I recognized as the wing of a butterfly. In fact, millions of butterflies were all around us—vast fluttering waves of them, dipping down into the woods and coming back up around us again. It was a river of life and color, moving through the air. The woman’s outfit was simple, like a peasant’s, but its colors—powder blue, indigo, and pastel orange-peach—had the same overwhelming, super-vivid aliveness that everything else had. She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for five seconds, would make your whole life up to that point worth living, no matter what had happened in it so far. It was not a romantic look. It was not a look of friendship. It was a look that was somehow beyond all these, beyond all the different compartments of love we have down here on earth. It was something higher, holding all those other kinds of love within itself while at the same time being much bigger than all of them.

Without using any words, she spoke to me. The message went through me like a wind, and I instantly understood that it was true. I knew so in the same way that I knew that the world around us was real—was not some fantasy, passing and insubstantial.

The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this:

“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

Read the whole thing for yourself.

I don’t know why I don’t believe him. Or don’t believe he experienced “heaven.” Maybe because I’ve always had an easier time believing in hell than in heaven. An eternity in unspeakable agony, with flames dissolving your internal organs only to have them regenerate in order to be melted again? Hey, I’m from Queens. Makes sense to me. But riding on the wing of a butterfly with a young maiden? I call bullshit.

Has anyone done a study on the effect of computer games on the brain? Does anyone know whether wacky stuff gets embedded in there, only to pop out during times of trauma or intense stress?

Check out the combos too. This was fun:

you are a crazy wacko doctor and should be disbarred for peddling the dreams from your psychotic decaying brain

(She had to be reminded that doctors are not disbarred; lawyers are.)

And then there was this slightly more coherent analysis:

As a neuroscientist, I can tell you this article is based on junk science. It’s very amateurish given that it’s from a neurosurgeon, but I suspect that’s the only reason it’s getting so much attention in the first place. So let me point out two very flawed assumptions in this article:

1) that his neocortex could have been “simply off.” The way it’s stated, it’s nonsense. If his neocortical neurons were “stunned to complete inactivity,” then his neocortex would have died (which it didn’t, evidenced by this article). It’s a fundamental fact of neurobiology – if neurons don’t fire, their axons retract, and then they die. This happens in a matter of hours. Moreover, deprive neurons of the ability to metabolize, and they die in a matter of minutes (think suffocation –> brain damage in about 6 minutes). What the author means to say is that his brain was suppressed to a very low level of metabolic activity (in an MR or PET scan, this looks like a dramatic decline in activity, but this isn’t something you can see in a CT scan showing the extent of meningitis, so that reference seems like a bizarre attempt to sound credible). Anyway, some might call that being “shut off”, but make no mistake – biologically, it’s not at all the case. Even doctors make this mistake, but a neurosurgeon should know better.

2) that either consciousness resides in the neocortex, or it must be outside the body. Consciousness involves the whole brain (neocortex, subcortical nuclei, thalamus, midbrain structures, etc.), not just the neocortex, which the author mistakenly identifies as being the “human” part of the brain (virtually all mammals have it; elephants have more than we do). Kids who grow up without a cortex have lived as long as twelve years old and experience a very rich consciousness. Consciousness can be altered much more dramatically by lesioning SUBcortical structures than by lesioning the cortex. Deficits in consciousness caused by cortical lesions can be RESTORED by specific subcortical lesions (look up “sprague effect”).

Lastly, we’ve known for nearly a decade now that many people in a persistent vegetative state DO show low levels of intrinsic brain activity, and specific activity in response to emotionally salient stimuli (hearing family tell stories, etc.)

Conclusion: This article is marshmallow fluff. His cortex wasn’t off, and it’s not the only thing that gives rise to consciousness anyway. So don’t accept amateurish claims like “my cortex was turned off but i still felt stuff so god exists.” Consciousness is an undending puzzle, but this ain’t the magic piece!

I swear I should be writing one of these books myself. I can finally make some money and blog full time!

How about: Camden, New Jersey, Is Real.


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