At 4:40 in the morning, Dr E. Alexander, a highly respected Harvard trained neurosurgeon, is woken up by waves of pain shooting down his spine. Though dismissive at first, like so many doctors, after a couple of hours of extreme headaches and jolts of pain, never experienced before, Dr Alexander slips into coma, seizing uncontrollably to the horror of his wife.
After being transferred to the emergency room department of the Lynchburg general hospital (where he himself works as a doctor) and as a colleague tries to control his symptoms, the results of his tests reveal he has contracted an extremely rare yet deadly condition – e-coli meningitis with only 10% chance of survival and little chances of full recovery (since microorganisms (like e.coli) initially “attack those areas of the brain that perform the functions most crucial to maintaining our human qualities”).
Over the following days, as he lies in deep coma and as doctors give up hope of him ever recovering and prepare his family for the worst possible outcome, Dr Alexander has a very profound near death experience.
Near death experiences are well known to the public which is not surprising given they are often highlighted by the media and also because of their relatively high occurrence in the population (4% according to conservative estimate (1)). However, the great majority of scientists dismiss claims that these point to an independent transcendent reality as the prevailing model of human consciousness, held at present time by science is that the world that we experience is a physical material world and is created for us by our brains. Subjective consciousness is thus only a brain process, and the transcendent is only another brain generated experience. Transcendence does not on this model point to “a beyond” but only to another brain generated experience.
Interestingly, Dr E. Alexander used to be one of those scientists. A neurosurgeon with sophisticated medical training received from some of the top USA medical centres (2) he had always believed that the brain was a machine that produces consciousness in the first place and would dismiss as hallucinations (experiences generated only by his brain), any NDE accounts… that is until he was struck by severe meningitis and thrown into coma for seven days. Seven days during which “my entire neocortex – the outer surface of the brain that makes us human – was shut down. Inoperative, in essence absent”. Given how “precisely perfect E.Coli meningitis was for taking my cortex down” one can say “it is arguably the best disease one could find if one were seeking to mimic human death without actually bringing it about.“ In other words, his brain was in a state which “by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible to experience anything.”
Despite this, the author reports “encountering the reality of a world of consciousness that existed completely free of the limitations of my physical brain” and that “the place I went to was real. Real in a way that makes the life we are living here and now completely dreamlike in comparison.” Because of the unique set of circumstances, namely because of a very rare illness leading to a non-functioning neo-cortex in a man who is a neurosurgeon, the book’s messages should be examined with attention.
For instance, Dr Alexander is in a unique position to explain first hand why hallucinations (brain only generated experiences) are very different from his NDE. He reports “I had seen plenty of people undergo hallucinations… And during my few days of ICU psychosis, I’d had a chance to sample some impressively realistic nightmares as well. But once they passed, I quickly recognized those nightmares for the delusions they were: neuronal phantasmagoria stirred up by brain circuitry struggling to get running again.”
Another important message is that all the theories currently offered by science to explain the mechanisms that could have caused the author’s experience require a functioning neocortex and “with a brain affected by a deadly bacterial infection and mind-altering medications … anything could happen. Anything, that is – except the ultra-real experience I had in coma. … 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 that work.”
One mechanistic brain based theory is REM intrusion, “is the name of a syndrome (related to “rapid eye movement” or REM sleep, the phase in which dreams occur) in which natural neurotransmitters such as serotonin interact with receptors in the neocortex.” But according to the author this falls short of explaining his NDE since “REM intrusion needs a functioning neocortex to happen, and I didn’t have one.”
“However, it remains a fact that the portion of the brain that DMT affects (the neocortex) was, in my case, not there to be affected. So in terms of “explaining” what happened to me, the DMT-dump hypothesis came up as radically short as the other chief candidates for explanations of my experience, and for the same key reason. Hallucinogens affect the neocortex, and my neocortex wasn’t available to be affected.
A third theory is that the NDE was “a distorted recall of memories from deeper parts of my limbic system, the part of the brain that fuels emotional perception? Again, not without a functioning neocortex the limbic system could not produce visions with the clarity and logic I experienced.”
A fourth theory was the NDE could “have been a kind of psychedelic vision produced by some of the (many) drugs I was on? Again, all these drugs work with receptors in the neocortex. And with no necortex functioning, there was no canvas for these drugs to work on.”
A fifth theory was that the NDE experience was the result of “a brainstem program that evolved to ease terminal pain and suffering – possibly a remnant of “feigned death” strategies used by lower mammals? I discounted that one right at the gate. There was, quite simply, that my experiences, with their intensely sophisticated visual and aural levels, and their high degree of perceived meaning, were the product of my reptilian portion of my brain.”
“The final hypothesis 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 there leftover bits as best as it could. This might occur on restarting the cortex into consciousness after a prolonged system-wide failure, as in my diffuse meningitis. But this seems unlikely given the intricacies and interactivity of my elaborate recollections.”
Finally, it is worth emphasizing that Dr Alexander claims his experience to be unique since he had “forgotten some key aspects about himself” and that this was beneficial as it allowed him “to go deep into realms beyond the wordly without having to worry about what I was leaving behind”. He actually states that this allowed him to “travel deeper than almost all NDE subjects before me”.
Assuming for a moment that what he recalls were true, then this would no doubt revolutionize existing scientific views of the origin and nature of the universe since he describes encountering the divine, the source of creation.
Of great importance both for humanity and science, if his experiences were “real” then death would only be a transition to an “ultra-real” world : “but while I was in coma my brain hadn’t been working improperly. It hadn’t been working at all. … and yet, despite all of this, I had been alive, and aware, truly aware, in a universe characterized above all by love, consciousness and reality."
(2) Trained at Duke University and taught and practiced as a surgeon at Harvard