Horizon Research
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Dr Peter Fenwick reviews Dr Eben Alexander’s “Proof of Heaven”

May 3rd, 2013

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."

(1) http://www.horizonresearch.org/main_page.php?cat_id=275
(2) Trained at Duke University and taught and practiced as a surgeon at Harvard

Kirkus Review: Proof of Heaven

February 19th, 2013

The bestseller by Eben Alexander, “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Near Death Experience and Journey into the Afterlife,” is given an objective and informative look in the Kirkus Review:

A remarkable account of miraculous recovery from bacterial meningitis and a transformative “Near-Death Experience.”

On Nov. 10, 2008, at the age of 54, neurosurgeon Alexander awakened with an excruciating head- and backache and then suffered a grand mal epileptic seizure. Rushed to the hospital, tests showed that his brain was infected with E. coli bacteria that proved to be highly resistant to antibiotics and were destroying his neocortex. He remained in a deep coma for a week, as the expectation of his survival dimmed. Alexander recounts significant events in his life and explains his medical condition and the treatment he received, although at the time, he was not consciously aware of the situation. Interspersed are chapters in which he relates what he believes to be details of a “[b]rilliant, vibrant, ecstatic, stunning” psychic event he experienced during the coma. He describes an extraordinary radiant white-gold light and the most beautiful music he had ever heard, as well as travel to the gates of heaven, accompanied by an angelic figure who led him to the “strangest, most beautiful world” he had ever seen. Although Alexander had previously been a religious skeptic, this intense experience convinced him of the existence of heaven and a loving, personal God; the primacy of consciousness over matter; and the reality of psychic experiences such as telepathic communication. After seven days, he awoke with his faculties intact, although he needed time to fully recover his memory.

Alexander uses his medical credentials to substantiate the belief that his reconstructed memories offer conclusive proof of his current religious beliefs; readers who don’t share these beliefs will find his account less convincing.

A special series on consciousness from The Guardian

March 5th, 2012

The series, “Consciousness: The hard problem,” does an excellent job of posing questions about consciousness related to science, philosophy, and more. Read more about the “Eight questions science must answer:”

1. What are the critical brain regions for consciousness?
2. What are the mechanisms of general anaesthesia?
3. What is the self?
4. What determines experiences of volition and ‘will’?
5. What is the function of consciousness? What are experiences for?
6. How rich is consciousness?
7. Are other animals conscious?
8. Are vegetative patients conscious?

Then come back and explore our “Learning Zone,” where we have more material, for example: Consciousness and the Mind/Brain Problem.

Let’s go viral with our video!

July 28th, 2011

Thank you all for viewing our animated, short video on YouTube “What Happens When We Die.” We have gotten over 42,000 viewers. Let’s try for 40,000 more!

Upcoming series of articles on the near death experience phenomenon or NDE

July 8th, 2011

It is our pleasure to inform you that, given Horizon Research Foundation’s interest to study the state of the human mind at the end of life, in the upcoming months our editorial board will publish a series of articles aimed at providing an overview of the NDE phenomenon such as its characteristics, its incidence, theories for causation, scientific studies, current and forthcoming etc…

Although some of you may have read personal accounts by people having lived through an NDE and may have also heard of the debates surrounding this subject, you may not be aware that there are some researchers who have begun studying the NDE phenomenon.

Through these articles, we at the Horizon Research Foundation would like to introduce you to this fascinating field, keep you updated on the latest studies and thereby also increase public awareness of the fact that this field is extremely exciting and important since it may hold the key to some of the questions that, to this day and age, still go unanswered and concern us all, namely:

  • the mystery of death
  • the nature of the self, of our consciousness and mind

We also hope to convey that, although some of the accounts are subjective and rich in emotional content, just like all human experiences such as (for instance) anger, jealousy, and compassion, the NDE phenomenon can also be studied through rigorous scientific means. In other words, although it is sometimes viewed by some with a certain degree of skepticism, it can be studied under the rigors of science. It will also become clear that, even if still in its infancy, the study of what happens when we die as well as of the NDE phenomenon, has already attracted the interest of researchers, and has become the object of scientific studies as exemplified by publications in respected peer reviewed scientific journals

We hope you will enjoy the Special Section.

The Pursuit of Immortality

April 8th, 2011

This lecture was presented by the Nour Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences. The lecture: The Pursuit of Immortality: From the Ego to the Soul included the panelists:

John Haught, PhD, Georgetown University

Kenneth Miller, PhD, Brown University

Nancey Murphy, PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary

A segment of the six part series, this conversation was thoughtful and raised many interesting questions like: along the path of evolution, when did we obtain souls? Is an agnostic a more spiritually inclined individual because they ask more questions?

A three year old visits heaven

March 13th, 2011

Heaven Is For Real, is the story of Colton Burpo. When he was three years old he had a medical emergency and experienced what he is calling “heaven.” The New York Times review the book in their March 11, 2011 issue: “Celestial Sales For Boy’s Tale of Heaven.”

Exploring medically induced coma

March 12th, 2011

An interesting interview appeared in the New York Times, February 28, 2011 called: “Call It a Reversible Coma, Not Sleep.” In the article, Dr. Emery Neal Brown, is a professor of anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School, a professor of computational neuroscience at M.I.T. and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The study of the brain and consciousness near death is one of the areas of research that the Horizon Foundation explores.  It is additionally fascinating to include the state of consciousness during medically induced-coma (via anesthesia). Dr. Brown states:

 “It’s a reversible drug-induced coma, to simplify. As with a coma that’s the result of a brain injury, the patient is unconscious, insensitive to pain, cannot move or remember. However, with anesthesia, once the drugs wear off, the coma wears off.”

When a patient is in a medically induced coma, what happens to the consciousness or the “I am” of the individual?

The mind : from a science of learning to read to a science of learning ethical behaviour. Can your thoughts really “recycle” and change your brain?

March 6th, 2011

Although the debate regarding whether it is mind that activates the human brain or whether it is the brain that activates the mind has fascinated humankind for centuries, a new study published in the prestigious scientific journal Science seems to suggest that the mind and thoughts can indeed change the structure of the brain. So what they say is true – we really are what we think and should not underestimate the power of our thoughts!

It has become increasingly clear in recent times that the mind and thoughts do shape and modify human brain function but a recent study by Stanislas Dehaene, a French cognitive neuroscientist at the College de France and research by other groups have shed even more light on this process. Read more…

An overview of the book, The Future of the Brain: The Promise and Perils of Tomorrow’s Neuroscience, by Steven Rose

December 19th, 2010

Amongst those who think that the mind is not a non-physical, separate entity from the brain, there are still many who think the mind is more than just the brain. Dr Rose, a neuroscientist from the UK, who wrote a thought provoking book by the title The Future of the Brain: The Promise and Perils of Tomorrow’s Neuroscience is one of those who thinks that since the brain and body are intimately interconnected, one cannot really consider the brain separately and that the mind is certainly also influenced by the combination of the brain, body as well as by their interactions with the environment.

How is that different from reductionism? Well, according to Dr Rose, the idea behind reductionism is that you can explain a phenomenon by completely breaking it down into its parts. Hence, reductionists would suggest that once the functioning of the different parts of the brain was completely understood then one would understand how the mind was generated. This is not Dr Rose’s view however and he feels that even if people had the same genetic make-up (a clone), behavior would be different because of the interaction of the environment.

Dr Rose insists repeatedly on the fact that the mind is more than just the brain. For instance emotions shape what we think and they engage both our brain as well as our bodies via hormones and other biochemicals. Because of this he feels the brain-body distinction is obsolete and because of their intimate interconnection they need to be considered together. In the same way, he feels that although genes specify what the brain (and the body) can become, the brain has plasticity in that what actually occurs is the result of experience. In other words, as already discussed in other articles on this web site, the brain is not made of hard wiring that stays the same once it is formed.

Dr Rose also feels we are still a long way from understanding how the brain and body generate the mind and in his book he warns us against the dangers of the reductionist view. A view only too readily embraced by pharma companies when they launch their drugs despite the fact that their mechanisms of action are often poorly understood or are based on an incomplete understanding of what neurotransmitters do.

Finally Dr Rose insists on the fact that, irrespective of the phenomenon being studied, the types of questions asked and what we look for, are always the result of a certain view of things, a certain world view. Because of this, the reductionist view may result in restraining considerably the questions being asked and missing the overall picture. Likewise, the questions being asked are also influenced significantly by the tools we have because these also affect the way we see the world. For instance, functional MRI opened up new possibilities in understanding how the brain works but the danger is that our questions become too narrow and dependent on those aspects that can be studied by this tool.

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