WASHINGTON, January 14, 2014 — Dr. Eben Alexander, once a neurosurgeon at Harvard Medical School, claims he clinically died and went to heaven. He describes his experience in Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.
In 2008, Alexander contracted spinal meningitis. The infection traveled through his cerebrospinal fluid and began to damage his brain. Alexander’s neocortex was “inactivated,” meaning he was, by all medical measures, dead.
The neocortex is the region of the human brain that is responsible for all higher cognitive function.
Alexander’s journey began with a massive headache; within hours, his entire cortex, the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion and in essence makes us human, had shut down. For the next seven days, Alexander was a candidate for last rites as he lingered in a seemingly unrecoverable coma.
On the seventh day of his coma, the staff of Virginia’s Lynchburg General Hospital was deciding whether to discontinue treatment. Suddenly, Alexander opened his eyes. There is no medical reason for his sudden awakening. There is also no medical reasoning for what he claims to have experienced in the seven days of coma.
Alexander claims to have visited an active afterlife.
As a neurosurgeon, Alexander had heard the stories of those who claimed to have died and returned. He dismissed these claims, just as other medical professionals do; he attributed them to vivid imagination, dream-like state, brain endorphins and medication.
Controversies over Jahi McMath, the child who was declared brain dead after a tonsillectomy, and other cases have forced us to question the definition of “death.” “Brain dead” has become the criterion for determining actual death, rather than “cardiovascular death.” Brain death is the irreversible cessation of higher brain activity combined with death of the brainstem, without which the body can’t maintain breath and heartbeat.
In deciding to take a loved one off of mechanical life support, the term “life support” itself may be misleading. With the death of the brain, what “life support” actually supports may not be life at all. The term makes it much harder for family members to decide whether to stop artificial means of keeping the heart beating and lungs pumping.
The brain is divided into two parts: the lower brain — the brainstem — which sits at the top of the spinal cord and regulates body functions such as breathing, reflexes, heartbeat, body temperature and the sleep/awake cycles; and the upper brain, where higher functions such as taste, touch, sense of smell, and hearing reside.
A brain dead person can have a heartbeat, feel warm, show movement and open his eyes, but not track.
Alexander was clinically dead, but he claims to have had cognitive function in an afterlife.
Alexander would have deemed himself dead if he were the attending physician.
“Dead is dead,” says neurologist Dr. Richard Senelick. “Brain death isn’t a different type of death and patients who meet the criteria of brain death are legally dead.” He adds, “No one who has met the criteria for brain death has ever survived. No one.”
Yet, this is what Alexander claims to have experienced. No one else in recorded history has ever revived after their cortex was completely shut down and while their body was under close medical observation. Alexander says his conscious went to a realm where there were pink clouds contrasted against a vivid blue sky.
He claims to have gone higher than clouds, where he encountered flocks of transparent birds, shimmering beings that arced across the sky leaving long, stream-like lines behind them. He claims these were not birds or angels, but a higher form of being.
Sounds of a huge, “glorious” chant came from high above, and Alexander felt the sound was a song of joy from the winged creatures which he felt he spiritually connect with as he did with all around him.
Alexander was not alone, for with him was a woman he recalls in vivid detail. She was young with high cheekbones, golden brown tresses that “framed her lovely face’. Without words, she communicated a message in three parts; “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever”, “you have nothing to fear” and “there is nothing you can do wrong.”
Alexander says he asked questions of where he was, where he was going, what is this place and the answers flowed through him like fire and wind as he entered a peaceful, womb-like darkness and into the unseen arms of a ‘presence’.
Alexander’s experience is not proof of heaven to anyone other than him. In fact, there are many valid explanations for the proverbial white light seen by those who ‘cross- over such as the overload of the optic nerve from the brain in trouble, the roll-back of memory to the first memory which would be the bright lights of the delivery room and the sight of loved ones who went before that appear young but then again, the first recall of loved ones is when they were young.
Of course, Alexander’s story goes well beyond a white light.
The assessment of what is truth is in the eyes of the beholder or believer. The arguments go on and on.
Research has shown an interesting side to Alexander’s claims; those who have killed innocents or committed suicide have, after crossing-over, either experienced nothing at all or claim to have been in biblical Hell. The ‘Hell’ they describe is the hell they perceived it to be or what their respective religions claim it to be.
There has been no agreed upon consensus of what Hell may be in terms of lights, sounds or sights.
Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based psychotherapist and writer.