I spend a lot of my days travelling around and talking to people about miracles. Not the kind confined to history books, or the stories of a friend-of-a-friend, but real miracles experienced by normal people.
That may sound strange enough in this day and age, but if you’d known me before November 2008 you’d have thought it was impossible.
I had been working as an academic neurosurgeon for years, 15 of them at Harvard Medical School. Since childhood I’d read Scientific American magazine cover to cover every month, wanting with my whole heart to be the sort of compassionate but ferociously intellectual doctor my father had been.
I attended church and took Communion with my wife and children, but knew the way to truth – real truth, the kind you can see, feel and confirm, rather than guess at – was through science.
Patients sometimes asked me about death or heaven or other metaphysical questions before or after surgery, but I prided myself in being a rational man, a man of science.
The kindest approach, I thought, was to be gentle but honest. There is no life after death. You think you were floating above your body during surgery, or that you glimpsed heaven, but that is your brain playing tricks on you.
Never did it occur to me to ask: if your brain is tricking you, who is the “you” your brain is tricking?
All of that changed when, in November 2008, I lay down with a headache that turned out to be much more than it seemed. It was the worst pain I’d ever felt. My family left me to rest in bed, but when they returned to check on me a few hours later they found me in the grip of a violent grand mal seizure. An ambulance took me to A&E. I was admitted to the same hospital where I worked and a colleague, Dr Potter, diagnosed me with gram-negative bacterial meningitis. She is an excellent doctor and gave me the best care possible. Still, when she discovered the bacteria was E.coli – a rare and often fatal strain – she worried it was hopeless.
Given the diagnosis, and that I’d descended into a coma within three hours of first feeling ill, statistics suggested I had less than 10 per cent chance of survival.
Complications ensued, and doctors’ estimates fell to a two per cent chance of survival, with no chance of recovery. After seven days, they recommended my family remove me from life support.
During all of this, my family prayed by my bedside and friends prayed from afar. My doctors ran tests and prescribed medications. But I wasn’t aware of any of it. I was somewhere else entirely.
While my body lay in a hospital bed, my consciousness – my soul – was experiencing a rich odyssey outside the physical world.
It began as just a speck of awareness in a murky darkness. After some time I was lifted up by a beautiful spinning light, from which flowed an indescribably beautiful melody. The light and melody brought me into a verdant valley bursting with light and life, where a beautiful angel resting on a butterfly wing guided me. She shared a message directly into my consciousness, unencumbered by words: you are loved, there is nothing to fear, you can do no wrong here.
The orb of spinning light answered all my questions about the universe and my place in it in a similar way, with infinite patience and directly into my mind.
It sounds like a fever dream, I know. If a patient had told me that story, I’d have given him a very nice (but slightly patronising) smile and explained that he had hallucinated the whole thing. I’d have patiently explained that his neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for processing and integrating conscious thought, memory, language, creativity and sensory perception – basically everything that makes us human – had gone rogue in an electro-chemical firestorm of synapses.
But in my case, that seemingly rational explanation is totally impossible. My neocortex was completely shut down. Only the most primal part of my brain – the part that keeps your heart beating – showed any sign of functioning.
When I was recovering from coma and examining my experience, my scepticism was one of the first personality traits to reassert itself. “It seemed too real to be real,” I told my older son.
Not until my colleagues sat down with me to methodically consider – and ultimately reject – every possible hypothesis about how such a severely damaged brain could manufacture such a rich experience did I allow myself to trust what I knew to be true: it really happened.
To quote Sherlock Holmes: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
My brain was incapable of creating anything close to what I had experienced. And yet I did experience it. Thus, I had to accept the improbable: this very real experience happened – not in my brain, but in a realm more real than our earthly realm.
The very day my doctors reluctantly advised my family to end critical life support, I woke up. It wasn’t just against the odds – it was a medical miracle. I emerged from the coma with no memory of my life, no recognition of the people praying around my hospital bed, and no ability to speak or understand language. But I knew exactly where I had been, and the memory remains crystal clear.
Since then, as I have visited churches, hospitals and universities sharing my experience, I made the most important discovery of all: experiences like mine are far more common than I’d ever guessed.
Wherever I go, people quietly approach me after lectures and signings to share their own experience. It often starts the same way: “I’ve never told anyone this before, but…” They tell me about near-death experiences, shared-death experiences, out-of-body experiences and other phenomena. Like the man who saw a blue orb of light leave his father’s body just after he took his last breath. When he tentatively asked his sister: “Did something just happen?”, she answered: “You mean that light that just came out of the side of Dad’s head?”
Or the woman who saw her mother-in-law offer her favourite red hat to someone invisible at the foot of her hospital bed, and then discovered the hat had disappeared when her mother-in-law died later that night.
Or the mother who moved across the country to take her children away from her ex-husband, who had twisted under the weight of a heavy drug addiction. In the middle of a dark, cold January night, as she despaired for their future, an ineffable entity she knew was God appeared and enveloped her in a profound love, rejuvenating her and helping her build a new, safe life for her children.
Sometimes, they tell me about the literature that changed their lives – a groundbreaking scientific study buried in an obscure journal, an ancient text not yet translated to English, or even familiar writings from poets like Traherne or Blake, seen in a new light. Or they point me to a case study, a memoir or a legend that has crucial details in common with experiences reported by people half a world away, a millennium before or after. Their stories, and the research they inspired, form the backbone of my book The Map of Heaven.
I grew up in a household that took for granted the complementary roles of science and religion. My father, a man of deep faith who was active in our church community, was also a pioneering academic neurosurgeon who chaired his hospital’s department of neurosurgery.
But it is only since my experience that I have understood how science, religion and spirituality are partners in discovering the truths of this world and the next.
The conventional neuroscientific view of the brain – the view to which I subscribed before my experience – has been held back by materialist science, an approach to science that assumes everything is no more than the sum of its measurable physical parts.
Materialist science posits that the brain creates consciousness. It asserts that everything we have ever experienced, every beautiful sunset, every gorgeous symphony, every hug from our child, is merely the electrochemical flickering of neurons in a three-pound gelatinous mass. Our choices, too, are not made of our own free will; they are merely chemical and mechanical reactions to stimuli. And, it says, we are no more than our physical bodies; when they die, we cease to exist.
The problem with that model, the materialist brain-creates-consciousness model, is that even the world’s top experts on the brain don’t have even the first idea how the brain could create consciousness. It’s the modern equivalent of scientists thinking, well, it certainly looks as if the sun rises and sets around the earth, so the sun probably revolves around the earth. Mainstream neuroscience just hasn’t been doing its homework.
The mind-body debate is a 2,600-year-old conversation that has fascinated the world’s most brilliant thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas to Descartes. But we are on the verge of a change that is unprecedented in all of human history: a radical shift that is irrevocably binding together science and spirituality, and revealing the ways they have been interrelated all along.
Consciousness is not created by some combination of physical forces or electro-magnetic impulses. Consciousness – our souls, individually and collectively – is fundamental. It is a sort of primary colour of the universe, and cannot be created by combining other elements. It is our consciousness, our souls, rather than our corporeal existence alone, that makes us open to miracles and provides a tether – gossamer thin but stronger than any mere physical material – to heaven and to God. This convergence of an understanding about our approach to science, our universe and ourselves is the only way forward.
Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us. Before my illness, I thought that was some kind of obscure metaphor, but it’s really very straightforward.
That divine spark of awareness and love within each and every one of us is a direct link to heaven from right here on earth. Heaven is the true home of our souls, and it is when we allow ourselves to live in a way that acknowledges that – or when we are forced to confront that truth in its terrible, wonderful, awesome glory – that miracles happen.
Dr Eben Alexander is author of The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife (Piatkus Books 2014, imprint of Little, Brown)
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (19/12/14)