Understanding Consciousness

After spending more than 20 years in academic neurosurgery (15 of them at Harvard), I thought I had some idea of how brain, mind, and consciousness were interrelated. But that was before my near-death experience. In November 2008, a severe case of bacterial meningitis sent me into a coma within three hours of symptom onset. I was put on a ventilator and given very powerful antibiotics. I should not have recovered.

At first, my doctors gave me a 10 percent chance of survival. By the end of the week, without showing any return of neurological function, that chance was down to two percent. Doctors recommended stopping the antibiotics, but inexplicably, I started coming out of the coma.

My brain had been wrecked, just as predicted. All my words, memories, religious beliefs, and knowledge of neuroscience—every bit of it—was completely gone. But within hours my language began coming back. Within a few days, many of my childhood memories had returned. Within eight weeks, everything was back. My memories were even more complete than they had been before the coma. That part is very difficult to explain until you realize that memories are not stored in the physical brain at all. This is something neuroscience is finally coming to realize.

My case violated everything conventional neuroscience believes about the role of the neocortex in helping to form detailed conscious awareness. My neurologic exams, scans, and lab tests showed that my neocortex had very effectively shut down, and yet I had an extremely vivid and ultra-real experience. I initially tried to explain it as some kind of vast hallucination, but the more I went over my medical records with fellow physicians and others interested in consciousness, the more we came to realize this whole experience completely violated the notion of “brain creates consciousness.”

That started me on what’s now been more than eight years of research trying to explain it all. Before my coma, I couldn’t have seen taking on this role at all. I thought I was basically a doctor trying to heal people. But I’ve learned that our lives unfold with purpose and meaning. We just have to be open to all the possibilities and to the wonder of existence itself.

It’s important to understand that my goal is not to answer a simple little question about whether heaven is real or if there is an afterlife. It’s really about exploring the fundamental nature of reality and consciousness. The old thinking in conventional neuroscience that I was trained under was that the physical is all that exists, and therefore the physical brain must somehow create consciousness out of purely physical matter. Even though nobody in neuroscience has the remotest clue how that might work, many have this blind faith that if we keep researching it more, we’ll get the right answers.

Yet we have evidence to show that the physical brain does not create consciousness—evidence in the form of millions of human experiences, not only of near-death experiences, but also of shared-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, remote viewing, past life memories in children indicative of reincarnation, and after-death communications, among others. Our consciousness is not produced by the brain and is not limited to our senses in physical reality. This much broader understanding of consciousness, which I discuss in depth in my new book, Living in a Mindful Universe (to be published by Rodale in October), opens the door to a higher purpose and meaning to our lives. It’s so important to get this message out there.

Truthfully, we are all one with the universe.

In Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, My Stroke of Insight (Viking, 2006), she describes how the linguistic part of her brain was destroyed by a bleeding vascular malformation. As it happened, her boundaries of “self ” expanded outward. She became one with the desk, the chair, the rug, trees outside—and with this overwhelming sense of love and connectedness. That’s a perfect demonstration of the role our linguistic brain plays in giving us this isolated sense of being self rather than nonself, which is the rest of the universe. That kind of focus on self and nonself is a huge part of the distortion that comes out of our reductive materialism, which is the conventional form of our science. It says that the physical is all that exists, and if you break the physical world down to its tiniest parts and understand the rules that govern them, it gives you the answers to all the questions about the universe.

That’s actually completely backward. A top-down approach gives us a much richer understanding of reality. People often come to that knowing through meditation. For those who don’t have a means of going within, to quiet the little voice in the head, we offer up the tools of Sacred Acoustics (visit sacredacoustics.com to learn more). But really any means that you have to go within is a tremendous tool in getting in touch with that infinite universal mind.

Many encounter that consciousness and call it God, and while it seems to have that infinite loving attitude for all of its creation, this is not a “human god” at all. This is a power and force of love far grander than anything we could imagine—one suitable for civilizations that are advanced far beyond the level of our current humanity. The lesson that humanity has been challenged to learn throughout the past few thousand years is one of love, compassion, and oneness—and healing that illusion of false separation that results from some orthodox interpretations of spiritual texts. Truthfully, we are all one with the universe.

We are now in the process of uniting science and spirituality. Some think this is basically a debate between science and religion. It’s not that at all—it’s really a discussion between those who believe that the physical is all that exists and those who believe there’s more. Anyone who gets deeply into trying to explain the workings of consciousness sooner or later gets to a point where they abandon the false promissory materialism of our simplistic, physicalist neuroscience as completely inadequate.

The evidence exists through clinical situations that are quite common, such as terminal lucidity where elderly dementia patients often have great moments of clarity, reflection, and memory right as they approach death. Another example is acquired savant syndromes, where some kind of brain damage opens the door to a super-human mental capacity within an overall setting of diminished general cognitive capabilities. These super-human capacities of awareness and memory—like being able to recover numbers from a phone book or being able to calculate pi to 3,000 digits in one’s head in the setting of brain damage—go beyond any kind of “brain produces consciousness” model.

Ultimately, this is about recovering that knowing of ourselves as divine, eternal, sacred, spiritual beings, all interconnected not only with each other and with all sentience throughout the universe, but also connected to that divine creative source, that deity that we might call God. We become that love and share that love, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, and mercy with all fellow beings. That is what brings such true healing to this world, and the most relevant healing comes in the form of physical, mental, and emotional health, which is not easily maintained without attention to underlying spiritual health.

Author Biography: 

This article was adapted from an October 2016 interview Eben Alexander gave to Debra Moffitt on her Unity Online Radio show, Divinely Inspired Living, airing Tuesdays at 9 a.m. (CT) on unityonlineradio.org.

Eben Alexander, M.D.

Renowned academic neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, M.D. is the author of the New York Times best-selling book Proof of Heaven (Simon & Schuster, 2012) about his 2008 near-death experience. Alexander has also authored The Map of Heaven (Simon & Schuster, 2014). His new book, Living in a Mindful Universe (coauthored with Karen Newell) will be published by Rodale in October. Visit ebenalexander.com.