Most scientists are materialists. In fact the current definition of science is restricted to that which excludes soul, spirit and anything supernatural. Materialists assume that consciousness is a product of, controlled by, and dependent on the physical brain. Therefore consciousness must cease when the brain dies.
Now a neurosurgeon, originally committed to this view, has solid evidence that this ain’t necessarily so. Dr. Eben Alexander (M.D. Duke, taught at Harvard Medical School; see Curriculum Vitae) had an experience during a coma which profoundly changed his understanding of consciousness.
He contracted gram-negative bacterial meningitis which shut down all brain functioning but that required for the lowest levels of existence. Yet during the seven days his brain was non-functional, he found himself very much alive, mobile, and conscious, functioning intellectually to a degree which surpassed by orders of magnitude the limited abilities of his material brain.
In his book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, Dr. Alexander quotes from medical records and statements of his physicians confirming the condition of his brain, interweaving with them his memories of what he was experiencing concurrently–-an enhanced ability to learn, think, reason, sense and understand.
“Was my experience a primitive 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 out of the gate. There was, quite simply, no way that my experiences, with their intensely sophisticated visual and aural levels, and their high degree of perceived meaning, were the product of the reptilian portion of my brain.
“Was it a distorted recall of memories from deeper parts of my limbic system, the part of the brain that fuels emotional perception? Again, no–without a functioning neocortex the limbic system could not produce visions with the clarity and logic I experienced.
“Could my experience 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 neocortex functioning, there was no canvas for these drugs to work on.
“How about REM intrusion? This 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. Sorry again. REM intrusion needs a functioning neocortex to happen, and I didn’t have one.
“Then there was the hypothetical phenomenon known as a ‘DMT dump.’ In this situation, the pineal gland, reacting to the stress of a perceived threat to the brain, produces a substance called DMT (or N,N-dimethyltryptamine). DMT is structurally similar to serotonin and can bring on an extremely intense psychedelic state. I’d had no personal experience with DMT—and still haven’t—but I have no argument with those who say it can produce a very powerful psychedelic experience; maybe one with genuine implications for our understanding of what consciousness, and reality, actually are.
“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.
“The final hypothesis I looked at 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 rebooting and saving what it could after a system-wide failure, my brain would have pieced together my experience from those leftover bits as best it could. . . But this seems most unlikely given the intricacies and interactivity of my elaborate recollections. . . I experienced the nonlinear nature of time in the spiritual world so intensely. . . But though time doesn’t behave ordinarily (in our terms) in the world beyond, that doesn’t mean it’s jumbled, and my own recollections from my time in coma were anything but. . .
“The more I learned of my condition, and the more I sought, using the current scientific literature, to explain what had happened, the more I came up spectacularly short. Everything—the uncanny clarity of my vision, the clearness of my thoughts in pure conceptual flow—suggested higher, not lower brain functioning. . .
“If what I’d undergone had happened to someone—anyone—else, it would have been remarkable enough. But that it had happened to me. . . Well, saying that it had happened ‘for a reason’ made me a little uneasy. There was enough of the old doctor in me to know how outlandish—how grandiose, in fact—that sounded. But when I added up the sheer unlikelihood of all the details–and especially when I considered how precisely perfect a disease E. coli meningitis was for taking my cortex down, and my rapid and complete recovery from almost certain destruction—I simply had to take seriously the possibility that it really and truly had happened for a reason. . .”
P.S. Proof of Heaven topped the New York Times bestseller list for months and has been translated into more than 30 languages. Universal Pictures has just won a bidding war for movie rights (http://www.deadline.com/?s=Proof+of+heaven). It will be challenging to produce a movie about a man lying in a coma, especially while he is moving through and experiencing an indescribable non-material space.