Opening the Conversation About NDE: Dr. Eben Alexander & the Question of Consciousness

The following originally appeared on The Eyeless Owl.

There is a slow shift in our cultural worldview surrounding the nature of consciousness. It’s a shift that is occurring in incremental stages, its main bulk still writhing below the surface of frothing rhetoric and opinionated debate, but a Newsweek’s cover story marks an important change in the public discussion. Dr. Eben Alexander, an academic neurosurgeon, with 25 years of experience, including teaching at Harvard Medical School, has had an NDE.

In his upcoming book, Proof of Heaven: A Neuroscientist’s Journey into the Afterlife, Alexander describes in detail his Near Death Experience, which is detailed in brief through the Newsweek article, “Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife.” His experience, as he understands it, radically altered the static assumptions that he had developed throughout his career in academic science.

Such an integral moment becomes very hard to explain on the cold grounds of academic dispassion. This is not to say that objectivity is in need of being abandoned, however it points to a central problem that has plagued contemporary science, which, when applied under the wrong assumptions, has been unable to relate to our lives in any kind of holistic way.

Having been hammered by the politicized, back and forth rhetoric of the Neo-Atheist and Creationist movements, it may come as a surprise that the leading edge of our current scientific investigations are pointing to a reality that is more complex than stock answers that make for good soundbites.  While Alexander’s book is an anecdotal account, it represents a drastic shift in our understanding of the world, a shift which began when NDE’s were first moved out of the psychological category of ‘delusion’ in the mid-1990?s.

At the heart of this are advances in neuroscience, physics and biology showing that some of the unqualified materialistic assumptions that have undergirded popular science are difficult to fit with the evidence. Many of these questions are arising from explorations of non-local field effects, and the question of just how relevant they are to physical phenomena.

Stephan A. Schwartz, a former Research Director at the Rhine Research Center, recently pointed out, in a presentation preceding the first, global, online Remote Viewing experiment, that peer reviewed independent studies, across a wide range of disciplines, are more and more indicative of the fact that there is more to be studied regarding non-local fields, including the underlying nature of consciousness.  The scientific worldview is at a tipping point where a synthesis of the data is going to cause a drastic change in the current model.

I’m working on an ongoing feature series for Reality Sandwich focusing on consciousness studies, and anomalous human experiences, and I’ve been shocked by my overview of the field. The current reporting by the media is far behind what 130 years of data indicates is going on.  In fact, experimental models in the area of Dynamical systems theory, such as those being developed by mathematicians like UC Santa Cruz’ Ralph Abraham, are coalescing insights that draw on even deeper sources. Recent studies and experiments applying these insights have been very provocative.

The cultural shift we’re seeing expressed in this Newsweek piece is beginning to make these areas of speculation more open to the public conversation. While the conclusions regarding the ultimate meaning of his NDE are subjective, Alexander’s account points to the fact that there is still much to explore in our understanding of consciousness, and ultimately the universe itself.

Alexander, himself, admits:

“The brain is an astonishingly sophisticated but extremely delicate mechanism. Reduce the amount of oxygen it receives by the smallest amount and it will react. It was no big surprise that people who had undergone severe trauma would return from their experiences with strange stories. But that didn’t mean they had journeyed anywhere real.”

However, he continues, regarding his own experience:

“When I entered the emergency room that morning, my chances of survival in anything beyond a vegetative state were already low. They soon sank to near nonexistent. For seven days I lay in a deep coma, my body unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline.

Then, on the morning of my seventh day in the hospital, as my doctors weighed whether to discontinue treatment, my eyes popped open.

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind — my conscious, inner self — was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.

But that dimension — in rough outline, the same one described by countless subjects of near-death experiences and other mystical states — is there. It exists, and what I saw and learned there has placed me quite literally in a new world: a world where we are much more than our brains and bodies, and where death is not the end of consciousness but rather a chapter in a vast, and incalculably positive, journey.”

Alexander’s experience is not proof of anything beyond the fact that we don’t know quite as much about the workings of the universe as the proselytizing pundits would have us believe. However, this does nothing to negate the importance of what he is expressing.  His background allows him insights into the experience that others who have had NDE’s do not have.

It is also an important moment when a neuroscientist comes forward with something that goes against the publicly accepted worldview that his discipline espouses. Each step taken to bring these questions forward into a more open discourse is an important step in opening up our ability as a society to explore areas that remain closed if they are locked by a tired game being played by fundamentalist factions of faith or scientism.

No doubt the game will continue for some time, as evinced by LiveScience publishing yet another inaccurate, random, but rhetorically compelling article on the in-existence of ESP & Psychic Abilities just as Alexander’s story begins to gain ground in the media: ESP & Psychic Powers: Claims Inconclusive.

Photo by kiwanja, courtesy of Creative Commons license. 

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