My Experience in Coma
Comment on Dr. Alexander’s article addressing the neurosurgical community about revelations from his NDE.
AANS Neurosurgeon : Features Volume 21, Number 2, 2012
Eben Alexander III, MD, FACS
There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true. — Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
At 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 10, 2008, I suddenly became very ill with acute bacterial meningitis. Within four hours, I was deep in coma; I spent the next seven days comatose, on a ventilator. Bacterial meningitis with such a rapid decline in neurologic function conferred a 90 percent mortality rate, even at the time of my initial ER evaluation, but my prospects for survival rapidly worsened. My physicians at Lynchburg General Hospital in Virginia were shocked to find that I had acquired spontaneous E. coli meningitis, which has less than a one in 10,000,000 annual incidence (1). They were aided by experts at the University of Virginia, Duke, Massachusetts General Hospital and beyond in their efforts to find a cause and force a turnaround in what at first seemed to be an irreversible death-spiral as I failed to respond to triple antibiotics.
My medical history of recent travel to Israel (as part of my work coordinating global development of focused ultrasound surgery) raised great concern among my doctors. Around the time of my visit, physicians at The Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center had reported the world’s first well-documented case of spontaneous plasmid transfer of the Klebsiella Pneumonia carbapenemase (KPC) gene from a deadly gram-negative organism into a patient’s previously uninfected intestinal E. coli, conferring total antibiotic resistance on the latter. The terrifying implications for a disastrous pandemic if such an E. coli ever escaped the strict isolation of a hospital ICU were obvious, and my doctors considered that I might represent such a case.
My neurological examinations were consistent with diffuse cortical damage plus extraocular motor dysfunction. My CT scans revealed global neocortical involvement, and, on the third day, my cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) protein was 1,340 mg/dl, my CSF white blood cell count 4,300 per mm3, and my CSF glucose level was down to 1 mg/dl. I was extremely ill, with diminishing chances for survival and virtually no chance for recovery. My physicians never found a cause for my mysterious malady.
Fortunately, my E. coli finally started to respond. On the seventh day of my coma, to everyone’s surprise, I opened my eyes and started to come back. I was rapidly extubated by the shocked intensivist. One of my wife’s very good friends who was there could not get over how my amazed expression looked more like an infant’s gaze, not like what one would expect from an adult returning from an unconscious state.
If one had asked me before my coma how much a patient would remember after such severe meningitis, I would have answered “nothing” and been thinking in the back of my mind that no one would recover from such an illness to the point of discussing their memories, anyway. So you can imagine my surprise at remembering an elaborate and rich odyssey from deep within coma that comprised more than 20,000 words by the time I had written it all out during the six weeks following my return from the hospital. My older son, Eben Alexander IV, who was majoring in neuroscience at the University of Delaware at the time, advised me to record everything I could remember before I read anything about near-death experiences (NDEs), physics or cosmology. I dutifully did so, in spite of an intense yearning to read everything I could about those subjects, based on the stunning character of my coma experience.
My meningitis had been so severe that my original memories from within coma did not include any recollections whatsoever from my life before coma, including language and any knowledge of humans or this universe. That “scorched earth” intensity was the setting for a profound spiritual experience that took me beyond space and time to what seemed like the origin of all existence. I am writing a book detailing that extraordinary odyssey that should be published in February 2013 by Simon & Schuster. (For updates, visit www.lifebeyonddeath.net.)
The majority of NDEs are easily differentiated from dreams and hallucinations. They represent an entirely different phenomenon. One notable characteristic is the persistence of NDE memories, compared with most memories and certainly with those of dreams or hallucinations, which tend to fade over time. NDEs tend to change people’s lives in major ways, and memories of these vivid experiences persist in detail for prolonged periods (2).
Deep in coma with severe neocortical disruption, rich experience can occur and be remembered. Conscious awareness can exist entirely independent of the brain. In fact, unfettered by the physical limitations of the human brain, consciousness is freed to much grander knowing than we humans can imagine. Only a small fraction of such awareness can come back in memories accessible by the human returned to the physical realm — and only a small fraction of that can be conveyed in a linguistic form interpretable by other humans who have not “been there.”
My coma taught me many things. First and foremost, near-death experiences, and related mystical states of awareness, reveal crucial truths about the nature of existence. And the reductive materialist (physicalist) model, on which conventional science is based, is fundamentally flawed. At its core, it intentionally ignores what I believe is the fundament of all existence — the nature of consciousness.
Psychology and psychiatry in the late 19th century were quite sophisticated in consolidating a scientific understanding of the nature of consciousness and even the possibility of its independence of the brain. Human knowledge then encountered a curiously entangled cluster of concepts — physical confirmation of the existence of atoms (via Brownian Motion), quantum mechanics and general relativity (all, of course, thanks to Albert Einstein). The ensuing scientific revolution over the next century was unprecedented in human history, and, for many, settled once and for all any discussion of the material universe as the sole basis of reality and existence.
There were dark clouds on the horizon, though, bundled with those original concepts. The enigma of the interpretation of what those experiments in quantum mechanics revealed was so profound that it drove even the likes of Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger (the brilliant founding fathers of the field) away, absolutely flummoxed. From their experiments one could infer that consciousness had a definite role in creating reality. And those experimental results have only become more bizarre in recent years. (Witness the “quantum eraser” experiment performed in 2000 (3). I believe that the core of that mystery is that consciousness itself is deeply rooted in quantum processes.
Even the physicists and scientists who proselytize the materialistic model have been forced to the edge of the precipice. They must now admit to knowing just a little bit about four percent of the material universe they know exists, but must confess to being totally “in the dark” about the other 96 percent. And that doesn’t even begin to address the even grander component that is home to the “consciousness” that I believe to be the basis of it all. Given such embarrassing ignorance, it’s a bit premature for physicists to be discussing a “Theory of Everything” (TOE), tempting as that might be in our world of “publish or perish.”
That we can know things beyond the ken of the “normal” channels is incontrovertible. An excellent resource for any scientist who still seeks proof of that reality is the rigorous 800-page analysis and review of all manner of extended consciousness, “Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century” (4). This magnum opus from the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia catalogues a wide variety of empirical phenomena that appear difficult or impossible to accommodate within the standard physicalist way of looking at things. Phenomena covered include, in particular, NDEs occurring under conditions such as deep general anesthesia and cardiac arrest that — like my coma — should prevent occurrence of any experience whatsoever, let alone the profound sorts of experiences that frequently do occur. Also noteworthy, the American Institute of Physics sponsored meetings in 2006 and 2011 covering the physical science of such extraordinary channels of knowledge (5, 6).
The neurosurgical community is in perfect position to recognize and collect the crucial reports of patients who survive journeys deep in coma from a variety of conditions. These reports will prove invaluable in further comprehending the nature of existence. But remember that patients tend not to report these unusual experiences unless specifically asked what they might remember. So ask them!
Eben Alexander III, MD, FACS, served on the faculty of Harvard Medical School for almost 15 years, achieving the rank of associate professor by 1994. He has helped promote the development of stereotactic radiosurgery, intraoperative MR imaging and MRI-guided focused ultrasound surgery in neurosurgery. Dr. Alexander currently practices with a private neurosurgical group in Lynchburg, Va., and travels extensively, making presentations about revelations from his coma experience that elucidate the nature of consciousness.
2. Holden, Janice Miner, Bruce Greyson, and Debbie James. “The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation.” Edited by Janice Miner Holden, Bruce Greyson and Debbie James. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishers, 2009.
4. Kelly, Edward F., Emily Williams Kelly, Adam Crabtree, Alan Gauld, Michael Grosso, and Bruce Greyson. Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
5. “Frontiers of Time: Retrocausation — Experiment and Theory,” hosted by the American Institute of Physics, San Diego, California (USA), 20-22 June 2006. Proceedings Editor: Daniel P. Sheehan, University of San Diego. AIP Conference Proceedings, Volume 863.
6. “Quantum Retrocausation — Theory and Experiment,” hosted by the American Institute of Physics, San Diego, California (USA), 13-14 June 2011. Proceedings Editor: Daniel P. Sheehan, University of San Diego. ISBN: 978-0-7354-0981-1. AIP Conference Proceedings for 92nd Meeting of AAAS Pacific Division.