Monday, December 10, 2012

Book Review: Proof of Heaven

Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
by Eben Alexander, M.D.
NY: Simon and Schuster, 2012

Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who has practiced at such esteemed locations as the Brigham and Women's and Children's and Harvard Medical School, never believed in near-death experiences (NDE's) until he had one.

On November 10, 2008, at the age of fifty-four, he contracted a case of E. Coli bacterial meningitis no one could explain the cause of. His case was the first of its kind in recorded medical history. As a result of his illness, he spent seven days in a coma with his neocortex (the part of the brain that makes us human) "shut down." Even with the best medical care available, by the end of the week just about everyone had given up hope of any sort of recovery.

Most NDE's take place while the neocortex is still functioning. But, in his case, "the neocortex was out of the picture. [He] was encountering the reality of a world of consciousness that existed completely free of the limitations of [his] physical brain.

What Dr. Alexander experienced on the other side makes for compelling reading, although he emphasizes the difficulty of even trying to put it into human words. He states that trying to describe it is "like trying to write a novel with only half the alphabet." But he is adamant that "the place [he] went was real. Real in a way that makes the life we are living here and now completely dreamlike by comparison."

He describes beings that we would most likely refer to as angels as follows: "The joy of these creatures, as they soared along, was such that they had to make this noise -- that if the joy didn't come out of them this way then they would simply not otherwise be able to contain it. The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but that doesn't get you wet.

"Seeing and hearing were not separate in this place where I now was. I could hear the visual beauty of the silvery bodies of those scintillating beings above, and I could see the surging, joyful perfection of what they sang."

He describes the ever-present feeling of unconditional love, that "none of us are ever unloved. Each and every one of us is deeply known and cared for by a Creator who cherishes us beyond any ability we have to comprehend."

The fact that Dr. Alexander fully recovered from his illness with no loss of brain function is a medical miracle. Prior to this experience, he had never examined the testimony of those who had experienced NDE's at all, instead dismissing the phenomena as simply the neocortex at work. In true scientific fashion, he wrote down his own experience on the other side before he began to delve into the literature already out there. He was amazed by what he found. He began to feel that it was his mission as a neuroscientist to help convince other doctors that this phenomena is real.

Dr. Alexander writes, "I simply had to take seriously the possibility that it really and truly had happened for a reason. That only made me feel a greater sense of responsibility to tell my story right."

While Dr. Alexander, an Episcopalian, does touch on religion and emphasizes the love of God and the power of prayer, this is not primarily a religious book. Rather, it is a scientific one, designed to convince those who dismiss belief in an afterlife on scientific grounds. As a result, it does include quite a bit of scientific explanation. If that does not interest the reader, those sections can be skimmed without any loss of meaning in the book.

My only caveat is that Dr. Alexander now seems to be getting into some meditative techniques that would be discouraged by the Catholic Church in order to replicate the experience. Truly, however, that is not a major topic in the book. Simply be aware of it when you come to that brief section.

"Proof of Heaven" is a must-read for anyone who doubts that there is an afterlife or for anyone interested in what life on the other side might be like.

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