I recently received a copy of Eben Alexander’s extraordinary book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. I found the book so compelling, that I put everything else that I was reading aside to finish the book.
It’s a fascinating story about a visionary experience that Alexander had while in a week-long coma due to a rare case of bacterial meningitis, .i.e., a brain severely infected with E. coli bacteria.
A number of people had recommended the book to me because the author’s near-death experience (NDE) uncannily resembled experiences that many people have had with powerful psychedelic substances like ayahuasca, dimethiltryptamine (DMT), and ketamine.
The similarities are truly remarkable, and it appears as though Alexander had a shamanic journey into the underworld and paradisical realms of “nonlinear time,” very similar to what many people describe with powerful psychedelic substances.
Alexander’s beautiful descriptions of being immersed in the deep dark bowels of the earth, and then soaring high into the light-filled Heavens--on the wings of a giant, ever-morphing butterfly--are mesmerizing.
The wings of the colossal butterfly are “intricately-patterned, alive with indescribable and vivid colors,” like a “Persian carpet,” and an angelic, blue-eyed companion with high cheekbones accompanies him, explaining the spiritual secrets of existence.
These experiences, and the climax of merging into the core of the Godhead, seem very similar to the out-of-body experiences that people have described while under the influence of ketamine and DMT.
Alexander is a wonderful writer, and he tells an astonishing story, but at the end of the book, in a couple of brief paragraphs, he quickly discounts endogenous DMT or ketamine-like neurochemicals--psychedelic molecules naturally found in the brain--as possibly playing a role in his near-death experience.
Although only speculation, numerous researchers suspect that current evidence supports the notion that a flood of DMT, and perhaps also ketamine-like molecules, may be released in the brain when it is close to death, and that this may help to account for the commonly reported NDEs that people have of leaving their body when they come close to dying.
DMT is naturally found in the body, most likely in the brain, and no one understands what it does there.
When experimental subjects are given DMT, they consistently report ultra-real experiences of being out of their bodies, and of being in other dimensions of consciousness, where they encounter intelligent, non-human beings and sometimes have profound mystical experiences.
Alexander claims that his higher brain centers in the neocortex, where the receptors for the DMT molecules bind to, were “off-line,” “inactivated,” or “shut down.”
However, according to neuroscientist and outspoken atheist Sam Harris this isn’t necessarily true, and the brain scans that Alexander had don’t reveal enough information to really know this.
Additionally, according neuroscientists Paul Goodwin and David E. Nichols, serotonin 2A receptors--the receptors in the brain that DMT to binds to--can be found in deeper brain regions, such as in the hippocampus and the thalamus.
Harris wrote a brilliant and scathing review of Alexander’s “alarmingly unscientific” book, comparing the neurosurgeon’s experience in a coma to DMT and ketamine journeys, which can be found here: www.samharris.org/blog/item/this-must-be-heaven
Alexander’s book presents compelling evidence for higher dimensions of reality, but he tries to squash his whole amazing, language-trascending (his description) experience into “proof” for a Christian belief system from his childhood.
Alexander brought back interesting evidence for the existence of other realms and mysterious dimensions of consciousness--what ‘psychonauts’ would describe as a good “trip report”--but interpreting this as “proof” of an ancient, Bible-founded religion seems like a bit of a stretch to me.
It appears that Alexander just didn’t have an adequate model for explaining his mind-blowing experience--his medical training was clearly inadequate, he admits--but he ignores scientific studies done on DMT by Rick Strassman at the University of New Mexico, as well as the whole history of shamanic traditions.
Alexander discounts DMT and ketamine experiences as being “dreamlike” or “chaotic,” but he really needs to look at the research reports to see that almost every subject describes their DMT experiences as being “hyper--real,” as he does with his NDE--that is, as seeming even more real than physical reality.
I would suggest that Alexander read Rick Strassman’s book DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences, Karl Jansen’s book Ketamine: Dreams and Realities, and the many reports on Erowid of DMT and ketamine journeys.
However, just because I suspect that DMT or ketamine-like molecules may have played a role in Alexander’s experience, doesn’t mean that I don’t think that his experience might provide evidence of a true reality, a higher dimension of consciousness, and genuine spiritual insights.
Rather, I just also suspect that DMT and ketamine may also be actual portals to the same mysterious realities and strange dimensions that Alexander experienced, and shamans have accessed throughout human history.
Reading Alexander’s story left me feeling similar to how I felt after reading Jill Bolte Taylor’s fascinating book My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.
Taylor’s experience with a stroke seemed remarkably like a boundary-dissolving psychedelic experience with LSD or psilocybin, yet she never mentions the scientific studies that report this in her book.
As a neuroscientist, surely she must know about the important studies conducted at Johns Hopkins with psilocybin and mystical experiences, that I’ve written about in past columns, as the similarities of this research to her own experience are so abundant.
When I contacted Taylor’s publicist to find out Taylor’s thoughts about the striking similarity between her stroke and the reports from psilocybin research, Taylor’s reply was simply, “no comment.” I tried asking her several times and that was all that she would say.
While I’m not sure what Taylor really thought about this, it seems that some scientists who gain access to mysterious transdimensional realms of consciousness through illness stigmatize psychedelics, as being inferior, hallucinatory, or irrelevant to understanding their own experiences.
Can psychedelics lead to genuine insights about the nature of reality or are they merely agents of illusion, delusion, and hallucination? Do they help to educate or delude us? This will be the subject of a future column.
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