There is a remarkable story, almost unbelievable in fact, in this week's Newsweek magazine. It's written by Dr. Eben Alexander, a respected neurosurgeon, and reflects his trip to heaven while in a coma when his brain was literally "turned off" by the illness he had.
Alexander says before his illness he was a Christian in name only. He hardly ever went to church, was totally skeptical of near-death experiences and relied on science as the ultimate answer to all our questions. But for him, that miraculously changed when he was hospitalized in a coma with the human part of his brain, the neocortex, inactivated for seven days. During that time, he reports taking a guided trip to heaven by a beautiful female companion who told him, without speaking, that he had nothing to fear and there was nothing he could do wrong.
The significance of this story and where it differs from all others similar to it is that his brain wasn't working during his vision. It had essentially shut down and, according to Alexander, without a functioning brain, one is also incapable of thought.
We have been hearing about these near-death experiences since Dante's inferno. The only way Alexander's story differs from many others is there was no white light at the end of the tunnel and his loved ones weren't waiting on him. But to him it was more real than anything he had ever experienced in his life.
Of all the wants and needs we have as mortal human beings, the desire of an afterlife is paramount in everyone's mind. We can't fathom turning into nothingness. It's beyond our capabilities of intellectual thought. It seems we have always been alive and the thought of dying and no longer being a part of any world throughout eternity sends chills of dread and despair through the hearts and minds of even the most dedicated and devoted believer.
So Alexander's vision was not extraordinary at all. What made it different from most of the others is the belief among scientists and physicians that man cannot dream or think without a working brain, which his was not during his experience. But we also know that science and medicine are still in their infancy and we discover things we didn't know before about the capabilities of the body and mind every day. Alexander's experience will almost certainly attract new research into the mind-brain duality in an attempt to discover if his vision was possible when no one at the time thought it was.
We all want it to be, whether we're Christian, Muslim, Jew, agnostic or atheist. We don't want this life on earth to be the end. We all hope for something more after we're done here. But the problem we have is that no one has ever come back to tell us. When we die, it's a one-way ticket we purchase. And that's why, regardless of how faithful we are in our beliefs, we dread death and mourn when others die. We have this undying and relentless hope that we'll be re-united with all the people who had meaning in our lives on the other side but there's no way we can know for sure, outside of faith.
Because of that, we hang tenaciously onto our religious beliefs, believing with all our hearts that it is the only possibility of having a satisfying life after death. And no one can be blamed for that because it's our only hope.
There's still so much we don't know about how the mind and body work. That's why we're still looking for a cure for the common cold. Can we dream when the brain has been shut down? People didn't think we could before Alexander's experience but perhaps we can. Maybe we're capable of things we haven't even dreamed of yet. Did the fact that the author of the article was a Christian, although not a practicing one, have anything to do with his experience?
My uncle, who was as much a dad to me as my father was, had surgery once when I was young and, during the surgery, he had a vision of going to hell and was totally distraught because he couldn't find me there. When he came home from the hospital, he was a changed man. He had been a rounder for most of his life but he never missed a church service after that until the day he died.
I hope Alexander is right, just like the rest of you do. But the only way we'll ever know for sure is for US to die and that's something most of us don't want to do.