THOSE who pick up this slim volume in the expectation that will provide proof, even any new insights into the possibility, of afterlife, will likely be at it vi or ne in an wi disappointed.
Up until 2008, Dr. Eben Alexander had an unremarkable life and a career as an academic neurosurgeon. But in November of that year, he became seriously ill from bacterial meningitis and spent a week in a comatose state.
During that time, he underwent a classic near-death experience, seeing visions of realistic clarity not found in most dreams or hallucinations. The end result, for Alexander, meant that he is no longer skeptical about the supernatural; he is now a believer in God, heaven and an afterlife.
From a literary standpoint, this book is adequate, if the reader doesn’t mind the portentous cliffhanger- style endings to pretty much every chapter (cue the serious mood music).
What is worse, however, is that the good doctor narrates the entire story, despite the fact he was in a coma for the most crucial part. This might have been a stronger book had the other players, such as his wife and son, his doctors, other family and friends, given us their own accounts.
Instead we get awkward bits like the following: when his pastor has been summoned to his hospital bedside, "(h)e called his wife, Page, and asked her to pray: both for me, and for the strength on his part to rise to the occasion. Then he drove through the cold steady rain to the hospital, struggling to see through the tears filling his eyes."
The end result is an additional strain on credibility, already challenged with such an incredible story.
Despite the book’s title, Alexander spends relatively little time on his actual NDE. During that time he moves from a dark area he calls the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View, through an idealized pastoral world up to a wondrous Gateway and Core, guided by a girl/angel riding on a butterfly wing.
He feels the warmth and unconditional love of God, or Om. He also tells us that he gained deep knowledge that "was stored without memorization, instantly and for good."
It hasn’t faded, and he still possesses it, but he is unable to share his insights with us because he needs to process it through his "limited physical body and brain."
The only message that he delivers is summed up in three statements that sound like greeting card sentiments: "You are loved and cherished. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong."
There are scores of published volumes on near-death experiences. There is no denying that the phenomenon is real. However, by their very nature, NDE accounts rely largely on the individual’s perceptions and memories.
The only sort of NDEs that contain real value to researchers are ones that are "veridical," when the account contains details that should have been unavailable to the person during their brush with death. These might include memories or visions of events that took place in the hospital emergency room, for example. In this instance, Alexander’s profession of neurosurgeon makes no difference to his account, and his story contributes nothing new to our understanding of NDEs.
It does, however, illustrate how deeply transformative these experiences are, no matter who they happen to, and may result in some dialogue as to what really constitutes proof.
Ultimately, it will be further scientific research and study, as suggested by Dr. Pim van Lommel, author of the 2010 book Consciousness Beyond Life , that may result in real answers to the NDE question.
Just because no rational, nonsupernatural explanation has yet been discovered to fully explain the phenomenon does not mean that we won’t find one in the future.
Donna Harris is a Winnipeg skeptic and the editor of the Manitoba Humanist.