Conscious awareness? What enables it? Is it a healthy brain, whether awake or asleep? What about an individual in a coma (no brain function), does that mean no conscious awareness? What about death?
A new book by neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, in which he describes his conscious awareness during seven days while in a coma under the care of neurosurgeons at Lynchburg General Hospital in Virgina, challenges the common understanding that consciousness is the domain of a healthy brain function.
In 2008, while “doctors weighed whether to discontinue treatment, my eyes popped open,”Alexander writes. Rather than experiencing seven lost days of no conscious awareness, with “my higher order brain functions totally offline”, he describes a life-altering journey into a very different world, which he recalls in vivid detail.
His training and experience as a neurosurgeon had taught him that consciousness was impossible during this coma, given that “the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity”, but he found he was conscious and aware.
Prior to this experience, Alexander notes that he considered himself a faithful Christian, in name more than in belief. This experience while his “neocortex was inactivated”, gave him “reason to believe in consciousness after death.”
His story is uplifting, and for those suffering from the loss of a loved one, may bring comfort. For me, his story raises serious questions to ponder – to even consider how they might reframe my own view of life. That is, if conscious awareness is not dependent on brain (physical substance), where does consciousness reside? Is this “other” consciousness close at hand and accessible in life, not just in near death or after life?
As a lifelong Christian, I turn to the Bible for insight and guidance. There, in the New Testament we have Jesus saying that “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” Could that kingdom of heaven be a conscious awareness or spiritual sense that is independent of brain?
To the inquisitive Pharisee, Nicodemous , he said that man must be “born again” or “born from above”, and continues by telling him he must be born of “the Spirit”.
It was like he was saying – Nicodemous, you must hit the “reset” button on your entire view of what life is, and where it comes from. Nicodemous didn’t get it. He thought Jesus meant another physical birth - reentering his mother’s womb. Like Alexander before his seven days in a coma, he thought that if something is not physical then it is not really life.
According to the Bible, Jesus spent three days in a tomb after his crucifixion. The Roman soldiers at the cross (who had plenty of experience with recognizing death) saw that he was dead, but just to be sure had put a spear in his chest before they let the body be taken away to a tomb. Like Alexander, the brain function was gone, but perhaps, like Alexander, consciousness was active, and we all know that the Bible says on the third day he walked out of that tomb.
What these two stories and my own experience tell me is that I need to question the widely held belief that brain function equals consciousness. And if consciousness is not in the brain, what does this say about current medical theories about pain and illness being in – or in many cases tied to – brain activity or brain abnormalities?
I had a glimpse of this many years ago. In 1971, as a young pilot, lieutenant junior grade, in the Navy preparing to join a fleet A6 Attack Squadron on the USS Independence (CV-62), like all carrier aviators, I had to attend “SERE” school. SERE stands for survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. In 1971, the Vietnam War and specifically the air campaign against North Vietnam was escalating, aircraft were often shot down and pilots and crew captured and placed in various POW camps. The skills taught at SERE training were more than an academic interest.
One cold March night in the snow covered mountains of Maine in a simulated POW camp, I found myself in an interrogation room with an ominous looking guy. The interview quickly went downhill and I found myself in a headlock with a mouthpiece of a tobacco pipe up one of my nostrils, a hand over my mouth and other nostril, “Igor” blowing into the bowel of the lighted pipe sending heavy, choking smoke into my head.
I have never been a smoker so within a short time, I found myself conscious, up against the ceiling, looking down at an unconscious me, in the grasp of Igor as he continued to pour smoke into me. I felt calm and quite detached, but more than anything, I felt it was going to be “ok”. I felt no animosity toward my interrogator and had no concerns about the physiological state of my body.
How long I was in this state I don’t know, but “awoke” as my new friend was slapping my face to bring me around. I felt fine, ready for the next test, and there were no after effects.
Interestingly, Alexander says that if he had to translate what one of the beings in his journey said it was: “You are loved and cherished dearly, forever;” “You have nothing to fear”, “There is nothing you can do wrong.” I had that same feeling.
This experience and that of Alexander raise new questions and make me wonder if those “intuitions” that have come to me throughout my life, are not glimmers of a full conscious awareness of “the kingdom of God” within here and now.
Roger Whiteway, a former A-6 pilot in the Navy, is a Christian Science spokesman in Virginia.