A Scientist Visits Heaven

The following extracts are from Map of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon Explores the Mysteries of the Afterlife & The Truth About What Lies Beyond by Dr Eben Alexander, published by Piatkus; first quoted in the Daily Mail, October 19th, 2014

When I was a small boy, I was adopted. I grew up remembering nothing of my birth family and unaware that I had a biological sister, named Betsy. Many years later, I went in search of my biological family, but for Betsy it was too late: she had died.  This is the story of how I was reunited with her — in Heaven.

Before I start, I should explain that I am a scientist, who has spent a lifetime studying the workings of the brain.

Dr Eben Alexander says he was taken 'on a voyage through a series of realms' after he went into a coma when he was diagnosed with meningitis 

My adoptive father was a neurosurgeon and I followed his path, becoming an neurosurgeon myself and an academic who taught brain science at Harvard Medical School.  Although nominally a Christian, I was sceptical when patients described spiritual experiences to me.  My knowledge of the brain made me quite sure that out-of-body experiences, angelic encounters and the like were hallucinations, brought on when the brain suffered a trauma.

And then, in the most dramatic circumstances possible, I discovered proof that I was wrong. Six years ago, I woke up one morning with a searing headache. Within a few hours, I went into a coma: my neocortex, the part of the brain that handles all the thought processes making us human, had shut down completely.

At the time, I was working at Lynchburg General Hospital in Virginia, and I was rushed to the emergency room there. The doctors ascertained that I had contracted meningitis — a rare bacterial strain of E coli was in my spinal fluid and eating into my brain like acid. My survival chances were near zero.

I was in deep coma, a vegetative state, and all the higher functions of my brain were offline. Scans showed no conscious activity whatever — my brain was not malfunctioning, it was completely unplugged.  But my inner self still existed, in defiance of all the known laws of science.

Magical: He said he found himself as a speck of awareness on a butterfly wing, among pulsing swarms of millions of other butterflies

For seven days, as I lay in that unresponsive coma, my consciousness went on a voyage through a series of realms, each one more extraordinary than the last — a journey beyond the physical world and one that, until then, I would certainly have dismissed as impossible.

For thousands of years, ordinary people as well as shamans and mystics have described brief, wonderful glimpses of ethereal realms. I’m not the first person to have discovered that consciousness exists beyond the body.  What is unique in my case is that I am, as far as scientific records show, the only person to have travelled to this heavenly dimension with the cortex in complete shut-down, while under minute observation throughout.

There are medical records for every minute of my coma, and none of them show any indication of brain activity. In other words, as far as neuroscience can say, my journey was not something happening inside my head.  Plenty of scientists have a lot of difficulty with this statement. My experience undermines their whole belief system. But the one place I have found ready acceptance is in church, where my story often tallies with people’s expectations.

Even the deep notes of the church organ and the glorious colours of the stained glass seem to echo faintly the sights and sounds of Heaven.

 Here, then, is what I experienced: my map of Heaven.  After the blinding headache, when I had slipped into the coma, I gradually became aware of being in a primitive, primordial state that felt like being buried in earth.  It was, however, not ordinary earth, for all around me I sensed, and sometimes heard and saw, other entities.  It was partly horrific, partly comforting and familiar: I felt like I had always been part of this primal murk.

I am often asked, ‘Was this hell?’ but I don’t think it was — I would expect hell to be at least a little bit interactive, and this was a completely passive experience.  I had forgotten what it was even to be human, but one important part of my personality was still hard at work: I had a sense of curiosity. I would ask, ‘Who? What? Where?’ and there was never a flicker of response.

iphone_ 2575

The aim of some more intense religious practices is to encourage the development of a personality compatible with higher consciousness, within the span of a single lifetime (this is my own brain: image by Paul Strickland scanning centre)

After an expanse of time had passed, though I can’t begin to guess how long, a light came slowly down from above, throwing off marvellous filaments of living silver and golden effulgence.  It was a circular entity, emitting a beautiful, heavenly music that I called the Spinning Melody. The light opened up like a rip in the fabric of that coarse realm, and I felt myself going through the rip, up into a valley full of lush and fertile greenery, where waterfalls flowed into crystal pools.

There were clouds, like marshmallow puffs of pink and white. Behind them, the sky was a rich blue-black.  This world was not vague. It was deeply, piercingly alive, and as vivid as the aroma of fried chicken, as dazzling as the glint of sunlight off the metalwork of a car, and as startling as the impact of first love.

I know perfectly well how crazy my account sounds, and I sympathise with those who cannot accept it. Like a lot of things in life, it sounds pretty far-fetched till you experience it yourself.  There were trees, fields, animals and people. There was water, too, flowing in rivers or descending as rain. Mists rose from the pulsing surfaces of these waters, and fish glided beneath them.


Hindu icons bring beauty, love and music to the mind; a faint foretaste of Cosmic Consciousness

Like the earth, the water was deeply familiar. It was as though all the most beautiful waterscapes I ever saw on earth had been beautiful precisely because they were reminding me of this living water. My gaze wanted to travel into it, deeper and deeper.

This water seemed higher, and more pure than anything I had experienced before, as if it was somehow closer to the original source.  I had stood and admired oceans and rivers across America, from Carolina beaches to west coast streams, but suddenly they all seemed to be lesser versions, little brothers and sisters of this living water.

That’s not to denigrate the seas and lakes and thunderstorms that I’ve marvelled at throughout my life. It is simply to say that I now see all the earth’s waters in a new perspective, just as I see all natural beauties in a new way.  In Heaven, everything is more real — less dense, yet at the same time more intense.

Heaven is as vast, various and populated as earth is … in fact, infinitely more so. But in all this vast variety, there is not that sense of otherness that characterises our world, where each thing is alone by itself and has nothing directly to do with the other things around it.

Nothing is isolated in Heaven. Nothing is alienated. Nothing is disconnected. Everything is one.  I found myself as a speck of awareness on a butterfly wing, among pulsing swarms of millions of other butterflies. I witnessed stunning blue-black velvety skies filled with swooping orbs of golden light, angelic choirs leaving sparkling trails against the billowing clouds.

Saint Theresa

The ecstasy of Saint Theresa: it’s hard to sum up an other-worldly experience using stone and metal, but inspired sculptors can do a pretty good job

Those choirs produced hymns and anthems far beyond anything I had ever encountered on earth. The sound was colossal: an echoing chant that seemed to soak me without making me wet.  All my senses had blended. Seeing and hearing were not separate functions. It was as if I could hear the grace and elegance of the airborne creatures, and see the spectacular music that burst out of them.

Even before I began to wonder who or what they were, I understood that they made the music because they could not contain it. It was the sound of sheer joy. They could no more hold it in than you could fill your lungs and never breathe out.

Simply to experience the music was to join in with it. That was the oneness of Heaven — to hear a sound was to be part of it. Everything was connected to everything else, like the infinitely complex swirls on a Persian carpet or a butterfly’s wing. And I was flying on that carpet, riding on that wing.

Above the sky, there was a vast array of larger universes that I came to call an ‘over-sphere’, and I ascended until I reached the Core, that deepest sanctuary of the Divine — infinite inky blackness, filled to overflowing with indescribable, unconditional love.

There I encountered the infinitely powerful, all-knowing deity whom I later called Om, because of the sound that vibrated through that realm. I learned lessons there of a depth and beauty entirely beyond my capacity to explain.  During this voyage, I had a guide. She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman who first appeared as I rode, as that speck of awareness, on the wing of that butterfly.


Notice the multiple layers of protection for the brain. Completely surrounded by a fluid which cushions it against shock and sudden movement, it also is wrapped in a tough leather jacket (the dura mater) followed by more cushioning layers underneath the skull. The skull is dome-shaped for protection, its joins are elongated and folded and re-folded for maxium surface area contact, and is further covered with skin and a layer of woolly padding, the hair. It’s as protected as you would expect, for the seat of life!

I’d never seen this woman before. I didn’t know who she was. Yet her presence was enough to heal my heart, to make me whole in a way I’d never known was possible. Her face was unforgettable. Her eyes were deep blue, and her cheekbones were high. Her face was surrounded by a frame of honey-brown hair.

She wore a smock, like a peasant’s, woven from sheer colour — indigo, powder-blue and pastel shades of orange and peach. When she looked at me, I felt such an abundance of emotion that, if nothing good had ever happened to me before, the whole of my life would have been worth living for that expression in her eyes alone.

It was not romantic love. It was not friendship. It was far beyond all the different compartments of love we have on earth. Without actually speaking, she let me know that I was loved and cared for beyond measure and that the universe was a vaster, better, and more beautiful place than I could ever have dreamed.

I was an irreplaceable part of the whole (like all of us), and all the sadness and fear I had ever suffered was a result of my somehow having forgotten this most central of facts.  Her message went through me like a breath of wind. It’s hard to put it into words, but the essence was this: ‘You are loved and cherished, dearly, for ever. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.’


Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” John 18:36

It was, then, an utterly wonderful experience.  Meanwhile, back on Earth, I had been in my coma for seven days and showing no signs of improvement. The doctors were just deciding whether to continue with life support, when I suddenly regained consciousness. My eyes just popped open, and I was back. I had no memories of my earthly life, but knew full well where I had been.

I had to relearn everything: who, what, and where I was. Over days, then weeks, like a gently falling snow, my old, earthly knowledge came back.

Words and language returned within hours and days. With the love and gentle coaxing of my family and friends, other memories emerged.  By eight weeks, my prior knowledge of science, including the experiences and learning from more than two decades spent as a neurosurgeon in teaching hospitals, returned completely. That full recovery remains a miracle without any explanation from modern medicine.


Amritsar temple: religious icons try to bring to mind, and make memorable, the beauty of another existence

But I was a different person from the one I had been. The things I had seen and experienced while gone from my body did not fade away, as dreams and hallucinations do. They stayed.  Above all, that image of the woman on the butterfly wing haunted me.

And then, four months after coming out of my coma, I received a picture in the mail.  As a result of my earlier investigations to make contact with my biological family, a relative had sent me a photograph of my sister Betsy — the sister I’d never known.  The shock of recognition was total. This was the face of the woman on the butterfly wing.  The moment I realised this, something crystallised inside me.

That photo was the confirmation that I’d needed. This was proof, beyond reproach, of the objective reality of my experience.  From then on, I was back in the old, earthly world I’d left behind before my coma struck, but as a genuinely new person.  I had been reborn.

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created www.scienceandreligion.com about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
This entry was posted in Biology, God, Science and Religion, The Brain and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A Scientist Visits Heaven

  1. Thanks for posting this, Iain. I’ve been looking into the life after death subject for a while, especially since reading ‘The One Mind’ by Larry Dossey and ‘Dying to be Me’ by Anita Moordjani. I followed these with ‘Proof of Heaven’, ‘Experiencing the Soul’ Eliot Jay Rosen, ‘Life after Life’ Raymond, A. Moody, ‘On Life after Death’ Elisabeth Kübler Ross, ‘Journey of Souls’ Michael Newton and am just about to launch into ‘Consciousness Beyond Life’ Pim Van Lommel. It is a truly fascinating subject and I have completely lost any apprehension I may have previously had about dying.

    I won’t say I ‘believe’ in any one particular scenario. I am a person with a spirit who does not follow any religion. Rather I have found ideas from several that appeal to my current thinking. As I profess to be an open-minded person, I tend to put it all in the melting pot of possibilities and go from there. A closed mind is, to me, a dead mind.

    Reading a range of different accounts of NDE’s along with various spiritual experiences described in the various books, I’ve been struck by the similarities of accounts of life beyond life as well as the differences. It would appear that each person will, along with the light, the darkness, the music and the overwhelming feeling of love, experience a world (if we can call it that) that corresponds with their personal ‘taste’. Interesting.
    If you haven’t yet read ‘Journey of Souls’, I recommend it as an extraordinary collection of ‘revelations’ under deep hypnosis.

    The other effect of looking at this subject is that I now feel profoundly sad for those who, for whatever reason, have chosen to believe that this life is all there is. I see this view as completely illogical and nihilistic (maybe because so many people these days see ours as a purely ‘material’ world). But there you are – we may all be part of the whole, but each of us is an individual who can choose how he or she interprets his or her reason for being, be it with or without meaning.

  2. I guess one way to look at it is, if people are born without any interest or perception of spirituality, their role in life relates to the mundane, the material. Perhaps part of their role is to point out flaws in religious institutions, which religious people are less inclined to do. But trying to convince them of spirituality, or the value of religion, is like showing a blind man a painting. He may declare the canvas a little rough and quite fragile, while the frame appears to be good and solid and highly polished, but he can’t be expected to pass judgement on the essence of what he is being shown.

    Taken as a whole, humanity does now and always has believed in the continuity of life. The burial of personal artefacts with bodies goes back to our earliest finds, 400,000 years or more, and seems to have accompanied the sense of art. Perhaps art was born from the determination to express something which couldn’t be explained any other way. In studying photos of the Lasceaux Paleolithic cave paintings, I concluded the “strange shapes” painted beside each animal were simply the signatures of the artists. This is because the shapes were clearly designed to be unchangeable into any other shape, and where two artists had merged their skills in one animal – one doing a blow-pipe airspray mane with carbon black, the other doing the galloping horse in red ochre, both had signed the picture with the same colours and tools they’d used.

    And let’s face it, who wants to go to all that effort (these works had their own scaffolding, they had drawings and templates, and they were carried out by highly skilled craftsmen) and have someone else take credit? It was as important then to impress women as it is now. So if those were the first hieroglyphs, the artist is also the one who has constructed language, once again defining something beyond current understanding using symbols.

    It’s said that in NDEs those with specific spiritual expectations will experience the ineffable in those forms; an atheist probably has a completely different experience. Raymond Moody’s research shows that those who have NDEs after car crashes unfailingly see those who have already passed on. One boy, emerging from a coma after a crash, reported seeing his sister, but not his mother and father; unbeknownst to him, his sister had died in hospital after the crash, while his parents had survived.

    Other well documented cases include those born with memories of their previous life. I beileve Channel 4 here in the UK did a documentary on a rural Indian boy who remembered being shot by robbers outside his electronics shop in Delhi. His brothers tolerated this craziness for years until he was old enough to insist they travel to Delhi, where to the brothers’ surprise, they located the shop and the widow of a shopkeeper killed by robbers about a year before this boy was born. The boy knew where the hiding place was for the money, and identified the children of the shopkeeper in the street. I believe the boy was even called to give evidence in court – setting a precedent – as the murderers hadn’t been identified. The widow was convinced, saying, “yes, I believe that he is my husband. But what can I do? He is only 8 years old.”

    Well, anyway, in the words of Michelangelo: “if life hath pleased us, then death, from the hand of the same master, should not displease us.” We will all find out one way or another – let’s hope later rather than sooner!

  3. Lawrence Johnson says:


  4. Dale Pond says:

    I think that the one thing that we need to understand is that we do not have to physically die to experience cosmic consciousness states. An experience may happen when we least expect it.

    One that I had changed my life and it all came about from a very sincere prayer to understand the evolutionary energy within called Kundalini known in the Eastern tradition. This evolutionary process is known in other cultures as well by other names.

    It is a fascinating study, reading the accounts of mystics and geniuses and looking for the commonalities and also what kind of lifestyle may be suitable for a healthy evolutionary process. Not unlike Dr. Alexander I will never forget or regret having this experience. It has opened me up in ways that I never thought possible and I am ever grateful.

    A wonderful book to read about such experiences is “Cosmic Consciousness by Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke. He describes his own experience and those of many others throughout history. Continues to be published after 100 years.

  5. pjpres says:

    I have been researching these experiences for a few years and what is interesting to me is that they fit very well with what a spiritual figure has taught me about me about what happens after a person dies. Meher Baba was a spiritual figure who wrote a great deal about the meaning and purpose of life and he revealed (with a sense of authority) many of the mysteries of life after death. You can read his books online for free and this link, “http://www.ambppct.org/library.php”

    His explanations appeal to me because they are always have a fascinating logic to them which back them up and give the reader his/her own personal intellectual conviction. Even to someone who does not believe what he is saying it would still be quite interesting and fascinating. It is truly amazing how much of what he says is corroborated with NDE testimonies I have read/viewed online.

    Here is an example, in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQH_X1JByks Eben Alexander explains the experience of God of which he calls “OMM”, “when I was in this higher dimensional.. what I call the core.. there was the sound of OMM but it had no beginning or end.. that resonance sounded like OMM”. Now consider what Meher Baba says about OMM,

    “God is the Creator, Preserver and Destroyer of the universe which emanates from Him, is sustained by Him in His own being and also is re-absorbed in Him. God alone is real and the universe is in the domain of illusion, even though it is the manifestation of God Himself.

    The world or creation comes out of the eternal and infinite being of God through the creation-point, which is referred to as “Om.” No one can attain lasting peace unless he contacts and transcends this Om point. We therefore find the sacred symbol Om often appearing in juxtaposition with the word “Shantih,” which means peace.

    The phonetic similarity between Om, Amin and Amen is suggestive of many things. The sacred words Amin and Amen are frequent at the end of Muslim and Christian prayers. They both mean “So be it.” Coming from a man, “So be it” is a blessing or a wish; but coming from God it is creation. Creation is God’s Amin or Amen, i.e. an immediate and instantaneous fulfillment of His will into actuality. The Arabic word Amin comes for the root Ohm, which means safety or peace and thus Amin may be regarded as an equivalent or at least a kin of Om, which also is associated with peace.

    All prayers of different religions such as Hinduism, Islam and Christianity have a reference to the Creator. Creation is the greatest mystery with which all creatures, including human beings, are faced. The mystery cannot be unraveled or fulfilled unless and until man consciously becomes united with the Creator and realizes himself as being one with God, who is both the Creator and creation in one, at once including and transcending both in His infinite being.”


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