1. What makes you an authority in this industry? Talk about your background from your neurosurgical career.
My formal training is in the field of neurosurgery, which involves daily issues related to the nature of consciousness. After more than 25 years of a career steeped in the myriad facets of modern neurosurgery, I had come to believe I had some understanding of the relationship between the mind and the brain, i.e., of the nature of consciousness. It was all heavily anchored in conventional neuroscientific beliefs (buttressed by conventional physics, chemistry and biology). That career involved performing over 4,000 operations on patients, many of whom had alterations in their levels of consciousness. It also involved writing over 100 peer-reviewed medical articles, over 50 invited chapters, editing/authoring six books and making over 200 presentations to conferences and panels in my fields of interest within neurosurgery (Full publication list here, and CV here). Although not one of my colleagues nor I seemed to understand how the brain might be related to consciousness, we generally assumed, based on our scientific training, that the physical world is all that exists (“physicalism”), and that one must somehow explain the origins of conscious awareness completely within the physical workings of the brain.
My complacency with the casual assumptions of physicalism about consciousness, honed over those 25 years spent in neurosurgery, came to a head in November 2008 when I tumbled into the most profound and existentially-challenging experience of my whole life – a week-long coma due to a severe case of gram negative bacterial meningitis, one of the most deadly forms of that lethal disease that one can encounter. My doctors had plenty of evidence of the severity of my illness, and its effect on the neocortex throughout all eight lobes of my brain, and the early destructive influence even on my brainstem. The profound near-death experience I had during that week-long coma could not have happened, according to everything modern neuroscience claims to know about the brain and neocortex – and yet it did happen.
Also unexpectedly, I was blessed with a full recovery within about three months, and my memories were now more complete than they were prior to coma (this became apparent only over a few years due to comparison of very specific sets of memories before and after coma). Although I initially tried to dismiss all of my near-death experience as some vast hallucination, the more I delved into my medical records and scans, and discussed them with those who had taken care of me, the more I came to realize that something far more profound was going on. And, all of my experience – the infection, the coma and the NDE – demanded a more complete explanation than just shrugging it off as an inexplicable miracle. The widely-accepted materialist model of consciousness assumes that the physical is all that exists and that consciousness arises from our brains. But with my brain, in its infected state, unable to produce such rich perceptions of experience in my NDE (especially due to documented damage to the neocortex, or “human” part of the brain), I knew there had to be something wrong with our prevailing model of reality and modern neuroscientific concepts about the nature of brain and mind. I had to go much deeper in seeking comprehension of it all.
A lifelong interest in physics and cosmology, beyond that of many physicians, coupled with my medical background, armed me with a broad knowledge of our current scientific understanding of reality. To reconcile that scientific worldview with my inexplicable transcendental experience became a drive that continues to this day.
2. What excites you about the Science of Consciousness?
The science of consciousness examines the most fundamental knowing of the nature of reality. The implications of my personal experience and ongoing journey of discovery parallel a paradigm shift in western society that I believe will be greater than the Copernican revolution. Far from being polar opposites at two ends of a spectrum, science and spirituality actually strengthen each other. We are spiritual beings temporarily living in a material world, and our awareness survives bodily death. When fully realized, such a shift in thinking will cause our society to evolve in remarkable ways, empowering individuals to better manage the unfolding of their lives and forever change our attitudes about death and life. Social policies related to education, government, medicine, the environment and more will begin to reflect a world with much more meaning and purpose than we have been led to believe is possible.
Most people assume they are physical beings existing as separate entities within our physical world, and that consciousness is a form of awareness informing them of conditions in their body and the immediate surroundings. It is assumed this is all generated by the physical brain with its attached physical sensory systems (eyes, ears, etc.). As such, they assume they are “self” and that the stuff around them is “non-self,” all accessible within their awareness but largely independent of them. Quantum physics suggests that the picture is more counterintuitive and that none of the world out there exists or evolves independently of the working of our mind. In fact, the most recent experiments in quantum physics demand that the phenomenal experience of the world, the mind’s representation of the world out there, is fundamentally what exists. Thus, the brain is not the producer of consciousness at all. Rather, we are conscious in spite of our brains – and evidence seems to show that mind or consciousness creates all of apparent physical reality.
Think about that and consider this crucial point: any given sentient being has an intimate relationship with the universe, and the thoughts, choices, and actions of that sentient being are very important and have significant causal interaction with the emerging reality. Associated with this profound interwoven relationship is a deep responsibility for those choices. Events in human lives are greatly influenced by the choices and behaviors we manifest, and we are wise to honor and respect our fellow beings as we would like to be treated ourselves, lest we must face corrective action by the universe to nudge us back on the optimal pathway. The natural world does not simply consist of vast constructs of “non-self” following natural laws totally independent of us sentient beings – many of the events we experience are directly related to our soul journeys through this world, providing stepping-stones towards our learning and growth.
3. What’s the current state of the Science of Consciousness?
The mind-body question is alive and well in our modern world. With all our scientific advances in investigation of the brain over the past century, many have assumed that this relationship, and more specifically the nature of consciousness itself, has already been defined – nothing could be further from the truth! We are taught that moods and behaviors are a result of various hormones and neuronal interactions in the brain, coupled with environmental conditioning, and that conscious awareness is an illusion rising from the physical matter of the brain. Yet, no one can explain the mechanism of how this occurs. Far from being close to a “theory of everything,” we remain far from any consensus around the issue of consciousness.
The last four centuries of the scientific revolution have been viewed as a struggle between the forces of spiritualism (much under the guise of religion) and those of rationalism, or naturalism. In spite of the successes of science and technology most apparent to us in the 20th and early 21st centuries, much of the effect of this growth in science has come at a very dear price – that is, a division or divorce between the scientific and the spiritual aspects of humankind. Thus, the progress made in science and technology that has brought forth life-saving techniques and amazing advances in communications, for example, has also allowed for the highly successful invention and improvement of new explosives, poison gases, and nuclear weapons – all by those whose human sensibilities and spiritual qualities seem to have become greatly compromised.
Most current neuroscientists and philosophers of mind recognize what is known as “the hard problem of consciousness,” or HPC, first rigorously defined by Australian philosopher David Chalmers in his 1996 book, The Conscious Mind. His book offers an extensive critique of the many gaps in trying to reduce mind down to the workings of the brain. Essentially, the HPC becomes a seemingly impossible conundrum as one gets deeper into the mind-body problem, and, from a purely physicalist perspective, seems a most daunting challenge, indeed.
One of the most renowned neurosurgeons of the 20th century, Dr. Wilder Penfield of Montreal, studied the most direct boundary of brain and mind in many of his epileptic patients, through electrical stimulation of the brain during neurosurgical procedures when patients were awake and could report details of the phenomenology experienced through such direct electrical stimulation. He was a careful and thoughtful scientist involved in some of the most fundamentally crucial experimentation in fully defining the mind-brain interaction. His conclusions in his landmark 1975 book, The Mystery of the Mind, are very clear: there is no way to explain the workings of mind, and particularly of free will, based solely on the physical workings of the brain.
His initial work involved the location of memory itself, and he soon found that memory did not seem to reside in the neocortex, where most neuroscientists had assumed it existed, due to the presumed role of the neocortex as the engine of detailed conscious awareness. To this day, Penfield’s findings have been confirmed by those neurosurgeons performing such procedures. I am one who performed over a hundred awake craniotomies with electrocortical brain mapping as part of my skill set, with both epileptic and tumor patients, allowing safer resection of lesions adjacent to critical movement and speech centers.
Another consequence of the most common form of reductive materialist thinking is the assumption that humans have no free will – after all, if consciousness is no more than the epiphenomenon of the chemical reactions and electron fluxes in the substance of the brain, all following the natural laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, there is no way to insert the concept of “free will” anywhere in that process. Penfield’s work suggested that free will was not created within the brain, but seemed to be at the “higher level” of mind, irreducible to brain alone.
The emerging view of consciousness today is one in which scientists discuss the brain acting as a filter for primordial consciousness and the unity of mind – that we are all part of a far grander consciousness. The Golden Rule, seemingly unimportant to the scientists developing modern weapons of mass destruction, is written into the very fabric of the universe, according to reports from so many near-death experiencers and others who personally report having visited those spiritual realms. And, descriptions of these experiences have been remarkably similar, despite coming from people across all continents and belief systems over millennia.
Modern consciousness studies also reveal many facets of what is called non-local consciousness, which really up the ante in terms of challenges to our understanding of the relationship between brain and mind. Examples of non-local consciousness include telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and presentiment, as well as the apparent effect on a person or thing caused by the action of another some distance away. As in many situations in scientific investigation, elucidation of the mechanisms involved in mundane waking consciousness is best accomplished through addressing the leading edges of exotic states of consciousness. Those outlying anomalies provide rich ground for expanding the paradigm. Some broader categories of non-local or exotic states of consciousness are: near-death experiences, shared-death experiences, death-bed visions, after-death communications, psychic medium communications with departed souls, past life memories in children indicative of reincarnation, among others. Such phenomena have yielded to scientific scrutiny, and the resulting body of empirical evidence mitigates for a far larger theater of operation for the phenomenon of consciousness, and demands discussion of the aspects of reality relevant to more broad explanations and understanding. The days of materialist-prejudiced scientists denying and debunking observations of non-local consciousness, and foisting their willful ignorance upon the world, are at an end.
4. Who are the biggest companies, thought leaders, or service providers in your field? How do they differentiate themselves?
Some of the global leaders in the scientific study of non-local consciousness are the scientists at the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia. Two of their recent books in particular are essential reading for anyone interested in pursuing the rich scientific literature on such phenomena: Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century (2007) and Beyond Physicalism: Toward a Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality (2015). Edward Kelly is the lead author/editor of both books, but their group also involves a large cadre of scientists (especially physicists, psychologists and medical doctors) as well as philosophers. This grand effort is one of defining a more fundamental reality underlying our humanly relevant world. In particular, given the importance of understanding consciousness as more than simply the “interface” between our awareness and the world in which we live, they acknowledge that essentially this investigation into the mind-brain relationship is a deep investigation into the nature of reality itself.
Psychiatrist Bruce Greyson has been studying near-death experiences for more than three decades, and has probably published more peer-reviewed articles on all facets of NDEs than anyone. Jim Tucker continues the work of Ian Stevenson by adding to the database of more than 2,700 cases of documented past-life memories in children, with the best explanation being that of reincarnation.
The Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS, noetic.org) in Petaluma, CA, was founded by Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut who had an epiphany during his return from the moon in 1971. This organization has numerous scientific investigators, including Dean Radin, who is the current Chief Science Officer and author of four comprehensive books addressing the modern scientific understanding of consciousness.
The Rhine Center (rhine.org) in Durham, NC, associated with Duke University, was a major academic institute in the U.S. to study extra-sensory perception in the early and mid-20th century. They continue their work today under the direction of John Kruth.
Cardiologist Pim van Lommel performed a landmark study that catalogued patients reporting transcendental experiences following cardiac arrest and followed them for up to seven years to track long-term effects. Numerous other scientists around the world with an interest in consciousness are participating in this grand effort, but they are only loosely organized.
5. What are the biggest challenges the Science of Consciousness faces? How do you see it overcoming these challenges?
The greatest impediment to the scientific world waking up to this view of reality is prejudice favoring preconceptions and unproven assumptions about the nature of reality – such assumptions about the world that were built into the earliest stages of the four century-old scientific revolution, for example, that only the physical realm exists, and that all of causality is exhaustively explained within that physical world. The falsehood of this latter notion is revealed by the extent to which quantum physicists might go in trying to explain the measurement paradox: it would require an infinite number of emergent parallel universes to explain the causal loops involved in such experiments, and they know that the causality of events cannot be closed within one physical universe.
In our book, Living in a Mindful Universe, Karen Newell and I tackle one of the most daunting challenges, which is the power of what we call the Supreme Illusion. The Supreme Illusion is the simple observation that no human being has ever experienced anything other than the inside of his or her own consciousness. Our human mental experience is a model of what we presume to be “out there,” including our brains and bodies, which are contained within that mental model. And yet, quantum physics is quite insistent that there is no objective physical reality, only an information field (that one might call the quantum hologram, or the Akashic record) that interacts with our minds in a dance of the emergence of reality. None of the physical world has ever been anything more than the inside of our own consciousness. This is one of the most extraordinary conclusions from increasingly refined quantum mechanical experiments that essentially show there is no objective external physical reality independent of mind – subjective reality is the fundamental reality.
Although we seem to have a shared consensus reality, it is currently impossible to compare our “qualia,” that is, the perceived qualities of that mental world, with the qualia of others (i.e., is the redness of the apple I perceive identical in every respect with the phenomenal redness of the apple you perceive?). We can linguistically agree on certain “facts” ascertainable by comparison of our observations (i.e., opening the box to find Schrödinger’s cat to be either alive or dead), but deeper comparison of the phenomenal contents of awareness remain something we must surmise without having absolute and direct confirmation of the similarity, or not, of such experiences.
By adopting a position of metaphysical or ontological idealism – where the entire universe is mental, and the physical is projected from within that primordial mental universe – one then invokes consciousness as primary (as has been suggested by many of the founding fathers of quantum physics). And, the physical universe that emerges corresponds only with the phenomenal mental state that corresponds with all of the various physical superposition states of ion channels in the neurons, that result in that one mental state of what is actually perceived. A tremendous body of scientific literature in the field of parapsychology supports a more robust role for mind in connecting this vast universe, yet many scientists refuse to even look at the data, because their world view of physicalism has no way of explaining such phenomena.
6. What does the future look like for the Science of Consciousness?
A major revolution in thinking appears imminent, given the abject failures of the prevailing physicalist model to explain anything whatsoever about the nature of consciousness itself. Given the role that conventional science plays in determining our culture’s worldview, the false sense of separation implied by reductive materialist thinking has led to tremendous discord in our world – violence and conflict between people and groups and nations, a polarized economic system falsely based on Darwinian concepts of “survival of the fittest,” as opposed to seeing the power of collaboration and cooperation evident throughout the biological world.
As this new world view – focused more on the oneness of the universe and that we are all essentially sharing the dreams of the one primordial mind – begins to crystallize, it will help usher in a golden age of peace, prosperity and greatly increased sense of harmony we share with one another, and especially with a loving and fertile universe overflowing with abundance. The model we propose in Living in a Mindful Universe, the Primordial Mind Hypothesis, acknowledges the primacy of subjective conscious awareness as the trickle of Primordial Mind allowed in through the filtering, or veiling, function of the brain, combined with the appropriate interpretation of the measurement paradox in quantum physics.
7. Make some predictions about the Science of Consciousness. How will it change over the next 2 years? Next 5 years and beyond?
We are entering a crucial phase, and I predict that as theoretical models develop that involve idealism as the creative force influencing emergent reality, and as more people begin to study the vast literature of parapsychology, combined with much of the empirical data being gathered about the mind-brain relationship gleaned from studying the physical brain itself, the scientific community will emerge from the dark ages of scientific materialism into an unprecedented age of enlightenment. In its simplest form, this will involve a synthesis of science and spirituality to reveal the true power of our free will when it is elevated above the petty concerns of the ego and false sense of isolated self.
8. What advice would you give to those entering this field?
This field of inquiry concerns the fundamental nature of reality, and of our abilities to truly manifest free will. All of the ingredients are in place for an unprecedented revolution in human thought. But to participate, first and foremost, involves letting go of all prior assumptions about reality, and beginning at square one. Although reading the books, attending the presentations, and studying the cognitive aspects of the question extensively are absolute requirements for this mission, it is most important to learn ways of exploring inside one’s own consciousness, through meditation and mindfulness practices. Personal experience is the greatest teacher and quieting the mind allows us to increase our relationship with the neutral inner observer, and thus with primordial mind. The answers truly lie within us all.
9. What makes you a leader in its field and why would your expertise benefit someone looking for help?
Personal experience has been and continues to be my teacher: A unique set of circumstances related to my training in neurosciences, along with a major interest in physics and cosmology, combined with an astonishingly rich near-death experience that should have been impossible according to all of our current knowledge about the brain, followed by a medical recovery without explanation in western medicine. Having now a daily practice of meditation and an insatiable desire to read and communicate with leading researchers in the field, I continue to broaden my curiosity and understanding of consciousness. Thus, I hope that I can serve to inspire others to seek answers for themselves and for our world.
10. Recommended reading and/or any other training for anyone looking to enter the Science of Consciousness?
- Eben Alexander MD. Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.
- Eben Alexander MD, Ptolemy Tompkins. The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People are Proving the Afterlife. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.
- Eben Alexander MD, Karen Newell. Living in a Mindful Universe: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Heart of Consciousness. New York: Rodale Books, 2017.
- Kelly, Edward F., Emily Williams Kelly, Adam Crabtree, Alan Gauld, Michael Grosso, and Bruce Greyson. Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
- Kelly, Edward F, Adam Crabtree, and Paul Marshall (eds).Beyond Physicalism: Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality.Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, MD, 2015.
- Stapp, Henry P.Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer.Heidelberg: Springer, 2007
www.sacredacoustics.com (tools for deep personal exploration of consciousness)
Also see Eben Alexander’s extended recommended reading list: