This week’s cover story in Newsweek is a first person account of a neurosurgeon’s visit to “heaven,” which he claims to have seen after entering a coma in 2008 that lasted seven days. Dr. Eben Alexander, who is using his vision of heaven to sell his new book, claims that his experience differs from all others in human existence because he experienced his vision while medical science documented (in data not provided in the article) that the parts of his brain responsible for consciousness were inactive.
Skeptics immediately noted that Alexander’s account had several problems. For instance, the vision he described appeared to have lasted a few minutes to a few hours, not the seven days of his coma. It was therefore more likely that Alexander experienced a particularly lucid dream in the minutes before awakening from his coma, not a seven day sojourn to another dimension of being. Second, nearly all of the imagery in his vision was drawn from the common stock of images from everyday life. While it is possible to hypothesize that the divine realm contains more perfect forms of earthly life, it seems a stretch that God loves butterflies so much to make them the transportation of souls. The only imagery not directly drawn from daily (earth) life were the “silvery” beings circling the sky, creatures he could not tell if they were angels or birds, but instead combined elements drawn from both archetypes.
Whether one takes this as a description of heaven depends heavily on one’s philosophy. Skepticism is too often elided with secularism and atheism as three pillars of one system, but it need not be so. Nevertheless, Alexander’s “experience” follows the standard format for such events, from the gentle induction through darkness, to the increasingly phantasmagoric imagery leading to a sense of becoming at one with the gods. I have often discussed David Lewis-Williams’ The Mind in the Cave (2002), but his observations are especially relevant here. This is the path experienced in altered states of consciousness, whether brought on by meditation, hallucinogenic substances, medical conditions, or even particularly deep and vivid dreaming. Graham Hancock, for one, thinks such adventures are real excursions to another dimension, with which apparently Alexander would agree.
We can’t disprove this, but I would doubt it. The journey Alexander describes is very similar to the phantasmagorical imagery of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, whose name belies its origin in Lovecraft’s own very lucid dreaming. Like Alexander, Lovecraft’s hero, Randolph Carter, journeys through dimensions of weird sights and strange sounds, and like Alexander, Carter has a moment of confrontation with an impossibly beautiful divine being: Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos. But Nyarlathotep is more insightful that Alexander’s bland beauty. He brings no message of love, only the realization that the dream world of Carter’s vision is nothing more than the transmogrified memory of his own everyday life.
For know you, that your gold and marble city of wonder is only the sum of what you have seen and loved in youth... the glory of Boston's hillside roofs and western windows aflame with sunset; of the flower-fragrant Common and the great dome on the hill and the tangle of gables and chimneys in the violet valley where the many-bridged Charles flows drowsily... this loveliness, moulded, crystallised, and polished by years of memory and dreaming, is your terraced wonder of elusive sunsets; and to find that marble parapet with curious urns and carven rail, and descend at last those endless balustraded steps to the city of broad squares and prismatic fountains, you need only to turn back to the thoughts and visions of your wistful boyhood.
But the thing is I never assumed this was a trip to another dimension. I recognized it for what it was. I was able to pull apart the imagery, to see in it the elements my brain brought together. The setting wasn’t some imaginary paradise; it was drawn almost wholesale from the video game I had then been playing, Myst. The being was wearing contemporary fashions, something I’m not sure the angels much care for.
You might say that I am merely denying a trip to the level above human, but my other experiences with weird dreams tend to belie this. I’ve also had the “alien abduction” dream, complete with a terrifyingly realistic extraterrestrial being, more Alien than Grey. I can easily see how someone might be convinced by such a display, but my dreams are not the sleep of reason*, and I reached out my hand to touch the monster, at which point the creature dissolved into a mist and I noticeably, if fearfully, awoke.
If that still makes you wonder if I really experienced alien abduction, a third hyper-real dream might settle the case. I found my bedroom transformed into a lush garden as flower-bearing vines in a strange, luminous color halfway between blue and green wound their way around my furniture. Up onto my bed hopped a frog wearing a leather jacket and sporting a punk rock black fright wig. Its skin was textured so clearly that little drops of dew were visible, and each hair on his wig was fluttered separately in the air. Now, if you are willing to tell me that heaven or aliens have rock-and-roll frogs, then you are welcome to do so, but for me, that pretty much confirmed that these are just weird dreams from the twilight halfway between wake and sleep.
* This is an artistic reference, which, I have recently learned, I must clarify since such references are no longer shared by most readers. It refers to Goya’s famous etching El sueño de la razón produce monstruos, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (seen below).