Strive for a true work-life balance, juggling family and friends with work interests.
After decades as a physician and teacher at Harvard Medical School and elsewhere, renowned academic neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander thought he knew how the brain, mind, and consciousness worked. A transcendental Near-Death Experience (NDE) during a week-long coma from an inexplicable brain infection changed all of that – completely. Memories of his life had been completely deleted, yet he awoke with memories of a fantastic odyssey deep into another realm – more real than this earthly one!
Since his 2008 NDE he has been reconciling his rich spiritual experience with contemporary physics and cosmology. We are conscious in spite of our brain. By probing deeply into our own consciousness, we transcend the limits of the human brain, and of the physical-material realm. His story offers a crucial key to the understanding of reality and human consciousness.
A pioneering scientist and thought leader in consciousness studies, Dr. Alexander has been a guest on Dr. Oz, Oprah, and many other media programs. His most recent book, Living in a Mindful Universe: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Heart of Consciousness, (co-authored with Karen Newell) has garnered accolades from many scientists around the world who study the mind-body question and the nature of consciousness. His earlier books, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife and The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife, have collectively spent more than two years atop the New York Times and international bestseller lists.
Where did the ideas for your books come from?
In November 2008, I suffered an illness that should have greatly damaged or killed me, and should have eliminated my conscious awareness, yet this severe bacterial meningo-encephalitis allowed a profound experience to occur. Then I was granted a full recovery that defies our western medical explanations. In fact, the journey was impossible, according to everything I had come to know (or thought I knew) based on 30+ years as an academic neurosurgeon. My books are my attempt to come to some deeper understanding, not only of my experience, but of myriad similar human experiences that cannot be explained within our conventional materialist (physicalist) scientific model. The relationship between mind and brain is one of the most profound questions in human existence, yet we are just beginning to scratch the surface in our search for deeper understanding. My first book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster, 2012), was my first attempt to describe my experience during coma and to understand how it could have taken place given the condition of my brain. Unfortunately, there are no conventional explanations, leaving me with more questions than answers. In my second book, The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion and Ordinary People are Proving the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster, 2014), I recount the commonality of such experiences and how we need to start paying attention to what this says about our scientific understanding of the mind-brain relationship, and implications for the nature of reality. Living in a Mindful Universe: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Heart of Consciousness (Rodale Books, 2017), co-authored with Karen Newell, is my most recent book where I start to answer some of those important questions. We present a worldview consistent with quantum physics and with the tremendous swathe of human experience that is so inexplicable through our conventional physicalist model. This revised, informed perspective has the potential to revolutionize our worldview of reality.
As a neurosurgeon, what did your typical day look like and how did you help your patients the most?
My life prior to coma consisted of several modes of operation. First, I was a clinically-active neurosurgeon, initially at Harvard Medical School (15 years) followed by shorter stints at UMass-Worcester, then in private practice in Lynchburg, Virginia. Most of those days were spent in the operating room, where my main focus was on advanced management of brain tumors, cerebrovascular disorders (aneurysms and vascular malformations), stereotactic and functional neurosurgery (management of challenging refractory pain syndromes, and movement disorders that included both lesioning and deep brain stimulators), spine disorders, etc. Although surgical practice occupied the majority of my time, my practice also involved patient care outside of the operating room. I would see and evaluate patients in the emergency room and outpatient clinic, or consult on other services in the hospital. While many of these other patient encounters led to my performing a neurosurgical procedure, much of the professional focus in my neurosurgical career involved making such interventions less “invasive.” My efforts involved increasing the safety and minimizing the dangers of such interventions, in essence an attempt to make surgery less barbaric and traumatic. Thus, my work in stereotactic radiosurgery used precisely directed beams of radiation to avoid major brain operations. My work in the intraoperative MRI project with General Electric was used to help guide such operative procedures precisely enough to greatly minimize the potential trauma and collateral damage to non-target tissues. Ultrasound surgery using ultrasound energy, as opposed to surgical opening and resection, was another effective technique I employed to treat tumors, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, and various functional disorders, such as abnormal movements, chronic pain, obsessive compulsive behaviors, etc.
How did you use your ideas to improve surgical techniques?
Much of my clinical time in those years was also devoted to the development of advanced neurosurgical systems to improve the efficacy and safety of managing difficult conditions, such as malignant brain tumors, skull base tumors, cerebral vasospasm after aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage, etc. My greatest contribution to patient care came through my research in trying to improve our abilities to manage these and other challenging conditions. For example, I served as the main neurosurgical liaison on a team pioneering the use of linear accelerator-based stereotactic radiosurgery at the Brigham & Women’s and Children’s Hospitals in Boston 1988-2001. An important outcome from this effort was the publication of our book Stereotactic Radiosurgery (E. Alexander III, J.S. Loeffler, L. Dade Lunsford; New York, McGraw-Hill, 1993). I also served as the main neurosurgical liaison in a decade-long project in conjunction with General Electric in developing the world’s first intraoperative MRI system, and its broad integration in addressing cerebrovascular disease, brain and spinal cord tumors, and various functional disorders. Much of this latter activity is reflected in the resultant textbook, Advanced Neurosurgical Navigation (E. Alexander III and Robert Maciunas; New York: Thieme, 1999).
Another major area of my career involved working for the Focused Ultrasound Surgery Foundation. I was working there when I became ill with meningitis in November 2008, and it was this same job to which I miraculously returned about 3 months after my coma and near-death experience (reported in the book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, Simon & Schuster, 2012). My work with the Foundation involved planning and coordinating research projects to develop the exciting novel technology of focused ultrasound. This technology uses ultrasound energy, often guided by MRI, to gain therapeutic effect, through thermal effects [eg., heating tumor tissue to destroy it], or mechanical effects [especially temporary manipulation of neural networks in performance of neuromodulation]. These techniques disrupt the blood-brain barrier for delivery of certain pharmacological agents, or antibodies, etc., to the central nervous system, and for thermal opening of nanoparticles containing very toxic medications, which takes advantage of the precise localization of delivered ultrasound energy within a tumor to spare exposure of normal tissues to such toxic substances.
What is one habit of yours that made you more productive as a neurosurgeon?
My tenacity, or just brute force determination, to hold a vision independently of the magnitude of challenges in the way of achieving it. This especially contributed to my effectiveness in addressing daunting goals, such as better management of malignant brain tumors. My forte while at Harvard was taking on some of the more challenging cases, including many with malignant brain tumors who had been told they had at most months to live. This focus on challenging patients, with active academic reporting of the results through the publication of over 100 scholarly reports, led to a referral network that reached around the globe.
What is one failure you had as a neurosurgeon, and how did you overcome it?
Sometimes one’s greatest strength can also be a weakness. That same tenacity which helped me excel in challenging cases would occasionally lead me to be more optimistic with patients than might have been warranted, when discussing potential benefits from an intervention. I felt that some optimism was justified in most cases, but occasionally felt I had not suitably presented the less-optimistic possible outcomes as objectively as I desired. I always used the golden rule in such discussions: i.e., I tried to present information as fairly and unbiased as possible, just as I would have wanted it presented to me. I felt it was incumbent on me to help guide the patient toward the best choice of treatment for their situation.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Make the commitment to spend more time with your children as they are growing up. Strive for a true work-life balance, juggling family and friends with work interests. A dogged application 24/7 to career goals, in the absence of such balance, ultimately takes a toll on both the work and home environment. Achieving this balance involves paying attention to your intuition and living from your heart. Take time to relax and develop other interests and hobbies.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
As I write about in Living in a Mindful Universe, the best model for explaining any human’s relationship with the universe is one of absolute metaphysical idealism. This is the opposite of the currently fashionable philosophical position of physicalism (or reductive materialism), which has numerous problems in answering any questions about the nature of consciousness itself, and the mind-brain discussion in general. The big questions about why we are here and where we are headed are more effectively answered with this much broader perspective of human potential – the position of idealism, which basically places our free will front and center in determining our destiny. Consciousness is fundamental in our universe and is responsible for all of unfolding reality. This view has the potential to upend our western scientific understanding of reality, a change even bigger than the Copernican Revolution.
As an author, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. It is never just about “writing” – it is always about polishing that piece to the best shine and luster you can manage, as perfectly aligned with your loftiest ideas as possible. Ideally, one should enjoy the process of writing – first and foremost, write for yourself. If you don’t enjoy writing something, don’t expect someone else to enjoy reading it. Many authors will write for someone else, all the time wondering how their writing will affect a specific person they have in mind. That’s fine. But, one should never just write to appease a certain group of anticipated readers; rather, write from the heart for your own personal growth and enjoyment.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The growing acknowledgment in the world that we are all interconnected, and that we have great personal responsibility for every action and thought. The false notion that we have no free will, and thus no such responsibility, has been very damaging for our stewardship of planet Earth, not to mention of our own lives. The belief that man has no free will comes not only from orthodox Christianity (“believing in Jesus Christ is sufficient to get you into heaven, no matter what you have done or said”), but also from reductive materialist neuroscience (“there is no such thing as consciousness or free will – they are the result of chemical reactions and ion fluxes in the physical substance of the brain, nothing more”). It is high time to awaken and take full responsibility for our thoughts and actions. Warfare and senseless violence, ecological mayhem, economic polarization – all these and more are consequences of the false sense of separation from each other that scientific materialism and societal materialism at large have foisted upon the world. It’s time for all of us to wake up!
What is one strategy that has helped you deal with challenges in your life?
Letting go of the outcome has helped me greatly with challenges in life. I find it well-expressed in Reinhold Niebuhr’s (1892-1971) “serenity” prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” A crucial aspect of letting go is trusting in the universe, which I came to know fully during my transcendental near-death experience in coma.
What is one life-changing idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
To truly succeed as an enlightened species, we would benefit from a new economic system that would emphasize rewarding those who do good in this world instead of rewarding those who are greedy. Part of the problem with our current system is that the accumulation of material wealth has become the priority for many, at the expense of realizing that other qualities – such as being of service to others in achieving the higher good, and developing one’s unique skills and talents – are what actually make the world a better place for all.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“One Mind” by Larry Dossey is a collection of evidence of our interconnectedness with all that is. Modern consciousness studies are converging on a metaphysical position strongly suggested by quantum physics: that there is but one primordial consciousness which we all share. We develop this thesis very powerfully in Living in a Mindful Universe, but the singular concept of One Mind is beautifully elucidated in Dr. Dossey’s book.
What is your favorite quote?
“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”
— Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), Nobel Prize Physics 1932
Making sense of quantum physics is essential if we want to have any deeper understanding of the nature of the mind-brain relationship, and thus of reality itself. The implications for our being spiritual beings in a spiritual universe are quite clear to those open-minded enough to connect the dots.
A close second quote, reflecting the unrecognized power of our beliefs and our prejudices, is:
“There are two kinds of people: those who think they can, and those who think they can’t, and they’re both right.”
— Henry Ford (1863-1947), founder, Ford Motor Co.
- Hold your loftiest visions in life, focusing on the mission, but always with the heart, intuition, and flexibility to live in “the now,” and continue reading the signals from the universe about how best to achieve personal growth.
- Strive to obtain work-life balance, juggling family and friends with work interests. A dogged application 24/7 to career goals, in the absence of such balance, ultimately takes a toll on both the work and home environment. Pay attention to your intuition and live from your heart.
- Enjoy the process of writing – first and foremost, write for yourself. If you don’t enjoy writing it, don’t expect someone else to enjoy reading it. Maintain the perspective, as much as possible, of writing from the heart – it is all about your own personal growth and enjoyment.
- We are all interconnected, sharing one consciousness, and thus living the golden rule is essential – doing unto others as you would have done unto yourself is written into the fabric of this universe.
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Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.