Extraordinary accounts abound of people who claim to have had near-death experiences.
The scientific community, for the most part, discounts them as no more than comforting phenomena created by a dying brain. A brush with death, after all, is not death.
But what if the brain is unplugged, as if it were a movie projector, and one still sees a movie? This, in a sense, is what happened four years ago to Dr. Eben Alexander when his brain was attacked by severe bacterial meningitis.
That the neurosurgeon survived at all is considered by his doctors as something of a medical miracle. What he says happened during seven days of coma makes up his best-selling book, "Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife."
"I think the most important feature about my experience is the fact that it involved severe bacterial meningitis," Alexander said recently via telephone from his home in Lynchburg.
"What that allowed me to conclude was that what happened to me happened outside the brain. Basically, everything else that puts you in coma leaves some part of the neocortex still functioning.
"My neocortex was soaking in pus. It was very clear from my CT scans and neurological exams that I was demonstrating no cortical function during that time.
"Just the depth of the disease would not have allowed for such a rich experience like I had. At the end of the day, because it was a severe bacterial meningitis that should have disabled all consciousness and memory, I concluded that in fact it really happened.
"And that it did not happen in my brain or this physical universe."
Alexander spent a year after his NDE trying to explain scientifically what had happened to him. He, like many physicians, believed NDEs were dreams or hallucinations.
"At first, I tried to write this up as a neuroscientific report," said Alexander, who was working at the Focused Ultrasound Surgery Foundation at the University of Virginia when the disease struck.
"I was so shocked by the altered-reality experience I had that I knew it had to be some very extremely bizarre and powerful effect of the dying brain. I went through nine different hypotheses, which I cover in the book, but as I came to realize just how sick I had been, I knew none of this should have happened.
"The dying brain might do a lot of crazy things, but it couldn't possibly do what happened to me. And the lessons I learned about the nature of our existence were so profound that there was simply no way to ignore it."
Alexander said his NDE took him to an Earth-like place of wonder and boundless love beyond the capacity of words to describe. Seeing and hearing were not separate senses, so he could hear the shimmering loveliness of transparent orbs shooting across a blue-black sky and see indescribably beautiful music.
The physician tells of flying over dazzling trees, fields and streams. He sees adults and children interacting joyously, and occasionally a dog is seen romping and playing with them.
At the outset of the experience, an angelic being in the form of a beautiful girl appeared by his side and gave him a reassuring message.
"You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever," the being communicated to him without the use of words. "You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong."
The spiritual being then guided the physician into realms of "super-physical existence" and understanding. Alexander said one of his greatest challenges in writing the book was trying to describe the indescribable.
"Of course, a lot of the skeptics get hung up, because for example in my story they hear about a beautiful girl, butterflies, angels, bright billowing clouds and flowers," Alexander said.
"They say, 'Wait a minute, that's all earthly stuff. That can't possibly be heaven.' But remember we have to use earthly language to even try to describe it.
"And I think that realm has a lot of the conditions and entities that give rise to things in the material realm we live in."
Alexander now believes the brain is similar to a reducing valve that dumbs down consciousness to what we need to function in the here and now. And that when the valve is removed by death, our consciousness is freed to expand to its full capacity.
The man who has spent much of his medical career studying and operating on the brain said he will now use the rest of his life studying consciousness and the spiritual self. He also will continue to tell of a personal God who loves all his creations beyond our ability to comprehend.
And the God Alexander believes he encountered during his NDE is far from the fearsome God of fire and brimstone. It's a God with a sense of humor who is always with us and helping us to advance whether we know it or not.
"The most important thing I want people to know is that we are all truly eternal spiritual beings who are connected as one, at the deepest levels, to one all-powerful God," Alexander said.
"That we are here for a purpose, and that is to serve as conduits for that divine love of the creator for the creation. And to show compassion, forgiveness and love for ourselves and others.
"I definitely had a very strong sense that our souls do go through many lives, and reincarnation is an absolute in understanding all this. And that our existence has everything to do with our soul ascending to a higher level."
Alexander said his NDE has changed everything about him. He says he now sees everyone as eternal spiritual beings who are in their present forms only for this act of an incredible play.
And when the play ends with death, the spirit leaves the body behind and reunites with a higher soul. That higher soul then goes through a life review and plans the next incarnation.
"I now see the hardships, difficulties and hurdles in life -- and, of course, that includes illness and disease -- as opportunities for growth," Alexander said. "And that has everything to do with our purpose for being here.
"And that we need to learn to embrace those opportunities for growth, and see them for the lessons they offer. It's often in the pits of despair, when we can hardly imagine how we can take another step or live another day, that we get that gift of the divine touch.
"It's then when we hear that voice of love and comfort from an all-knowing God that is within each of us."
Alexander now believes God is "extremely personal" and knows and loves each of us. He said the evil in the world is necessary in order for humans to have free will.
The brain surgeon said that during his NDE he saw the abundance of life throughout countless universes. And that evil was present in all of them, but "only in the tiniest trace amounts."
Love, he said, was the overwhelmingly dominant force at the center of everything.
"The old doctor in me didn't realize just how grand our existence truly is," Alexander said. "And that it means so much more than I ever thought it did back when I thought life was just birth to death and that's it."
Alexander will be participating in the upcoming Virginia Festival of the Book in March. More about him and his book can be found at www.lifebeyonddeath.net.