The Stairway to Heaven May Be Sound
Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander woke from a weeklong coma claiming he’d been to a place that many believe does not exist. Now he says he’s found a way to return.
Few who wake from comas yearn to relapse to that unconscious state, but Eben Alexander has good reason to try. Here’s why: On November 10, 2008, this neurosurgeon contracted meningitis, which plunged him into a coma. Physicians said his odds of recovery were slim. Yet a week later, his eyes opened. His family rejoiced.
But for Alexander, the real miracle wasn’t that he’d returned. It’s where he’d been.
During his coma, Alexander says, he found himself floundering in pulsing, primordial mud. Then a white-gold light descended, lifting him atop butterfly wings toward an omniscient, infinitely loving presence he called Om. Before this point, Alexander was dubious about the existence of God or heaven. But this encounter, combined with his intimate knowledge of how the brain worked, convinced him he was wrong. Since his brain wasn’t functioning during his weeklong reverie, he was forced to come to a much more radical conclusion: “The brain does not create consciousness,” Alexander says. “It actually works as a reducing valve or filter. It’s a veil, hiding a reality that’s far more real and powerful.”
Since then, Alexander has become a beacon of hope to throngs who want to believe there’s something else out there—a world of divine beauty that exists after death, a place where we can learn all the answers and find peace. Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, became an instant best seller. But his ultimate goal is far more ambitious than conveying the world he saw through what he calls the “linear bottleneck,” or words on a page. He wants to take us there, with him. And he says he’s found a way to do it.
Sound: The Key to Our Unconscious
Alexander stumbled across the answer in November 2011 while attending an expanded consciousness seminar where he met Kevin Kossi and Karen Newell. Kossi was an engineer who’d had a near-death experience due to heart problems; Newell had had a number of out-of-body experiences. Together, they’d created audio recordings that led the brain into altered states. Curious, Alexander asked to hear a sample.
Headphones on, eyes closed, reclined on a couch, Alexander was swept away in a stream of sound filled with gongs, chants, and drumbeats. He wasn’t sure where he went, but it felt strikingly similar to the world he’d inhabited during his coma. “It was incredibly powerful,” Alexander recalls. Although he’d heard meditative recordings before, “these were industrial strength.”
The reason sound can have such a powerful impact on our mental state is due to a phenomenon called “brainwave entrainment.” The brain emits waves of electrical activity, and those waves tend to align with frequencies in their surroundings. By measuring these brain waves with electroencephalogram, or EEG, machines, researchers have found that the ideal frequency for reaching altered consciousness is 4 hertz. “That’s the point when you’re in bed trying to go to sleep and your mind wanders to a completely random thought,” explains Kossi. “That happens because your subconscious is no longer suppressed. It’s a very creative state.”
Reaching 4 hertz through sound is tricky, though, since the lowest frequency the human ear can hear is 20 hertz. The way around this is “binaural beats”: Play 100 hertz in one ear and 104 in the other. This enables the brain to “hear” 4 hertz by picking up on the difference.
This unique cocktail of science and spirituality was exactly what Alexander had been searching for, so for the next year, he, Kossi, and Newell started listening to the recordings together, fine-tuning and comparing notes. Although they lived in different cities, by listening to the same recording at the same time they were able to connect telepathically in this netherworld, as was evidenced by the undeniable similarity of their stories. “Once, I remember all of us assembling at the end of a wormhole in the middle of a stormy ocean,” Alexander says. “Astonishingly, we were all having similar experiences, and were aware of each other’s presence.”
In their most daring moments, the trio toyed with a “coma tape”—a recording that could induce the near-zero brain frequencies one would encounter in a coma. “Only what if we don’t come back?” Kossi asked. They signed waivers just in case. So far, though, “I don’t feel I’ve duplicated the ultrareality that I had deep in my coma,” Alexander admits. “I don’t know if I can do that in an earthly body with an earthly brain. But I do feel we’re getting closer.”
In November 2012, Alexander appeared on The Dr. Oz Show to talk about brainwave entrainment. To show how it worked, an audience member volunteered to listen to their tapes. Afterward, “she recounted how she’s spoken with her dead mother,” Newell recalls. “We put a free sample recording on the Dr. Oz website. Five thousand people downloaded it in two weeks and wanted more.” So they created an online video course, Discover Your Own Proof of Heaven (Soundstrue.com, $59).
The course includes four 45-minute brainwave entrainment audio sessions, plus video tutorials and an interactive Q&A. Course takers say they’ve come away with a range of experiences, from feeling more relaxed to exploring alternate realms. “As you go deeper and deeper, you bring more and more back,” Alexander explains.
He acknowledges that these pursuits will always be met with some skepticism, as he was once a big skeptic himself. “The old me would have said, ‘Oh, that must be a very active imagination,’” he admits. “It took me a long time to come to grips with understanding this. It completely broke all the rules of anything I thought I knew. But once it happens, it’s like the blinders are off. It’s way too real to not be real.”