In a Newsweek article grandiosely (to put it lightly) entitled Proof of Heaven: A Doctor's Experience With the Afterlife published yesterday, Dr. Eben Alexander recounts a story of what it was like to visit Heaven (apparently) and speak with God (apparently) which supposedly took place while he was in a coma due to bacterial meningitis.
Alexander's sole basis for believing that this was an actual experience he had and not simply something his mind conjured up, like it might any dream (or drug trip), is the "fact" that it occurred during the coma, while his neocortex was shut down and conscious thought impossible.
What Alexander had was a mystical experience, no doubt. It fits William James' still-very-useful criteria for such experiences:
1) Noetic quality -- Alexander describes special knowledge as having been imparted to him, knowledge which he couldn't have comprehended otherwise:
Each time I silently put one of these questions out, the answer came instantly in an explosion of light, color, love, and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave. What was important about these blasts was that they didn’t simply silence my questions by overwhelming them. They answered them, but in a way that bypassed language. Thoughts entered me directly. But it wasn’t thought like we experience on earth. It wasn’t vague, immaterial, or abstract. These thoughts were solid and immediate—hotter than fire and wetter than water—and as I received them I was able to instantly and effortlessly understand concepts that would have taken me years to fully grasp in my earthly life. (Author's note and poiler: Alexander never says what these concepts were, or tries to explain them himself.)
2) Ineffability -- Alexander does his best to describe the experience, but he can't truly convey the majesty and meaning of it in words. Such a thing would be impossible. He wasn't even able to comprehend himself for a very long time:
It took me months to come to terms with what happened to me. Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma, but—more importantly—the things that happened during that time.
3) Transience -- Alexander doesn't say how long the experience took. But it was definitely temporary. He's not still floating around amongst the clouds and speaking to mysterious women in brightly-colored dresses:
“We will show you many things here,” the woman said, again, without actually using these words but by driving their conceptual essence directly into me. “But eventually, you will go back.”
4) Passivity -- Alexender describes all of these things happening to him, without any real volition occuring on his part. Entities appearing to him. Things being shown to him. He describes the experience as a journey, but this journey is not a series of choices he makes-- it's a sensory experience, entirely about what he sees and hears.
So yes, mystical experience. Fine. Well and good. Those have happened throughout history, all over the world, in various forms. But Alexander is insistent that his mystical experience is real:
I’m not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history. But as far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma.
All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.
For all of the insistence that Alexander makes during his essay that he is a scientist, and his assurances that he approaches his understanding of the brain with skepticism and rigor, this is a bizarre thing to say. It overlooks several things that should be obvious to any person, let alone a neurosurgeon.
Namely:Alexander has no idea of the chronology of his experience. The only thing he knows is that it was over by the time he opened his eyes-- and let's note that his interpretation of his experience went on for months, while he was entirely conscious. He has absolutely no way of knowing whether his experience took place while his neocortex was "off."
Our assessment of the duration of dreams during REM sleep is notoriously unreliable, but Alexander doesn't even seem to consider the length of time that it might have taken for his brain to switch from "off" to "on," and whether a malfunction just might have occurred during that time. That's possible, but not likely I think. Alexander's description of his experience is typical of mysterical experiences, but not of near-death experiences (NDEs). Those are generally described as the experience of heading down a tunnel and/or "into the light" that you hear about. Alexender describes something more like a dream or a drug trip.
On the topic of dreams and drug trips-- you don't have to consume drugs to go on a drug trip. Chemical reactions can happen in your brain which cause you to experience fantastic visions for other reasons including severe fatigue and asphyxiation. Gee, can you imagine one of these being a factor in a person recovering from a coma? Mystics in many different religions induce religious visions by starving themselves, staying out in the hot sun, and/or keeping themselves awake for extended periods which might very well cause their brains to go into a state similar to Alexander's when he was on his way back from coma-land.
So Alexander's body was "under minute medical observation" for a week while he was comatose. How is this supposed to substantiate his belief that his NDE was authentic? Were the attending physicians supposed to have noticed a sudden change in his brain which indicated that his spirit had gone on temporary vacation? So far as I know there is no way to test for such a thing via fMRI, CT, PET, or EEG. Tests of these kinds have been performed on people supposedly having religious experiences at the time, and their results are very interesting.
But they're not performed for a week, and they say nothing about whether the state of the person's brain means that he has gone dimension-tripping while leaving his body behind, or whether he just thinks he has. Think about it-- how easy would it be to catch someone at the precise time they're having an out-of-body experience and get them into a scanner? Not very easy.
And even if/when you can do it, the information you gather is neutral regarding whether they actually spoke with God or whatever it is they claim to have experienced. Even if it turned out they have a brain tumor, hey-- the brain tumor could've been put there by God as a means of communicating with them! A very morbid, tragic way of communicating, but still. "God made your brain that way/do that thing so that he could talk to you" is an untestable but still possible explanation.
Do I think that Alexander had a near-death experience? Sure, possibly. If the details of his explanation of the bacterial disease he contracted are correct-- and there's no reason to doubt that part-- are true, then I see no reason not to believe that he had a profoundly beautiful experience that might or might not have resulted from him actually becoming literally brain dead, temporarily.
That doesn't mean that I have to accept his interpretation of it as happening anywhere outside of his own head, or signifying the truth of anything he claims to have gleaned from it. And what's more, having had time to think about this in the four years since he came out of this coma, I'd think the neurosurgeon himself would have some doubts as well. But no, he doesn't. Because he does not think of it like a scientist. He thinks of it like a die-hard believer who thinks he found confirmation:
I know full well how extraordinary, how frankly unbelievable, all this sounds. Had someone—even a doctor—told me a story like this in the old days, I would have been quite certain that they were under the spell of some delusion. But what happened to me was, far from being delusional, as real or more real than any event in my life. That includes my wedding day and the birth of my two sons.
What happened to me demands explanation.
Modern physics tells us that the universe is a unity—that it is undivided. Though we seem to live in a world of separation and difference, physics tells us that beneath the surface, every object and event in the universe is completely woven up with every other object and event. There is no true separation.
Before my experience these ideas were abstractions. Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also—I now know—defined by love. The universe as I experienced it in my coma is—I have come to see with both shock and joy—the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.
I’ve spent decades as a neurosurgeon at some of the most prestigious medical institutions in our country. I know that many of my peers hold—as I myself did—to the theory that the brain, and in particular the cortex, generates consciousness and that we live in a universe devoid of any kind of emotion, much less the unconditional love that I now know God and the universe have toward us. But that belief, that theory, now lies broken at our feet. What happened to me destroyed it, and I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more, than our physical brains as clear as I can, both to my fellow scientists and to people at large.
No scientist holds that the universe is devoid of any kind of emotion. No good scientist, anyway-- humans are part of the universe, and we're pretty darn emotional. And no good scientist starts with a firm belief derived from something out of his own head and then assumes that it can be proven empirically, and sets about to find evidence which will confirm this to his peers.
One would hope that a neurosurgeon would have spent a good chunk of his life "investigating the true nature of consciousness" before being interrupted by a mystical experience, but perhaps not. If Dr. Alexander is really interested in this topic I can certainly recommend Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained or Susan Blackmore's Consciousness: An Introduction-- heck, I'd recommend those to anybody-- but he won't find confirmation of his unconfirmable convictions in either of those. Quite to the contrary, he will find evidence that the brain really does generate consciousness.
In order to find someone who is willing to claim otherwise, you have to drop the pretense of talking about science. You have to drop the aspiration of convincing your fellow scientists, that is if you intend to convince them as a scientist rather than as a true believer. And Alexander is not even willing to speak as a non-Christian or at least Christianity-neutral, even though according to his own account there is nothing Christian-specific about what he experienced.
PZ Myers describes the story in a post called Newsweek panders to the deluded again, which isn't an inaccurate label (it is indeed a delusion to say that the experience of one questionably conscious neurosurgeon "proves" anything, much less the existence of an afterlife) but I think he misconstrues the experience a bit:
But here’s the real killer for me. People who go through these fantasies often tell of awe-inspiring insights that they receive and are quick to tell us how brilliant they were in Heaven. Alexander is no exception.
That would be the "noetic" part of mysticism, and if we could manage to induce Myers to have a mystical experience whether by drug trip, brain damage, or ESB (as Julia Sweeney put it, "People who wore this helmet experienced a sense of transcendent understanding, an overwhelming peace and connectedness, and sometimes the presence of God. Or, of aliens"), he'd probably experience the same thing. He just hopefully wouldn't go on to present that knowledge as real evidence of anything, as Alexander has.
If a person comes out of a mystical experience with, say, knowledge of how to build a perpetual motion machine, then there might be something to what they claim to have experienced. It wouldn't prove the rest of their story, but it would at least be interesting! But what generally happens is that the person feels strongly as though he or she has been confronted with the greatest underlying truths of the universe, and yet...couldn't tell you what they are. Or else gives you some rather banal messages like the ones Alexander mentioned:
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
“You have nothing to fear.”
"There is nothing you can do wrong."
I recall in one of Dan Savage's books-- Skipping Towards Gomorrah-- he described how a friend of his kept a wicker basket of New Agey phrases printed on laminated slips of paper by the front door for visitors. These were intended to be self-esteem enhancers, pulled randomly from the basket whenever needed in order to create a feeling of empowerment
When my friend saw me picking through her little wicker basket of affirmations, she folded her arms across her chest, cocked her hip, and said "Go ahead, Dan, make fun of me." She was asking for it. So I pulled out an affirmation, said "I'm Adolf Hitler," and then I read Hitler's affirmation. "I'm a good person, and I want good things."
"That's awful!" my friend said.
"I'm Pol Pot: 'I strive to spread love and understanding.'"
"I'm Richard Speck: 'I am respected and admired, and people want to be near me.'"
"I'm Trent Lott: 'My inner beauty is like a bright light.'"
By now, my sensitive friend was, yes, crying. I know, I know, I'm a terrible person. Which is precisely my point. The problem with setting out a basket of affirmations is that you're assuming each and every person who comes into your home or spa is a good person who wants good things. With all the respect due a basket of laminated affirmations, I beg to differ.
It sure sounds to me like Dr. Alexander encountered that wicker basket in "Heaven." Hmm...does everybody who goes on a similar trip? Is there nobody who catches a glimpse of the afterlife and is told "You've been a very bad person and have plenty to fear; step it up!" Ebenezer Scrooge-style? Yes, there are such cases. But I'm pretty sure they are vastly outweighed by the other variety.
There's another important thing about the specific messages Eben (no, I'm not going to make a joke about that) Alexander says he received-- they are themselves passive. They are the kind of messages it would be appropriate to give a person who is seeing a movie, especially a scary movie, for the first time ever. Don't worry. There's nothing to be afraid of. You can't do anything wrong here. You can't do anything wrong because you can't do anything-- the story is going to play out as it does regardless.
The only time it's possible to not be able to do anything wrong is when nothing you do matters, which is when you're experiencing something that's not real. In the real world, there is plenty to fear. There are all kinds of things you can do wrong. And...there's no guarantee that you will be loved, much less forever.
So I can see why a person would cling to such an experience, much like a security blanket. I can't see why someone would wave that blanket around claiming that others must cling to it as well, much less why a magazine would declare that they should. Alexander, and Newsweek, should know better than that.
Photo by Kevin Dooley, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Gretchen recently received her PhD in the Study of Religion from the University of Aarhus in Denmark. She currently lives in Plano, Texas and is working on forming her dissertation into a book, and she serves on the Cognitive Science of Religion Consultation for the American Academy of Religion.