Oct 11 2012
In an article for Newsweek, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander recounts his near death experience during a coma from bacterial meningitis. This is sure to become a staple of the NDE/afterlife community, as Alexander recounts in articulate and breathless terms his profound experience. His book is called, Proof of Heaven – a bold claim for someone who insists he is and remains a scientist.
There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.
While his experience is certainly interesting, his entire premise is flimsily based on a single word in the above paragraph – “while.” He assumes that the experiences he remembers after waking from the coma occurred while his cortex was completely inactive. He does not even seem aware of the fact that he is making that assumption or that it is the central premise of his claim, as he does not address it in his article.
Of course his brain did not go instantly from completely inactive to normal or near normal waking consciousness. That transition must have taken at least hours, if not a day or more. During that time his neurological exam would not have changed significantly, if at all. The coma exam looks mainly at basic brainstem function and reflexes, and can only dimly examine cortical function (through response to pain) and cannot examine higher cortical functions at all. His recovery would have become apparent, then, when his brain recovered sufficiently for him to show signs of consciousness.
Alexander claims there is no scientific explanation for his experiences, but I just gave one. They occurred while his brain function was either on the way down or on the way back up, or both, not while there was little to no brain activity. During this time he would have been in an altered state of consciousness, with different parts of his cortex functioning to different degrees. This state is analogous to certain drug-induced mental states, or those induced by hypoxia and well documented, and there is even some overlap with the normal dream state. All of these are states in which the brain’s construction of reality is significantly different from the normal waking state.
Documented features of these altered states (and features commonly experienced by everyone during dreams) include a sense of oneness with the universe, a sense of the profound, of being in the presence of a godlike figure, and of automatic knowledge with absolute certainty. The latter is not uncommon during dreams – you just know things in your dreams that were not communicated or directly observed, and you have no doubt about that knowledge.
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.
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. Toward the beginning of my adventure, I was in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky.
The “hyper-vivid” description is also common of altered brain states. It is naive to assume that such experiences must be hazy or “dreamlike.” By inhibiting certain parts of the brain extremely vivid and hyper-real seeming experiences can result.
Further, he recounts that it took him months to come to terms with his experiences. This brings up another important aspect of such experiences – that we must remember them with our waking brains. Most people have probably had the experience of having a vivid and bizarre dream that makes perfect sense to your dreaming self, and then when your waking self tries to recount the dream major aspects of it no longer make sense, and you marvel at how your dreaming self did not question the fantastical aspects of the dream.
The story that Alexander now tells is the attempt by his waking brain to make sense of experiences that occurred in an altered mental state. We therefore don’t know what he really experienced, only what his waking brain interprets and remembers about what his partially functioning brain experienced.
In addition to fluffy clouds, Alexander experienced beautiful angels and an overwhelming feeling of love. Even though he says he was not a devout Christian before the experience, his experience is strangely consistent with the cultural norms of his background. This is also typical – hallucinations and delusions often take the form of cultural and personal beliefs.
I understand that what Alexander experienced was strange, powerful, and profound and is coupled with the fact that he experienced a brush with death and survived. I will not presume to know how such an experience would affect me. This does not mean, however, that we can take his interpretation at face value.
Alexander, in my opinion, has failed to be true to the scientist he claims that he is. He did not step back from his powerful experience and ask dispassionate questions. Instead he concluded that his experience was unique, that it is proof of heaven, and that it defies any possible scientific explanation. He then goes on to give a hand-waving quantum mechanics, the universe is all unity, explanation for the supernatural. This is a failure of scientific and critical thinking.
Addressing his one major unstated premise, that the experienced occurred while his cortex was inactive, demolishes his claims and his interpretation of his experience.
As a neuroscientist I admit to a fascination with such experiences. I would love to experience something similar, to see what it is like (although I am not willing to damage my brain or take mild-altering drugs to do it). I would think that a neuroscientist would see such an experience as a powerful window into how the brain works (as Susan Blackmore did), how it constructs reality, and how the subjective experience that results from that construction can be altered, not as a window into a mystical and supernatural world.
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