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Proof of Heaven or of an Impaired Brain?

The international edition of Newsweek for October 15, 2012, contains an article, “My Proof of Heaven,” excerpted from the book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. The author, Dr. Eben Alexander, is a neurosurgeon. In 2008 Dr. Alexander was in “deep coma” for a week because of severe bacterial meningitis. (His remark that the bacteria “were eating my brain” indicates that his disorder actually was cerebritis, inflammation of the brain itself.) He states that during this time his cerebral cortex—”the part of the brain that controls thought”—was “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” and “simply off.”

While comatose Dr. Alexander had perceptions of the kind commonly called “near-death experiences.” What he reports can be divided into sensory, cognitive, and emotional perceptions.

Description of the experience

He perceived himself to be levitating above a forest beneath a discolored sky and clouds, from which descended “a sound, huge and booming like a glorious chant.” Here he was in the company of “vast fluttering waves” of butterflies. Thence he proceeded into “an immense void, completely dark,” accompanied by a “brilliant orb” that he “sensed” but does not record having seen. These perceptions were characterized by extreme vividness, and by the fusion of different kinds of sensations: “seeing and hearing were not separate.”

Dr. Alexander received “messages” and answers to questions that occurred to him, but these communications did not use words and “bypassed language.” Instead, their “conceptual essence” entered “directly into me.” (How he formulated ideas without words is not explained.) He states, “I was able to instantly and effortlessly understand concepts that would have taken me years to fully grasp in my earthly life.” Unfortunately he does not disclose these concepts (evidently they did not include the grammatical rule against splitting infinitives).

The experience was intensely emotional. There was a feeling of being loved, but with love “much bigger than” “the different compartments of love we have down here on earth.” The “message” of love, accompanied by the idea “you have nothing to fear,” “flooded me with a vast and crazy [?] sensation of relief.”

Dr. Alexander is convinced of the validity of these perceptions. He believes they were “as real [as] or more real than any event in my life” and “not some fantasy.” He aims to convince the reader of their validity by telling “my story with the logic and language of the scientist I am.” (Although he possesses and has taught scientific knowledge, this does not make him a scientist.) His writing, however, is much more metaphysical or theological than scientific in character. Phrases such as “death is … a chapter in a vast … journey,” “in some mysterious way,” “shifting the world around me into an even higher octave,” and “the universe itself was a giant cosmic womb” are not science. The Doctor is writing as a believer, not as a scientist.

The author’s interpretation of his experience

The importance of all this is that the author regards his experience as miraculous and therefore as demonstrating that the ultimate basis of consciousness is not physical. He alleges, “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 coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.” From this he concludes that he possesses “brain-free consciousness;” the brain is “the vehicle” rather than “the producer” of “human consciousness.” (He does not state what he believes “the producer” to be.) He further concludes that “death is not the end of consciousness,” although this is a matter regarding which he has no personal knowledge. He regards his experience as unique with respect to its medical features, and attaches great importance to it. He avers that “the theory that the brain, and in particular the cortex, generates consciousness” “now lies broken at our feet. What happened to me destroyed it.” He believes that “a new view of mind … will emerge” that is “scientific and spiritual in equal measure.”

Dr. Alexander drew additional conclusions. One is that “the universe is defined by unity,” “everything was … a part of everything else.” He tries to put a veneer of science on this idea by stating, “physics tells us that … every object and event in the universe is completely woven up with every other object and event.” Whatever way this sentence can be interpreted scientifically, it is not the same concept as the metaphysical “unity” alleged to “define” the universe.

Another conclusion is that the universe “is defined by love.” The meaning of this phrase seems to be that “God and the universe have toward us” “unconditional love.” But in Dr. Alexander’s description of his experience, love was manifest in the way a woman looked at him. How does he know that the emotion he felt was an expression of God? His article mentions no communication regarding a deity. (He does not address the question why this love is so inapparent “down here on earth.” And it is remarkable that the persons who report encountering this ideal love seem never to respond by asking, “What can I do now to help persons ‘back on earth’?”) Then, what does it mean to say that the universe loves us? Does Dr. Alexander’s manual of neurosurgery love him? Does the planet Mars? Or is the universe identical with God?

Especially in view of the title, “My Proof of heaven,” one wonders where the author believes his experience took place. He writes that his question “Where is this place?” was answered, but he does not report what he was told. The word heaven does not occur in the article. Dr. Alexander locates his experience in a supraterrestrial, but not explicitly celestial, site. He refers to it as “another, larger dimension of the universe.” Dimension is being used here not in any scientific sense, but in the manner in which it is used in science fiction, to denote some spatially conventional, three-dimensional location that a person can enter only by extraordinary means. But the standard religious idea of heaven is that it is extracosmical, not a part of the universe. Is the author able to give a clear explanation of where he thinks he was?

The supposedly miraculous character of Dr. Alexander’s experience is his justification for writing about it. He seems to have been predisposed to put a religious interpretation upon his perceptions. He was indoctrinated in Sunday school, and he “considered myself a faithful Christian.” He envied the “security” people feel by believing “that there was a God out there who loved us unconditionally.” He believes that “reality is … irreducibly mysterious.” One presumes that these notions contributed to his interpretation of his experience; for example, construing it as evidence of a paternal deity fulfilled a wish. Sights and sounds in church now remind him of his perceptions while comatose; might they not also have inspired those perceptions?

The author’s theism is more rational and more compassionate than that of the various monotheistic sects. They restrict the benevolence of their omnibenevolent gods to the small part of humankind that confines its beliefs in obedience to the priesthood of the particular sect. So he is wrong when he writes, “The universe as I experienced it in my coma is … the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of.” He is wrong whether he refers to the religion of Jesus, which was Judaism, or to the religion about Jesus that Paul of Tarsus synthesized from Judaism, paganism, and his imaginings concerning Jesus. (Collectively, near-death experiences, while they promote spiritualism, offer no support to individual religions. This is why sectarians ignore them even though they seem to provide the closest approach to genuine evidence of theism. Dr. Alexander’s book will surely be denounced as anti-Christian.)

Remarks on “near-death experiences”

Before analyzing the medical aspect of Dr. Alexander’s article, one should note that the phrase “near-death experiences” is misleading. It is true that many reports of extraordinary perceptions, more or less similar in character, have been obtained from persons who were in the process of dying or technically dead, but then revivified. Very similar perceptions, however, have been reported by persons in other circumstances in which the brain is deprived of oxygen, and as effects of ingesting hallucinogenic drugs. And many people have vivid visual and auditory perceptions in dreams, sometimes accompanied by profound emotion. The common element in all these seems to be absence of an accurate mental frame of reference. The percipient is unable to assess his circumstances and perceptions correctly, as he would if his cerebral function were that normally present during waking. Dr. Alexander avers that without “even a dim and limited consciousness” he could not have had the perceptions he did. But in all of these abnormal states, consciousness, in the sense of awareness of the actual circumstances sufficient to enable their analysis, is in abeyance.

In all these situations, the perceptions while they are occurring give the feeling of being “real” and “solid,” as did Dr. Alexander’s to him. The percipients are unaware of their inability to assess their true circumstances. People often say, “It seemed so real!” after an intense but nonveridical perception. Dr. Alexander is by no means the only person to have a “near-death experience” and to remain convinced of its reality after recovery of normal mentation. (He also is not the first physician to write about a personal “near-death” event.) Not only such experiences, but also dreams, hallucinations, and perceptions induced by sleep deprivation or meditation, sometimes are regarded by the percipient as manifestations of some “reality” different from, and “higher” than, the universe humans inhabit.

It is worth noting that the content of Dr. Alexander’s perceptions differed significantly from that said to be typical of “near-death experiences.” He does not describe an initial perception of being in a tunnel, or extensive remembrance of events of his life. He did encounter a human figure, but it was not the religious personage—Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, etc.—that many persons report as part of a near-death experience. Instead, he met an unidentified, beautiful, young woman (one suspects her name is Beatrice). She had blue eyes and golden-brown hair, wore a colorful costume, communicated with the Doctor telepathically, and perhaps was transformed into the “brilliant orb.” (One wonders why persons in heaven—or like places—are imagined as wearing clothes. According to Genesis, being in God’s image is to be nude, and clothing is a manifestation of sinfulness. In religious art, people being resurrected are depicted naked.) As reported in many near-death experiences, Dr. Alexander was told that his sojourn, wherever he was, was temporary and that he would “go back.”

Assessment of Dr. Alexander’s medical assertions

The author states that his conclusion that he possesses “brain-free consciousness” is “scientific.” This assertion rests upon his allegation of the impossibility of his “hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey” originating in his brain, because of the severity of his cerebral impairment while comatose. The evidence of impairment he adduces is 1.) the prolonged coma itself, and 2.) “global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examination.”

The question is, what is the evidence that his cerebral cortex was completely inactive, as he alleges? Physical examination by a physician can demonstrate the “unresponsive” state manifested by Dr. Alexander, and measure the depth of coma, but it cannot give precise information about all physiological activity of the brain. And computed tomography (so-called “CT scans”) is an examination of the anatomy of the brain (or other part), not a physiological examination. To assess the function of Dr. Alexander’s cortex, electroencephalography, and positron emission tomography (PET) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), would have provided substantial information. The article does not mention these or any other instrumental test of brain function. And there is no test that can demonstrate the absence of consciousness. Therefore, the assertion of complete lack of cortical activity must be regarded as unproven.

The clinical facts of the author’s case are evidence against his having had extreme cerebral impairment. He reports having detailed memories of his perceptions while comatose, and he regained substantial brain function.

Dr. Alexander writes, “While my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious inner self—was alive and well.” He does not state what the duration of his experience seemed to be. What he describes might have occupied only a few minutes; is he averring that it lasted an entire week? He does not tell how the experience ended. He does not give information about his recovery from the coma. Presumably he did not regain consciousness instantaneously and completely. How does one know that the perceptions he reports did not occur during a short period as his cortical function was improving but before he awoke?

The content of dreams related by persons after they wake represents an after-the-fact editing and interpretation of the actual dream. And states in which consciousness is not impaired but one’s perceptions are altered, such as episodes of migraine, can be interpreted, by persons so predisposed, as religious visions (David Lewis-Williams: Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion. London: Thames & Hudson). The same editing and interpretation can be surmised to have occurred in Dr. Alexander’s case, and might have contributed to the character he attributes to his perceptions and to the “coherence” he found in them after regaining consciousness. For example, he perceived “flocks of transparent, shimmering beings” soaring above the clouds, and he regards them as “more advanced” and “higher forms” in relation to “anything I have known on this planet.” How does he know this? The idea that they were angels “registered later, when I was writing down my recollections.” He continues, “thinking about it later, it occurred to me that the joy of these creatures … was such that they had to make” the noise he heard. So this interpretation of the sound evidently was not present at the time of the experience itself. And nothing in the author’s narrative supports any part of his assertion that the universe is “evolving, multidimensional, and known down to its every last atom by … God.”

The notion of “brain-free consciousness” creates problems. For example, Dr. Alexander presumably believes that his brain was unable to form memories while its cortex was “shut down.” Hence his recollections of his experience were acquired by the putative nonphysical and nonphysiologic consciousness. When he recalls the events now, is he drawing on his immaterial or his physiologic memory? How are they related? What does it signify if a procedure demonstrating brain function shows activation of neural sites of memory when he is remembering the perceptions he had while comatose? How can the immaterial and physiologic memories be connected? No philosopher or theologian has ever offered a satisfactory explanation of how a noncorporeal entity can affect matter.

The author cannot put a detailed exposition of the contents of an entire book into a three-page article. Perhaps some of the issues raised in the present essay are addressed in the forthcoming book. But if the article accurately reflects the contents of the book, “Heaven can wait.”