I was less surprised than dispirited when I read the recent cover story in Maclean’s magazine “What If Heaven Is Real? Why so many people – including scientists – suddenly believe in an afterlife.”

To be precise, I was dispirited *not* that a high percentage of educated Canadians and Americans believe in an afterlife, but that so many believe there is scientific *proof* for one.

Featured in the Maclean’s piece is the case of Harvard-trained neurosurgeon Eben Alexander. In his recent “memoir,” Proof of Heaven, Alexander writes that during a coma in 2008 he went to heaven. I don’t doubt the man’s sincerity, though I wonder why he doesn’t bring to his own experience the rational skepticism and humility that science and medicine require of him. That is, I doubt his judgment.

Oliver Sacks takes him to task:

Dr. Alexander presents himself as emerging from his coma suddenly: “My eyes opened … my brain … had just kicked back to life.” But one almost always emerges gradually from coma; there are intermediate stages of consciousness. It is in these transitional stages, where consciousness of a sort has returned, but not yet fully lucid consciousness, that NDEs [near-death experiences] tend to occur.

Alexander insists that his journey, which subjectively lasted for days, could not have occurred except while he was deep in coma. But we know from the experience of Tony Cicoria and many others, that a hallucinatory journey to the bright light and beyond, a full-blown NDE, can occur in 20 or 30 seconds, even though it seems to last much longer. Subjectively, during such a crisis, the very concept of time may seem variable or meaningless. The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander’s case, then, is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.

To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific — it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states.

In 1991 I contributed an essay called “The Popular Appeal of the Near-Death Experience” to the Journal of Near Death Studies’ 10th Anniversary Issue. I wrote:

Of all experiences that can be called paranormal, the Near Death Experience [NDE] is unique. Here is an alleged experience of the afterlife that can actually be looked at under more or less controlled conditions, for example in hospitals. Here, finally, science might no longer be able to deny the existence of the soul, of consciousness floating free from visceral support. The experiment is clear: if someone can report having an NDE after his or her electroencephalogram has been flat for a while, then scientists must accept that some form of human consciousness is independent of the brain. The thin edge of the wedge was described precisely by Charles Tart: “Man has a non-physical soul of some sort that is capable, under certain conditions, of leaving the physical body.”

I predict that as researchers close in on a wholly physiological explanation for NDEs, popular interest in them will wane, because people come to this topic out of hope and that hope will be dashed. If medicine figures out how to induce an NDE safely, how to excite the beneficial effects described so eloquently by Barbara Harris and many others [including losing one’s fear of death, gaining confidence, feeling affection for all life], then interest will no doubt rise again, but it will rise among those who are interested in psychotherapy and not in proof of the afterlife or an immaterial soul.

It is impossible to predict whether such a drug or treatment will ever be invented, or how – or how often and to how many – it would be prescribed, or what society would look and act like when it is filled with self-knowing people-lovers whose fear of death has vanished. It does seem, however, that profoundly effective psychotherapy available on such a wide scale would warrant the same kind of debate now generated by the possibility of improving our biological make-up with designer genes.

Well, interest in NDEs has certainly *not* waned as physiological explanations have been fine-tuned. I was wrong about that!


  sanjose61 wrote @

Great post. If your synopsis of the Dr. Alexander article is accurate (and I have every reason to believe that it is) I’m disappointed that the doctor would disarm himself of objectivity and skepticism.

  Sue Beck wrote @

Am I correct in remembering you were on a talk show once on this same topic? Jerry Springer?

  Bob Basil wrote @

Sue, That was an early, but still vulgar, version of the Jerry Springer Show. I was also on Larry King: I’m going to write about that in my next post. Thank you for reading! :)

  Bob Basil wrote @

My son writes:

I noticed you just wrote about a book that I just read half of while at home. I haven’t finished yet, and I won’t till I get home (it’s on my mom’s iPad).

I think he’s a great writer, and I agree, I believe he is sincere, but don’t believe he did his due diligence as far as a true, skeptical, examination of his NDE. I think it’s actually a little arrogant, even for a neurosurgeon, to be able to “rule out” other organic causes of an event like that. The brain is still so much of a mystery to us and to use absolutes in his writing (that the E. coli totally basically “destroyed his brain”) is foolish. Every good scientist knows that outliers are present, those who fall at the ends of the bell curve. Maybe his NDE was unique (even though it doesn’t seem that it was), but even if that’s the case, maybe a specific set of neurons were under attack? Or spared?

I see psychotic patients everyday with real, organic, chemical trauma to various portions of their brains, and a high proportion of them become hyperreligious, which is really a very striking and odd commonality. I have a bunch of different hypotheses as to why, but maybe his trauma caused by meningitis gave him his own little slice of psychosis. It is common to have various neurological side affects after meningitis (hearing loss, confusion, etc) maybe he was fortunate enough to have the rational affected, leaving his linguistic and creative zones untouched?

Just thinking out loud.

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