The Latest Unconvincing ‘Proof’ of the Afterlife


Newsweek published a cover story by Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who claims to have visited heaven while in a coma resulting from bacterial meningitis. Religious believers have predictably jumped all over the story as proof that their beliefs are correct, that we have a soul that is entirely separate from the body and that after we die that soul continues on to the afterlife. Sam Harris throws some cold water on that argument:

Everything—absolutely everything—in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was “shut down,” “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” “totally offline,” and “stunned to complete inactivity.” The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate—it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science. Perhaps he has saved a more persuasive account for his book—though now that I’ve listened to an hour-long interview with him online, I very much doubt it. In his Newsweek article, Alexander asserts that the cessation of cortical activity was “clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations.” To his editors, this presumably sounded like neuroscience.

The problem, however, is that “CT scans and neurological examinations” can’t determine neuronal inactivity—in the cortex or anywhere else. And Alexander makes no reference to functional data that might have been acquired by fMRI, PET, or EEG—nor does he seem to realize that only this sort of evidence could support his case.

He then contacted Mark Cohen, one of the foremost experts on neuroscience, especially neuroimaging, who confirmed this skepticism:

This poetic interpretation of his experience is not supported by evidence of any kind. As you correctly point out, coma does not equate to “inactivation of the cerebral cortex” or “higher-order brain functions totally offline” or “neurons of [my] cortex stunned into complete inactivity”. These describe brain death, a one hundred percent lethal condition…

We are not privy to his EEG records, but high alpha activity is common in coma. Also common is “flat” EEG. The EEG can appear flat even in the presence of high activity, when that activity is not synchronous. For example, the EEG flattens in regions involved in direct task processing. This phenomenon is known as event-related desynchronization (hundreds of references)…

There are many reports of people remembering dream-like states while in medical coma. They lack consistency, of course, but there is nothing particularly unique in Dr. Alexander’s unfortunate episode.

There is much more to Harris’ article, including comparing the reported experiences of Alexander to nearly identical reports from those who use psychadelic drugs. The lesson is clear: Alter the physical and chemical properties of the brain and you can produce a staggering variety of memories and experiences that never actually happened. This is evidence for a non-dualist conception of consciousness, not a religious one.

Comments

  1. Michael Heath says

    As a fan of both Ed and Sam Harris, I’m happy to see Ed referencing Harris’ work here. Especially since Mr. Harris is attracted to difficult arguments where he takes the position contrary to ‘common sense’. This particular Harris rebuttal didn’t require the full use of his thinking skills but unfortunately to most Americans, it does have Harris once again countering what most Americans perceive as common sense.

    I don’t have a subscription to Newsweek where I wonder if they partly mitigated their dishonesty by at least having an attendant article by an expert or experts to their cover story. An article which falsifies the premises used by this Christian doctor in support of his assertion he was in Hollywood Heaven.

  2. says

    And it sounds like another one of my intuitions was correct: I doubted that a living brain could completely shut down and return to functioning at a conscious level, thus I would expect there’s some room for activity during coma, even if it’s at some low level.

    So I once again fail to be surprised. It’s really annoying that woos resort to inventing details to serve as a source of alleged skeptical bafflement when mundane and readily explainable things happen.

  3. Sastra says

    If you’ve studied some of the literature regarding how memories often become both more contaminated more detailed over time – and then look at the timeline involved from the moment Alexander woke up to the time he first started writing down what he “saw,” there’s an additional problem with taking this as some sort of objective scientific evidence.

    The idiocies abound. In addition to the “pink, puffy clouds” and riding on a giant butterfly wing, the pearls of wisdom themselves ought to be examined. Remember, Alexander claims that his experience had too much “significance” to be the product of his own brain. Elsewhere, he speaks lyrically of the “layer upon layer of understanding and of lessons taught by deceased loved ones and spiritual beings.”

    So what are these lessons? What was the epiphany here, what knowledge was revealed? What new insights and facts are supposed to rock us back in amazement and make us wonder how could Alexander have known this — if his encounter with the Higher Realm is not real? As a scientist (well, neurosurgeon, but same difference, right?) he would have been sure to have brought back something of what he was taught.

    Well, behold this:

    The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this:

    “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

    “You have nothing to fear.”

    “There is nothing you can do wrong.”

    Whoa. Take that, skeptics!

    I am underwhelmed. My mommy already taught me that stuff, long time ago.

  4. Abby Normal says

    The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this:

    “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

    “You have nothing to fear.”

    “There is nothing you can do wrong.”

    No no, please don’t translate. Let me hear it in the same language you do.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

    Thanks, grandpa. Now, where did you hide the gold?

  6. says

    Why is it that you only get a preview of heaven when your brain is being damaged? You think in an intelligently designed universe, there would be a better way.

  7. Artor says

    Every mention of this I have seen includes Dr. Alexander’s credentials as a neurosurgeon. Seeing as his account seems to rely on a total ignorance of neurology, I wonder if the good doctor is lying about his background or lying about his experience. Obviously his conclusions are false, but he might actually believe them, which I wouldn’t characterize as lying, but if he’s a neurosurgeon, he has to know that all his techno-babble is bullshit. So is he a lying not-surgeon, a lying surgeon, or a delusional, piss-poor surgeon?

  8. duck1887 says

    Ed says that

    Religious believers have predictably jumped all over the story as proof that their beliefs are correct, that we have a soul that is entirely separate from the body and that after we die that soul continues on to the afterlife.

    Okay, so he goes to heaven and learns that “There is nothing you can do wrong.” I wonder what these religious believers, who affirm the validity of this experience, think about this message. So for example if I support marriage equality there’s nothing wrong with that? Good to know. (Of course some religious believers do believe this, and would thus be consistent here, but I’m not sure those are the ones who are all over this story …).

  9. says

    Anyone who’s ever had general anaesthesia with nitrous oxide, or who has used it recreationally, has a good likelihood of seeing the tunnel and lights and all that nonsense. I did, once, and there was a Rammstein Concert at the end of the tunnel and Amy Lee was on stage with Til and it was pure awesome. I’m pretty sure that the fact I had my metal-mix shuffle playing on my iPad had nothing to do with it; it was a very believable experience therefore it must be true and heaven likes goth metal and Amy Lee is an angel. QED.

  10. duck1887 says

    On a more serious note, this story reminds me of Daniel Dennett’s article “Are Dreams Experiences?” (in his early collection Brainstorms), which casts a skeptical eye on our assumption that dreams (or experiences like this one) take place in real time, as opposed to being in some sense constructed afterwards. So even if the guy’s brain state was not (let’s say) capable of experience “at the time”, that doesn’t mean he/it couldn’t have constructed a “memory” of it later on.

  11. says

    Sastra ponders:
    So what are these lessons? What was the epiphany here, what knowledge was revealed?

    Again, this is common to trip-states (which is, basically, what this guy was experiencing) you may feel you understand things but they’re really intangible and squishy and amount to nothing.

    I’d be a bit more impressed if someone said they interviewed god directly and then related god’s answer to the Euthyphro dilemma (or Epicurus’ formulation of the problem of evil) and it was actually divinely awesome. Strangely, that never seems to happen. Instead, people appear to come back with things that sound like their brains are shutting down or are scrambled… What an odd coincidence.

    (I know one guy who brought back some amazing deep wisdom from an acid trip, by writing it down while it was still hot in his mind. It was: ”
    higgumus huggumus, women are monogamous,
    huggumus higgumus, men are polygamous.”

    No, it was not me. I don’t recall if he got that piece of
    wisdom on a post-it note from saint peter or if it was just
    burned into his brain by the cosmic awesomeness, or what.)

  12. A. Noyd says

    How could the doc know whether his visions came from when he was comatose and not when he was coming out of the coma? (Or, more likely, a combination of visions while waking and subconscious editing of the memories of those visions to make them into a more logically consistent narrative—something we all do with our dreams.) Does he even bother to say?

    ~*~*~*~*~*~

    duck1887 (#14)

    …which casts a skeptical eye on our assumption that dreams (or experiences like this one) take place in real time, as opposed to being in some sense constructed afterwards.

    Yeahhh. Considering the epic shit my brain can pack into the seven minutes after I smack the snooze button, there’s really no doubt in my mind that dream time does not map to real time.

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    Between Eben Alexander and Michael Egnor, neurosurgeons are starting to scare the hell out of me.

  14. eric says

    Why is it that you only get a preview of heaven when your brain is being damaged?

    Its one of the seven wonders of theology. It tells us on the one hand that a direct experience of the divine would contaminate our precious free will, which is why God doesn’t just step in and stop rape and murder. On the other hand…a vision of heaven! Halleluja and pass the collection plate!

  15. Sastra says

    I remembered another story of a “profound” revelation had while under a mind-altering substance, painfully recorded — and then re-read when no longer in the same state. I found a bunch of variations of this here:

    I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes)

    I remember it as “petroleum.”

    There are parts of the brain which, when active (or over-active) lend a deep sense of significance to whatever is being observed or contemplated. You just can’t describe — you simply can’t get across — how incredibly deep and important this thing is. You’re experiencing this thing (thought, idea, object) on a level so deep that it transcends our ability to express it. No words can suffice.The secret meaning of the universe alters everything.

    And from Bill Hicks:

    Wouldn’t you like to see a positive LSD story on the news? To hear what it’s all about, perhaps? Wouldn’t that be interesting? Just for once?

    “Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration. . . that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves… Now here’s Tom with the weather!”

  16. otrame says

    That sense of “significance” is an extremely common report in experiences that result from drugs like LSD and vision quests where a person undergoes a great deal of stress (fasting, overheating in “spirit-lodges”, dancing or some other exercise to exhaustion) with or without drugs to assist in creating an altered mental state. What the good doctor is describing is, as others have noted, symptomatic of such an altered state.

    And his belief that the experience was real is somewhat understandable at first, given that he did not take drugs or do a vision quest deliberately to achieve this altered state. However, by now, he should have realized what really happened to him. He’s too well-educated not to know. So he is lying, either to us or to himself.

  17. says

    I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether

    Ouch.
    I use ether as a process chemical for my ambrotype photography, and the headache it gives you after prolonged exposure is deep, throbbing, and nasty.

    There are accounts of a fair number of victorian literati huffing ether and/or nitrous oxide. Perhaps I myself confabulated it*, but I recall once reading that Bentham, Shelly, and Mary Wollestonecraft were “experienced” (in the sense Jimi Hendrix famously asked) Also, apparently laudanum was popular cut with absinthe in some literary and artistic circles. I wish someone’d write a book on the topic.

  18. says

    Sastra writes:
    There are parts of the brain which, when active (or over-active) lend a deep sense of significance to whatever is being observed or contemplated.

    I’ve experienced it as well. I’ve even experienced it while drunk (alcohol: mind-altering trips since Sumerian times) though less strongly. It seems that in my case what happens is just confusion. Let’s say I’m excited about something, like, I just set the sleeve of my bathrobe on fire while making tea. And then when I put it out, I am still carrying a whiff of adrenaline and basically confabulate that with a not-so-good idea for a feature to add to some software. Suddenly, for a while, the software idea seems much much better than it really is on later examination. I’ve experienced similar events in which additional reasoning behind the idea is confabulated in later, making the idea seem even awesomer in retrospect than it was at the time.

    This is one (of many) reasons I am so dismissive of near-death experiences and religious interpretations of them. Obviously, once someone has even a little investment in the idea that they saw heaven they’re going to tend to confabulate additional important “details” that match such an important event’s importance. I remember reading an account of one NDE in which the subject’s re-telling of their experience got increasingly detail-rich with each retelling. I guess god keeps adding “facts” to the story after you come to, also. ;)

    At the point where your brain is flatlined, it’s dead and the nerves aren’t going to magically resume functioning. That anyone who claims to have any medical knowledge would make such a basic mistake makes me immediately dismiss the whole story as “ridiculous lie” and not an honest mistake. You don’t need David Hume to wonder which is more likely: that a true believer decided to lie a little bit, or that a genuine miracle happened.

  19. says

    “Again, this is common to trip-states (which is, basically, what this guy was experiencing) you may feel you understand things but they’re really intangible and squishy and amount to nothing.”

    I remember, vividly, how intriguing a hand, held in a fist about three inches from my nose–then suddenly opened and pulled away–looked when I first started getting stoned back in the early 70’s.

  20. yoav says

    Maybe I’m getting overly cynical in my old age but I can think of a much simpler explanation. The guy come out of the coma and see the pile of medical bills waiting for him, he need to make some serious dough and soon, que cartoon lightbolb, how about writing a book about going to heaven and selling it to a bunch of gullible idiots.

  21. says

    I just thought of a better way of explaining what I meant:
    Have you ever had the experience of confabulating? If so, think what would happen if you imagined you’d had a good idea, then confabulated details

    That’s exactly what a trip-revalation feels like, to me. Which makes me sometimes think that what’s really going on is that we remember what having a good idea felt like (that’s what a hallucination is, right?) and then backfill from there.

    I am not a big fan of the weed because I had an experience once that ruined it for me. I was doing some nitrous recreationally and someone gave me a big fat joint that I hit off. A few minutes later I started having fairly vivid smell hallucinations – it was like my brain was randomly going, “ha! you smell cheeze-doodles!” and then “now, you smell mango yoghurt!” etc. Some of them were pretty intense and they rapidly translated into “MUST NOM!” it made me think I had figured out the psychological mechanism behind “the munchies.”

    But come to think of it, it was probably just a revalation from god.

  22. raven says

    You think in an intelligently designed universe, there would be a better way.

    If heaven is real, it would have its own website and Youtube channel.

  23. Pieter B, FCD says

    I know they sound similar, but a neurosurgeon is not the same thing as a neuroscientist. The claim that in a coma the cerebral cortex is “inactivated” strikes me as something any moderately intelligent undergrad in the life sciences would find laughable.

    Doc, flat-line tracings or it didn’t happen.

  24. jimmiraybob says

    I’ll be reserving my judgment until the Republicans, possibly bringing in Bill Frist to reprise his role as Dr. Video, have reviewed the book and video evidence and have made appropriate diagnoses and initiated legislation.

    Medicine is too important to leave to the scientists.

  25. laurentweppe says

    Thanks, grandpa. Now, where did you hide the gold?

    I spent it all on hookers, silly.
    This message channeled from the afterlife was provided to you free of charges

  26. dingojack says

    No, No, it’s all true I tells ya. Here’s a vid of what he saw, honest!
    Dingo
    —–
    And where did Grampa get the gold?

    I love those cowboys, I love their gold,
    I loved my uncle, God rest his soul,
    Taught me good, Lord, Taught me all I know
    Taught me so well, I grabbed that gold
    And I left his dead ass there by the side of the road
    “.

  27. andrewlephong says

    Leaving aside the dubious claim that his cortical activity actually ceased, let’s for a sec take his claims at face value. So we should draw grandiose metaphysical conclusions about the existence of an afterlife based on a single anecdotal experience a man claimed to have WHILE HE WAS BRAIN DAMAGED? Do the NDE crackpots really see nothing wrong with this?

  28. sailor1031 says

    Since Alexander didn’t actually die how, FFS, can his experience be proof of a life after death? Or did he die and come back again beating the record of Yeshue bar Yussef by four days. A new entry for the GBWR….

    It is possibly proof of the amazing ability of the brain to string a lot of weird stuff together though…..

  29. jaranath says

    That’s been bugging me too, sailor1031, but I think they insist on “I was dead!” because it makes it a True Miracle, a genuine impossibility (and also echoes Biblical miracles). We know people come back from the brink of death all the time. They want to believe they were dead as Old Marley, or else nothing wonderful can come from their tale.

    Which also bugs me. Why can’t their tale be true without them being dead? I mean yeah, they want the PROOF to win over skeptics. But aside from that, why can’t people with one foot and most of the other in the grave also have most of both in heaven? That would fit well with the pattern of many of their narratives, wherein they never quite get to cross the pearly gates (“90 Minutes in Heaven’s” author actually cites both those AND gold pavement beyond…), meet Jesus or historical figures likely to tell them something testable. They were never fully committed to the Beyond and get yanked back early.

    Of course, if they bought that then they might also buy that things like chemically-induced experiences of heaven are also genuine, and that would be amusing…and not unprecedented, considering historic use of drugs in religion. First Church of the Holy Mushroom, anyone?

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