I’ve got to wonder who is responsible for this nonsense, and how it gets past the staff at Newsweek. Every once in a while, they’ve just got to put up a garish cover story touting the reality of Christian doctrine, and invariably, the whole story is garbage. This time around, the claim is proof of life after death, in Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife. This time, we have a real-live doctor who has worked at many prestigious institutions, as we are reminded several times in the story, whose brain was shut down and who then recites an elaborate fantasy of visiting heaven.
Very early one morning four years ago, I awoke with an extremely intense headache. Within hours, my entire cortex—the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion and that in essence makes us human—had shut down. Doctors at Lynchburg General Hospital in Virginia, a hospital where I myself worked as a neurosurgeon, determined that I had somehow contracted a very rare bacterial meningitis that mostly attacks newborns. E. coli bacteria had penetrated my cerebrospinal fluid and were eating my brain.
When I entered the emergency room that morning, my chances of survival in anything beyond a vegetative state were already low. They soon sank to near nonexistent. For seven days I lay in a deep coma, my body unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline.
Those are the last true words stated in the story. I believe that part; yes, there are catastrophically dangerous diseases that can so disrupt brain function that the victim loses all higher brain function. I don’t have reason to doubt that this Dr Eben Alexander suffered from such a debilitating problem.
But then it gets weird. After he regains consciousness a week later, he starts assembling an elaborate account of visiting heaven.
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.
Higher than the clouds—immeasurably higher—flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them.
Birds? Angels? These words registered later, when I was writing down my recollections. But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms.
Notice that key phrase: “words registered later”. He was not writing this stuff down while he was in a brain-dead state; I would argue that he was also not experiencing them at that time. These were stories that he built later, as he was coming to grips with that past trauma, and they were a means of coping with a huge painful gap in his memory. We know that this is what our brains do; it fills gaps in our knowledge with imaginary events to maintain continuity, a process called confabulation. This is all Alexander is doing, is making up fairy tales to comfort himself after a serious shock.
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.
Isn’t that telling enough? It took him months to build his story. He hadn’t been conscious during his coma, but he sure was afterwards.
Now why would he invent a Christian afterlife, though?
Although I considered myself a faithful Christian, I was so more in name than in actual belief. I didn’t begrudge those who wanted to believe that Jesus was more than simply a good man who had suffered at the hands of the world. I sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God somewhere out there who loved us unconditionally. In fact, I envied such people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided. But as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself.
Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that line of crap before. “I’m a serious, hard-nosed scientist, I wouldn’t believe in that Christian stuff unless it was really true!” It’s a common trope. This guy was soaking in Christianity, wanted to believe in Christianity, and I don’t care if he was a Harvard neuroscientist, he was still vulnerable to self-delusion.
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.
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.
What were these concepts, you might wonder. He’s a neuroscientist; shouldn’t we expect some great “A-ha!” moments, some new powerful revelations about how the brain works that would revolutionize his field of study?
But of course not. He returns from his mind-expanding experience and does not sit down to write a revolutionary new paper on the science of the mind, but instead, as usual, writes a bunch of banal drivel about angels. This is the deep message that he shares with us that would have taken years to fully grasp, he claims.
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
“You have nothing to fear.”
“There is nothing you can do wrong.”
Here’s a deep message for you: brain damage can persuade you of the truth of some real bullshit.