They’re always hucksters at heart

When I heard about Eben Alexander’s I-died-and-went-to-heaven story, my first reaction was dismissive: I’ve heard these stories so many times, and they always turn out to be confabulation. When the brain is rebooted after trauma, especially if the process is prolonged as in Alexander’s case, it tries to reconstruct the continuity of experience by building memories (heck, even in normal healthy brains, memories are constructed). What I would have condemned Alexander for is extreme gullibility, unforgivable in a highly trained neurosurgeon.

I did not assume he was making stuff up for a payday. But not so fast; an Esquire reporter did some digging into Eben Alexander’s background, and also checked the details of his claims in his book, and it looks like we ought to be more suspicious.

When Alexander got sick in late 2008, he hadn’t practiced surgery in a year and faced a $3 million malpractice lawsuit. He now has a best-selling book and a movie deal.

Not just a malpractice suit, which are fairly common, but a whole string of malpractice suits that made him the subject of the highest number of such suits in his state. He’d similarly faded out of practice in Massachusetts, first, and then moved to Virginia to restart, where he then lost his surgical privileges at his hospital after a succession of screwups in spinal surgery…and after altering surgical records to cover his tracks.


Oh, well. When you’re a venal fuckup, you can always find a loving home in the Christian community by lying about Jesus a lot.


  1. Raucous Indignation says

    I’ve had many patients who had “near death” experiences or who were coded and successfully resuscitated. The vast majority told me they didn’t remember the event. The others confabulated.

  2. says

    Okay, wow. I’ve seen a few anecdotes of neurosurgeons who experienced NDEs and became credulous, but this one’s just overtly slimy.

    Messing up spinal surgery? Altering records? I can believe that’d lead to a $3 million lawsuit plus others. I’m glad to hear he lost his surgery privileges. Unfortunately, he probably caused a lot of harm before then, knowing that line of work. I seriously hope it didn’t include botched brain surgery.

  3. stevem says

    <TMI alert>
    I had a TBI event a few years ago and went through 11 days of deep coma (not chemically induced) and retained no memory of the incident (and a few days before it, also) [which I keep getting told is a very common reaction to such an event]. I’ve always envied people who confabulated those memorable NDE’s and wished my brain coped with my trauma similarly. I’d much rather have something rather than the nothing I was left with. It is very strange having this lengthy “time-gap”, without even a blank space, but nothing at all; like a jump in time. At least with a NDE memory, or some other confabulation, there wouldn’t be this timejump in my memorybank. I feel bad for people with these “confabulations” that don’t distinguish them from actual events, but I just pity them. On the other hand, I completely loathe the act of fabricating a confabulation and selling it (for actual $$) as real, without even a subtle disclaimer that this is just his brain reacting to a medical crisis. The OP’s news that he was strongly motivated to do such a thing is even more loathesome. I previously just dismissed this book as a confabulation, but now it sounds like a complete fabrication.
    [I keep using the word, “confabulation”, above, to learn the distinction from “fabrication”, thank you PZ for expanding my vocabulary.]

  4. Thumper: Token Breeder says

    @Bronze Dog

    I seriously hope it didn’t include botched brain surgery.

    Botched spinal surgery is bad enough.

  5. Sastra says

    The red flag here in the malpractice accusations is the falsification of records, something he appears to have done iirc more than once. His story also appears to have changed over time.

    I may have discovered another anomaly. A friend of mine is heavily into the woo and wanted me to watch a video of Eben Alexander giving an interview. Apparently, he tells public radio’s Steve Paulson that while he was in his coma and undergoing his amazing experiences, he found out for the first time that he had had an older sister. When he woke up and told his mother/ family about this, they were amazed. It seems that there WAS an older sister who had died and there was no way he could have known! My friend wanted my skeptic take on this because it’s the sort of evidence which skeptics claim they want: new information not otherwise knowable.

    Now, it’s probably obvious to everyone reading this where the giant holes in this anecdote lie. But I looked into it a bit and to my surprise it appears that no, there is another problem here. When I brought this up on Coyne’s WEIT website he sent me a link to another description of Alexander’s adventures where the “sister” story is completely different. Bottom line, he already knew he had an older sister who was deceased before he went into a coma, and months afterwards he was looking at her photograph and suddenly realized that hey, he had seen that face in his vision. Less than stellar evidence, to put it mildly.

    But a very different story.

    I haven’t seen the Paulson interview yet — and the videos which are supposed to show Alexander retrofitting his sister’s face into his story (she was the Butterfly Girl) don’t play (telling me they ‘do not exist.’) But I asked my friend again if Alexander claims that he found out THAT he had a sister and she assures me he does. If so, his new tale contains the sort of predictive evidence which is much more intriguing. It’s improved.

    I wonder if this is another smoking gun.

  6. Hairhead, whose head is entirely filled with Too Much Stuff says

    Botching spinal surgery.


    (But in a different state)

    Why on earth would the medical profession emulate the Catholic Church?

    I worked with people with spinal injuries for years — the tales they told of drunken doctors, scalpel-cut spinal cords, etc. — if only 10% of them were true, it was horrifying (and terrifying).

  7. jnorris says

    I died in 2006. Never saw the bright light or heard angels sing. Hence no book deal. I was robbed!

  8. Hairhead, whose head is entirely filled with Too Much Stuff says

    PROOF! Your message jnmorris is proof of life after death! I TELL YOU THIS!

  9. Rich Woods says

    @jnorris #10:

    I died in 2006. Never saw the bright light or heard angels sing. Hence no book deal. I was robbed!

    Clearly Jesus didn’t want you to earn from the experience.

  10. carovee says

    Sastra that claims sounds suspiciously like the one that kid who had an NDE ( who also has a book and a movie deal) made. I think the book was called Heaven is Real. So, yeah, somebody upped the ante and just remembering a sister long forgotten is not enough.

  11. unclefrogy says

    OK here is a question. What is the chance that NDE’s are a source of the ideas of the afterlife and the personification of gods. How much influence have have these kinds of stories had over time on religious thought I would include “miraculous visions” of divine figures as well.

    uncle frogy

  12. gakxz1 says

    unclefrogy, I’d imagine that NDE’s weren’t very frequent in the past, since it’s only recently that we’ve had the technology to resuscitate people from some of these conditions (they mostly wouldn’t have made it to tell their confabulations). That’s not to say that a few lucky cases wouldn’t have appeared. Though perhaps these would be swamped by stories arrising from less drastic mind-alteration methods (shrooms seem like a much safer way of dreaming up bs).

  13. Trickster Goddess says

    Even if heaven was real, the fact that such a sleazy surgeon claims to have been allowed in casts doubt on the veracity of his story.

  14. mykroft says

    Kinda makes you wonder.

    You live in the Roman occupied territories, and hear some stories from a cult where the followers call themselves Christians. They keep to themselves and don’t want the notice of the authorities. But perhaps they welcome you in, and feed you when you agree with them or, better yet, repeat some of the stories you heard from other groups. You start telling more elaborate stories (maybe you even encountered Jesus in a vision!), and develop a reputation. Draw from other contemporary religions (Mithras, Osiris, etc) for ideas in terms of how Jesus was shown to be divine. More opportunities for free food, and some status. The stories get more detailed. Before you know it, you are the revered expert, a true apostle. No book or movie deals, but a good gig.

    You figure out that if you do this:
    – They aren’t going to go to the authorities if they figure out it’s a sham
    – You are guaranteed free food, perhaps even some donations of money
    – Most of these people have no education, so the risk is fairly small
    – The best part of the stories: people will only get to meet Jesus after they die. Conveniently, nobody comes back from the dead to contradict you.

    Eventually, you (or some scribe) start writing your stories down. Others copy them, perhaps adding some embellishments of their own. Tailoring the work for a specific audience: Greeks with their philosophy prefer abstractions over reality, so focus on the divine aspects. Jewish people might be big on genealogy, so make sure you can trace Jesus’s lineage back to David. Throw in some parallels to Jewish prophecies, so they match the Jesus narrative. Incorporate material from other Jesus stories generated elsewhere, so that they aren’t too inconsistent.

    After about 300 years, the stories have grown and morphed, and the early church decides to select the “best” of these stories to become canon.

  15. militantagnostic says

    Oh, well. When you’re a venal fuckup, you can always find a loving home in the Christian community by lying about Jesus a lot.

    Eben Alexander isn’t a liar, he is a Bullshitter. He doesn’t care whether what he says is true or not. A liar would at least check the weather records etc, so his more easily verified claims would check out. Like any skilled con man, Eben Alexander tells the marks what they want to hear. Since they are hearing what they want to believe they are not going to question it.

    I knew someone was resuscitated 5 times in one night and talked to him while he was still sore from the CPR. He didn’t have any NDEs, but then he was a biologist so he probably didn’t qualify for admission to heaven anyway.

  16. Nick Gotts says

    Though perhaps these would be swamped by stories arrising from less drastic mind-alteration methods (shrooms seem like a much safer way of dreaming up bs). – gakxz1@19

    How about dreams as a way of dreaming up bs? I’ve had many dreams of my dead parents and two dead friends. It would be easy to interpret such dreams of the dead as evidence of an afterlife.

  17. oursally says

    @mykroft – substance abuse is not new. The ancients had access to all kinds of trance-inducing things, only they believed what they dreamed. They also had a lot of food poisoning, and things like mouldy grain can cause whole communities to hallucinate.

  18. stripeycat says

    Drownings had a fairly good chance of recovery if you turned them head down and smacked the chest (sort of like encouraging a newborn to breath :) Certainly it happened enough to be a recognised phenomenon in the past – I guess even a 5% survival rate would allow for some NDE stories to circulate.

  19. gakxz1 says

    Nick Gotts@20- you’re probably right, dreams themselves would be far more important in generating these kinds of stories (and just pure lucid imagination also. In a world in which nearly every corner held something mysterious and unknown, it wasn’t difficult coming up with these things). If we’re talking specifically about effects of stories brough about from physically altering brain chemistry (a meningitis induced coma, shrooms) probably more people saw things while high than after a coma they were very unlikely to survive.

    (but just speculation on my end, I’m a physics grad student, so… this isn’t my field.)

  20. spamamander, internet amphibian says

    OT but for those nervous about spinal surgery now-

    My disc reduction was the best thing in the history of ever. I know some surgeons push disc surgery when it’s not really needed, but I’d been in screaming sciatic pain for over a year, and even I could see on the MRI where the disc bulged out and pieces of it broke off and floated in the spinal canal. Initially the plan was a fusion, but we tried the discectomy first. I did end up with aftereffects, I have a numb streak down one leg and most of my right foot, but compared to having both legs and my back shrieking no matter what position I was in, it’s well worth it.