Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Eben Alexander Debunked

When Eben Alexander's book Proof of Heaven came out I initially found the story circulated by his publisher potentially compelling. Alexander claimed that much like the events fictionalized in the film Flatliners, he experienced a detailed vision of the afterlife while in a coma. During that time, doctors monitoring his condition detected no brain activity. At first the story sounds like solid evidence of out-of-body consciousness, but several caveats have emerged following the book's publication.

The first is that Alexander's vision does not exactly match up with the Christian concept of Heaven. He had a classic near-death experience consisting of a tunnel of white light leading to a bright and awe-inspiring place in which he felt the presence of the divine. Despite the book's title, Alexander's experience fits the general New Age description of the afterlife just as well as it does that of Christianity. Alexander just happens to be Christian. The thing is, so is most of America, and the title is just savvy marketing. It apparently worked; the book has sold over 15 million copies. My guess is that the same book titled Proof of an Afterlife would not have done nearly as well.

The second caveat came to my attention when it was revealed that Alexander wrote his book over a period of many months surrounding his emergence from the coma. Memory is not fixed or necessarily reliable, especially when recalling altered states of consciousness. When it became clear that the the account was not written right away, that threw up a red flag because it is entirely possible that events remembered long after the fact can be jumbled or even completely made up. So the time delay means that the account could have been fabricated, even if Alexander himself believed that what he was writing was true.

Now a new article published in Esquire raises a third and probably fatal caveat to Alexander's paranormal claims. Not only was his coma medically induced rather than spontaneous, but he was clearly at least somewhat conscious while his doctors were bringing him out of it. During that time he certainly exhibited brain activity, which easily could account for his experience. The article is behind a pay wall, but Yahoo News has an excerpt:

In Proof of Heaven, Alexander writes that he spent seven days in "a coma caused by a rare case of E. coli bacterial meningitis." There is no indication in the book that it was Laura Potter, and not bacterial meningitis, that induced his coma, or that the physicians in the ICU maintained his coma in the days that followed through the use of anesthetics. Alexander also writes that during his week in the ICU he was present "in body alone," that the bacterial assault had left him with an "all-but-destroyed brain." He notes that by conventional scientific understanding, "if you don't have a working brain, you can't be conscious," and a key point of his argument for the reality of the realms he claims to have visited is that his memories could not have been hallucinations, since he didn't possess a brain capable of creating even a hallucinatory conscious experience.

I ask Potter whether the manic, agitated state that Alexander exhibited whenever they weaned him off his anesthetics during his first days of coma would meet her definition of conscious. "Yes," she says. "Conscious but delirious."

In other words, Alexander was clearly in a state during which his brain could have generated his vision of the afterlife during that time. He just doesn't remember it. It's likely that during this time the memories being formed were not of what was going on in the hospital, but rather a dreamlike fugue that would go on to become Alexander's afterlife narrative. I'm sure Alexander did have a near-death experience as part of his ordeal - the basic features fit with what has been reported by millions of others. But the detailed, involved narrative that he describes in the book is most likely a waking dream triggered by or connected with that experience.

In an appearance on the Today show Alexander claimed that the Esquire article took elements of his account out of context and that he stands by his story. But that's just the problem - the story doesn't need to be deliberately fraudulent in order to cast doubt on what really went on. In a dreamlike state, time can stretch out and dilate so that five or ten minutes can seem like weeks. Then, when the elements of that altered state are remembered, they are subject to additional changes simply due to the nature of the recall process - which, as a neurosurgeon, Alexander should be well aware of based on his history with patients.

As the Mythbusters would put it, this one is pretty much busted. There's no real evidence that Alexander's experience happened while he was without measurable brain activity, as he spent significant time in a state that could easily produce hallucinations that could be recalled as real events. It also isn't clear that if he had written the account immediately after that experience it would have read the same way, been as detailed, or even followed the same basic narrative. All this suggests that the book is more a story than an objective scientific account.

What's so remarkable to me at this point is no longer the experience itself, but rather how popular the book has become. Many accounts of near-death experiences have been published, and a lot of those now seem to have stonger scientific bases than this one. The sad thing about this all is that as an esotericist and spiritual practitioner I am not a skeptic regarding consciousness surviving death and accept the idea that near-death experiences can provide valuable insight into how that process works. I also don't doubt that Alexander recalls his experience as he describes it. But conventional explanations for unusual phenomena must always be considered before jumping to paranormal ones.

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Anonymous said...

I read this book a while back and jumped on the wagon with a review of the book. It seems to me that no one will really ever know because he was the only one there. I like to see people questioning things and challening, rather than just accepting it, but I'm not sure I would consider this "debunked" though...

Scott Stenwick said...

Here's what I mean by "debunked."

The title of Alexander's book includes the word "Proof." Based on what we know now, what really happened differs substantially from the initial account circulated about his experience, and the new story is much further from "proof" than that account. It's still evidence, but as in the case of most other such accounts that evidence is fundamentally subjective and experiential in nature.

Alexander probably did have a genuine, classic near-death experience. There are many features of his story that match up with what others have reported, and it's clear that he found the experience profoundly meaningful. The problem is that the book is marketed in a way that suggests his experience was scientifically validated and (to my knowledge) has outsold every other published NDE account on those grounds.

It's now clear that elements of his story that undermine those claims were either changed or suppressed. This is the "debunking" that I'm talking about. I don't know how much of it is coming from Alexander himself and how much is coming from his publisher's marketing department, but those changes to the narrative suggest at least some degree of deception.

Steve Garton said...

There's a materialist around every corner looking to debunk any proof of an afterlife, in support of the materialism that they themselves cannot prove.
As it turns out, the author Luke Dittrich's of Esquire Magazine didn't do his homework.

SEARCH: Commentary by NDE researcher Robert Mays

Scott Stenwick said...

Hopefully you've read enough of my blog to realize that I'm not a materialist, and that I don't categorically reject the idea of an afterlife. But claiming that an paranormal phenomenon has been "scientifically verified" when it in fact has not does nothing towards demonstrating its existence. If anything, it makes those of us who support the existence said phenomenon look like a bunch of cranks who don't understand how the scientific method works.

Rich Martini said...

"Proof" is also a science term for a paper that shows scientific evidence. Dr Eben Alexander debunks the debunkers in the link below. (letter at the end) This is why its so important it happened to a Harvard materialist scientist - he knows the science involved and can respond. A note on the "rainbow" that appeared to his family on a clear day. These kinds of stories are common in Tibetan accounts of "auspicious occasions" like births or deaths. We don't have a nomenclature to explain why these events occur - but to deny they occur, or to paint them as nonsense (or that they are important) is to miss the point entirely. They do occur - they could be just coincidence, and they may be not. But to dismiss the entire book because of a report he didn't experience, but his family did, is to look at the pixels and miss the picture.

Scott Stenwick said...

It's fairly clear to me that both the Esquire article and the interview you link to are spinning the facts the way they want them to read.

I've experienced that "rainbow" effect myself, and I agree with you that there's something to it. And as I hope I've been clear above, I believe that Alexander did have a genuinely paranormal experience of some sort of afterlife.

However, given how the account came to be written, I still think calling it "proof" is disingenuous. I also think the use of "Heaven" is questionable as well, because his account has no features that would explicitly identify the afterlife he experienced as the Christian description of the same.

Honestly, I have no idea whether or not the title and the book's presentation came from Alexander himself or his publisher's marketing department. With the sales he's generated (and, I suppose, additional publicity from articles like mine) they certainly have earned their keep.