Thursday, October 11, 2012

Neurosurgeon Recounts Near-Death Experience

The evidence continues to mount that something potentially paranormal is going on during near-death experiences. Dr. Eben Alexander, a prominent neurosurgeon, experienced what he believes to be visions of the afterlife while in a week-long coma. What's especially interesting about this case is that unlike most near-death experiences that last for only a few minutes, this one occurred over the course of a full week during which Alexander's brain was monitored the entire time. According to the scans, during the period of the coma his neocortex ceased to function. Much like the near-death experiences in the film Flatliners, his experiences did not register as brain activity. Based on those scans Alexander is convinced that according to conventional models of the mind and brain there is no way that he could have experienced such a detailed, vivid, and lasting experience in his coma state.

Alexander says he first found himself floating above clouds before witnessing, "transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamer like lines behind them."

He claims to have been escorted by an unknown female companion and says he communicated with these beings through a method of correspondence that transcended language. Alexander says the messages he received from those beings loosely translated as:

"You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever."

"You have nothing to fear."

"There is nothing you can do wrong."

From there, Alexander claims to have traveled to "an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting." He believes this void was the home of God.

Newsweek has run a sensationalistic cover story based on this account with the title "Heaven is Real," but while Alexander is Christian and views his experience accordingly, it in fact corresponds closely to visions of the afterlife described in most other world religions as well. The concept of the afterlife in Islam is very similar, and the account could also be taken to represent certain of the bardos in Buddhism or even the Elysian Fields of Greek Paganism. Awhile back I commented on a Salon article discussing the current state of near-death research. Alexander is not the only person to recount visions of the afterlife while his brain was completely inactive, but the circumstances surrounding his case make it a particularly good one for researchers to investigate.

It is an indisputable fact that people from religions all over the world report near-death experiences with similar features. Skeptics have long maintained that this is due to random neural firing in response to oxygen deprivation in the brain. In fact, in Alexander's case his brain continued to receive oxygen but nonetheless remained inactive, which means the oxygen deprivation theory cannot explain it away. Also, in his case and those referenced in the Salon article no brain activity was registered during the experiences, and even random neural patterns would have been detected by scans. This implies that the skeptical explanation cannot be the whole picture, and perhaps that consciousness can indeed continue in some meaningful way independent of neural firing.

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Mister Lee said...

Unless the entire experience unfolded while his brain was starting back up. Who knows how time is experienced in a case like this. His apparent week-long visit may have taken seconds to take form in his brain.

I've always believed that near-death experiences are describing some sort of universal construct or process in the brain that accompanies physical death (or maybe, physical revival). The world-wide similarity of descriptions is due to the fact that people the world over have similarly constructed brains.

I don't think anything could convince me that these are real experiences or that the people involved were really dead, because coming back to life is prima facie evidence that they weren't really dead in the first place.

This should in no way be taken as proof that there isn't an afterlife. These experiences, to me, just aren't proof that there is.

Scott Stenwick said...

It is essentially this reason that I classify stories like this one as "evidence" rather than "proof." We don't have a good experimental handle on the perception of time when entering and leaving these extreme states of consciousness.

From an information processing perspective there should be some sort of limit - a certain maximum amount of information that can be encoded in memory over a specific span of time. Neural firing does top out at a certain point and encoded memories have to pass through particular brain regions like the hippocampus. In theory, if the whole experience was encoded in a few seconds while the brain was waking up I would expect to see a very high firing rate in those regions during the interval between (A) measurable brain activity and (B) full waking consciousness.

With no access to Alexander's scans there's no way for me to say whether or not such a spike was present. I do know, though, if I were personally investigating his case it's the first thing I would look for. As a neurosurgeon I would expect Alexander to know this as well as I do, and apparently he's convinced that what's on the scan is not sufficient to explain what he experienced. Of course, he could still be wrong.