Thursday, October 25, 2012

Questioning Eben Alexander

Two weeks ago I put up a post discussing the claims of Dr. Eben Alexander III, a prominent neurosurgeon who has written a new book describing a near-death experience that occurred while he was in a coma. His book, called Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey Into the Afterlife, is rapidly rising on the bestseller lists, but its actual content raises some new questions about the accuracy of his account.

While the experiences Alexander describes contain many features common to near-death experiences reported all over the world, they are cast in explicit, sectarian terms specific to Christianity and seem to contain an extraordinary level of detail. Some of this may be due to the duration of his coma - he was unconscious without measurable brain function for a full week, whereas most near-death experiences only last minutes. However, a careful reading of the book reveals another possible explanation - not only was he not the skeptic he claimed to be prior to his coma, he may very well have conflated his memory of the experience with other events from his life both before and after his illness. Slate's Daniel Engber explains:

For starters, Alexander says it took him "months to come to terms with what happened," as if he'd had to reconstruct the ultra-real experience after his recovery. One might timidly suggest that the story is confabulated—that is to say, his wounded brain filled in the gaps in time with a holy flight of fancy. (Perhaps his experience of "flying" came from memories of skydiving while a student at University of North Carolina?) It also seems at least half-plausible that Alexander's dreamy chit-chat with Jehovah happened in his head, as he was emerging from his coma, and during a time in which the author says he suffered from what's called "ICU psychosis." In the book—which I've had the great displeasure of perusing—he describes waking up to "a strange and exhausting paranoid universe" in which "Internet messages" showed up wherever he looked, and a "grinding, monotonous, anti-melodious chanting" filled his head. "Some of the dreams I had during this period were stunningly and frighteningly vivid," he says.

It was only later on that he worked out the fine points of his astral projection, in part by using a commercial meditation aid called "Hemi-Sync"—a $12 music CD that purports to mimic psychedelics and expand the mind with alternating beats. "Hemi-Sync potentially offered a means of inactivating the filtering function of the physical brain by globally synchronizing my neocortical electrical activity, just as my meningitis might have done, to liberate my out-of-body consciousness," he explains, as only a Harvard neurosurgeon can. Scientists who are a bit more skeptical have described these claims as silly.

Alexander claims to have been waffling on the matter of his faith before the meningitis. But the book reveals that he's always been a devout or at least a searching Christian. Long before he found himself in the "God-soaked and love-filled darkness" of his coma, Alexander took his family to church and made his children pray every night before they went to bed. His story of enlightenment is suffused with the most conventional evangelism: He was lost and now is found; he has "good news" to share with all. According to the memoir, Alexander was abandoned as a baby, spent Christmas as an orphan, and later on became a depressive alcoholic. Then he goes to a meeting in Jerusalem and finds the spot where Jesus ate his final meal, and while he's there (through some celestial stroke of luck), he contracts the deadly bug that will restore his faith and change his life and put him in a coma for a very biblical duration of seven days and seven nights.

I'm not as much of a skeptic regarding paranormal experiences as Engber is, but his critical reading nonetheless raises some uncomfortable questions. Why did Alexander misrepresent his faith in the promotional accounts leading up to the release of the book? A cynical person might point out that nothing sells better than a conversion narrative, and that the book would be far less compelling from a commercial perspective if it was framed as written by a Christian who simply experienced exactly what he expected when close to death. Perhaps Alexander was being truthful in that he had some doubts about his beliefs prior to his coma, but frankly who doesn't from time to time? Having a few doubts about a worldview you mostly accept is a far cry from skepticism.Some religious skeptics do attend church, but few make their children pray every night.

Furthermore, by framing his account in exclusively Christian terms Alexander panders to America's largest religious denomination. Christians who might not be interested in the tunnel-and-bright-light accounts of New Agers will nonetheless perk up their ears if said account is called "Proof of Heaven." The idea of a literal Heaven and a literal Hell has fallen by the wayside among more liberal Christians, mostly because there is so little Biblical support for the traditional dogma and the whole thing reeks more of a toxic social-control mechanism than any spiritual reality. As a result, conservative Christians feel the need to defend their beliefs and will flock to anything that is promoted as supporting them.

Taken together these points suggest extremely shrewd marketing. Perhaps the framing was Alexander's editor's idea, but if not it's hard to shake the feeling that the book was carefully constructed with future sales in mind. For me, though, the most damning portion of Engber's article is where he points out that Alexander assembled his account well after the fact and after spending a significant amount of time playing around with a brain entrainment sound program. I've pointed out many times on this blog that personal memory is fundamentally unreliable. Most of the information we recall is not stored in the brain but rather reconstructed from stored bits and pieces, with the brain filling in the missing details on the fly to create the illusion of continuity.

The fact is that at this point we have no idea what really happened during Alexander's coma. He may be chronicling his experience based on his best recollection, but that recollection is going to be a mixture of (A) whatever really happened, (B) his experiences in the ICU during recovery, and (C) whatever "projection" he managed to accomplish during his experiments with brain entrainment. It certainly should not be regarded as literal or factual, and I find it hard to believe that a brain scientist would not be aware of this. Unfortunately for Alexander I find it easier to believe that he chose not to include this point, as it undermines both his message and the book's commercial appeal.

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Rac said...

I have just read Eben Alexanders book and I am very uncomfortable with both the inconsistencies you mention among others

- re the non fuctioning cortex
-Here is an amusing comment from an Amazon reviewer

"As a meteorologist I was fascinated, particularly when reading Chapter 21 The Rainbow, at how wonderfully the weather seemed to change according to the stages of his illness. I wouldn't have thought about it that much, had it not been stressed several times in the book. It was a lovely sunny day, the day before he went into hospital, then it rained solidly while he was in a coma, then Ta-da! a rainbow popped out shortly before he awoke. I thought, how wonderful, but surely this is too good to be true! Sadly it was too good to be true.
Out if interest I contacted Lynchburg regional airport and asked if they had records for Lynchburg for November 2008. Yes they did. It is true that the day before he went to hospital was sunny. However the day when he said it started raining was cloudless. The next day was also sunny and dry. And the next day was foggy but...dry! Then it did rain significantly for two days (not five as said in the book).
Now the day of the rainbow is interesting. It was clear and frosty in the morning (30F) and then a fine and sunny DRY day. No rain at all! Now dont you need rain to get a RAINbow?
Anyway given these, well, large distortions of the truth regarding the weather, I would place serious doubt on his Heaven testimony. Maybe he exaggerated all that as well? It is very likely. In a courtroom his credibility would be destroyed by this point.
As a scientist I need the whole truth and nothing but the truth to believe in someones "story". It seems that the scientist Dr. Eben got a little bit carried away with his beautiful dream."

Apart from that I find the whole Evangelical tone - his constant repetition of his, his experience and his diseases- 'specialness' as worrying."

Also his apparent lack of psychological self awareness as evidenced in several anecdotes not least the description of his depression where he continually puts the resposibility of awareness of his condition onto his loved ones as if he was a confused adolescent needing reparenting.

and then of course the whole marketing stratergy /New Age chat circuit-Oprah et al..

Ive been interested in NDE for several decades but Im really concerned by people such as these muddying the waters or researchers such as Melvin Morse, who are clearly disturbed

Scott Stenwick said...

As I see it the biggest problem with Alexander's book is that it was written months after the fact. Memory, especially of events experienced in an altered state of consciousness, is not fixed and is profoundly subject to change as the events in question are remembered and re-remembered. Anyone familiar with neuroscience has to understand that, and yet, Alexander puts his experience forth as though his recall of it is perfect and accurate. Maybe he remembers that there was a rainbow, there just wasn't one.

The marketing angle is a secondary concern to me, but an important one. He calls his book "proof of heaven." Why? There's absolutely nothing in his account that would support any particular sectarian interpretation of what happens in the afterlife. He sees the tunnel and white light, senses the presence of some sort of divine consciousness, and really that's about it. The book more accurately could be called "Evidence of an Afterlife" - which it is, even though there are a lot of questions about the accuracy of the account. But my guess is that title wouldn't have sold nearly as many books.

Unknown said...

No you do not NEED RAIN to have a RAINBOW. The DEW can create a rainbow. Please do check on google for pictures of the rainbow. I did and not far from Eben's place was a double rainbow. And there are pictures of it.

So he is telling the truth about it.
Maybe the weatherman should go study again how the rainbow will show and why. I had as a child a rare experience. Our garden had a fence. Out of that fence was raining but inside the fence not 1 drop. Was like somebody just cut the cloud so precise that the drops will only fall out of the garden and not in the garden. If that is possible.........the same cloud can make the rainbow show. The weatherman in my village did not see that cloud....but I felt the drops. Makes you think doesn't it?

Scott Stenwick said...

My point is not that Alexander necessarily remembers his experience wrong, just that because it was written so long after the fact and memory is so fallible it might not have happened as he recalls. So his account cannot be considered "proof" of anything.

I personally believe Alexander most likely did have a legitimate near-death experience. His account contains features that match those of many others, and we know that significant percentage of individuals have such experiences. But there's nothing that makes Alexander's account better than many others that have been widely reported in the paranormal literature.

It's no surprise to me that Alexander got carried away with the "specialness" of his experience. Those who have them generally describe them as incredibly significant, and on top of that neurosurgeons tend to be pretty arrogant. I mean, you have to be, to be willing to open up somebody's brain and start cutting. Absolute confidence is essential, and you can't second-guess yourself.

But when that same arrogance mixes with religiosity, you get a title like "Proof of Heaven" - when nothing he experienced suggests that the Christian model of heaven is more correct than all the others, and nothing in his personal subjective account constitutes any sort of proof. Evidence, sure, but not proof.