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.

Unknown 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.

Unknown said...

who gives a toss about science, seriously, science????..... science is paid off propaganda saying there is no cure for cancer when there clearly is, but is being suppressed, It's about faith fool, not just science. No scientific test or evidence could ever tell me that we dont live on. Go collect another bribe idiot!!!!

Scott Stenwick said...

If you think that I am making any money at all off of Augoeides in the form of bribes or whatever, you are sorely mistaken. The only money I get for running this site is indirect, in the form of (occasional) book sales.

I give a toss about science because it is the best tool we have for understanding how the world really works - but if you are convinced that faith is what it's all about I can see where you don't share my perspective on that. I also think you misunderstand what I'm getting at here, or why I think criticizing this particular case is important. I do believe that consciousness can survive death, I work with spirits all the time, and I even find it likely that Alexander had a real near-death experience.

At the same time, anything real should be able to stand up to scientific scrutiny, period. In addition, the idea that proving consciousness survives death would constitute "proof of Heaven" only makes sense in the context of the Christian religion. There's evidence from Asia, for example, that appears to support the idea that souls can reincarnate. But that's not even a possibility in the Christian cosmology.

So no, I'm not a James Randi skeptic or something, which is what it sounds like you are reading this as. But if a claim is so weak that it can't withstand even a cursory investigation, there's no way that it's ever going to tell us anything meaningful about what happens after death.

Unknown said...

I’ve always been skeptical of these types of accounts,especially when the writer profits from them.
But when my grandson was 4 years old he was very ill and we were told that we should be prepared to lose him. To make a very long story short,we didn’t. Over the days,months and years that followed (he is now 12) he would frequently recall experiences he had had during that time. At first he didn’t realize how big a deal these were-to him it was as if he were just recounting something he did at a freinds house. But as people became more and more “interested” in his accountings,he sort of shut down and didn’t want to talk about it. I guess the thing that gives me the most hope is his recounting off meeting my mother, who had died 14 years before he was born. I need to explain that my mother was probably deeply depressed for many years (her childhood was full of abuse and horrible sadness. My father was a narcissist emotional abuser as well) The one thing that brought her joy were her flowers. She loved gardening. But I hadn’t seen her smile for years before her death. She died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism (blood clot to the lungs) I was devastated when she died. Not long afterward,I had an extremely vivid dream where she was pushing a wheelbarrow full of flowers up a Hill. I was seeing her from behind and she turned around to look at me. Her entire face-her entire BEING was smiling...It’s kind of funny, but there was this commercial I used to see on tv for Jamaica (had to be in the ‘80’s) where this stunningly beautiful young girl was dancing to music on a beach and she turned around and she had that same smile that my mother had-ecstatic, like this is Heaven ecstatic. I remember thinking “Wow! I wish *I* could feel like that”. Noah said that “whatever you loved to do on earth will be your job in Heaven” And yes-he said Heaven. And oddly enough,he and his family-while no athiests-didn’t go to church regularly at that time. The kids WERE baptized,however. It was well after he made that comment (probably years) that he told his mom how he had met a woman with dark hair who was pushing a cart full of flowers during his “visit”. I recall him mentioning that “we dont have the same colors here on earth that they do in Heaven”.
I share Noah’s story occasionally...when I feel so moved. I don’t feel the need to defend it or justify it. I can’t. It’s not MY story. But these types of experiences seem to be happening more often. Or maybe they’ve always happened,but people were afraid to tell them because of how they would be received.
I guess we will all know the truth one day....😊

Scott Stenwick said...

Near-death experiences are not that uncommon. Narratives about them have gained popularity as our medical technology has improved, simply because we can bring more and more people back from clinical death. To be clear, I am not a capital-S skeptic about these experiences in general. Many of them probably constitute legitimate contact with the spirit world.

At the same time, Alexander was trying to gain extra notoriety because his account supposedly transpired while he was in a coma with no brain activity. But he wrote up his account months later, after he recovered, sp there's no telling how much of it is distorted memory and/or wishful thinking, and there's no evidence that his experiences actually occurred while he was in said coma.

Essentially, it's probably a legitimate near-death experience, but it is no more special than any of the others and less special than an account made right after the experience. My objection is not so much with the experience itself, but more with the marketing surrounding it.

It's not "proof" because of the particulars of the situation, and it's not "Heaven" because even though Alexander is Christian, his experience was more generic and does not support any aspect of Christian theology besides the existence of some sort of afterlife - which is a common belief in many religious systems.

That's my issue with this particular book. I don't necessarily have issues with the idea of near-death experiences in general.