A new phenomenon is sweeping the world of those who believe in the literal reality of the experiential content of near-death experiences (NDEs). Eben Alexander, (a Lynchburg, Virginia (USA) neurosurgeon), reported an amazing experience undergone while comatose due to a serious E. coli meningitis from 10 to 16 November 2008. During this experience he was present in a depressing and constricting universe he termed the Realm of the Earthworm's-Eye View, and also repeatedly visited a wondrous light- and love-filled, heavenly realms he termed the Core, and the Gateway where he flew on a butterfly wing and met a deceased sister he had never known. The book describing his experience is called Proof of Heaven. It is wildly popular and acclaimed by many people, especially those seeking the "comfort" offered by the idea of an afterlife, and those who believe in the literal reality of visionary perceptions of near-death experiences. [Note. The page numbers cited are from "Proof of Heaven" unless otherwise indicated]
But is this experience truly a NDE, or is it simply a hallucination of a seriously ill person, subsequently recalled and published in popular language?
According to Robert Wade, his neurologist, Eben Alexander had a chance of surviving his severe episode of meningitis caused by E. coli was less than 3% (page 184). But 3% is not 0%, meaning that some people do survive. Moreover, some people also survive without any apparent neurological damage. This statistic simply means that Eben Alexander was a very lucky man. He survived without any evident neurological damage. Furthermore, this was man who was subsequently able to articulate and tell of his experience-something which most of his patients were unable to do. This was clearly revealed in one of the passages of this book. He told of the reactions of his physicians to his survival, and the mental experiences undergone while apparently comatose.
Make no mistake, my doctors were very happy for me. "That's wonderful, Eben," they would say, echoing my response to countless patients of my own who, in the past, had tried to tell me about otherworldly experiences they'd undergone during surgery. "You were very sick. Your brain was soaking in pus. We can't believe you're even here to talk about it. You know yourself what the brain can come up with when it's that far gone."
In short, they couldn't wrap their minds around what I was so desperately trying to share. (page 125)
And this passage immediately raises the very relevant question; "In what way did his experience differ from that of his patients?" After all, Eben Alexander claimed to have undergone a veryu real experience of a transcendental afterlife during a period his brain no longer functioned. Believers in his story tell us that his hallucinations were so coherent, that they were not hallucinations but real experiences. Furthermore, that his hallucinations had such a pervading sense of intense reality that they must have been literally true. Unfortunately, hallucinations can be coherent, and they can feel intensely real. So these criteria mean nothing, and are no proof of reality (click here for a good review on this subject by Vaughan Bell
So let us look as some aspects of this experience. The first aspect is the sociocultural environment in which Eben Alexander lived and functioned.
Eben Alexander's wife and sisters were all regular attenders at the local Epicopal church, and he lived in a community actively engaged in the church and the beliefs it propagates (pages 34, 57, 93, 97, 147-148). They believed in the power of prayer. And subsequently after recovery from his illness, a "reborn", and newly religious Eben Alexander also believed in the healing power of intercessional prayer (see Chapter 32).
By eleven, Holley, Mom, Phyllis, and Betsy were all in my room. Michael suggested a prayer. Everyone, including the two nurses, joined hands around the bed, and Michael made one more heartfelt plea for my return to health.
"Lord, bring Eben back to us. I know it's in your power."
Still, no one knew who had called Michael. But whoever it was, it's a good thing they did. Because the prayers coming to me from the world below-the world I'd started out from-were finally starting to get through. (page 94)
But intercessional prayer such as this has no effect whatsoever. This is no new knowledge, but has been known since the publication of the first investigation of prayer published during 1872 by the eminent scientist Francis Galton (Click here to read the original 1872 article by Francis Galton). This study was subsequently confirmed by a rigorous medical study of the efficacy of intercessional prayer in people recovering from heart surgery. Surprisingly, this landmark study published by Herbert Benson and his group revealed that those who knew they were being prayed for had a higher chance of complications! (Click here to read the 2006 study by Herbert Benson). Subsequent reviews confirm the lack of any effect of intercessional prayer (Click here to read an extensive review by Wendy Cadge-2009). So it surprises me that a man with the credentials of Eben Alexander actually believed pray was any help at all. I can only imagine he thought it good psychological therapy for his family.
Then we come to the visual aspects of his experience. At one point he was in a wondrous transcendental world, flying on a butterfly wing with a beautiful young woman. He described this world.
I was flying, passing over trees and fields, streams and waterfalls, and here and there, people.lhere were children, too, laughing and playing. The people sang and danced around in circles, and sometimes I'd see a dog, running and jumping among them, as full of joy as the people were. They wore simple yet beautiful clothes, and it seemed to me that the colors of these clothes had the same kind of living warmth as the trees and the flowers that bloomed and blossomed in the countryside around them.
A beautiful, incredible dream world . . .
Except it wasn't a dream. Though I didn't know where I was or even what I was, I was absolutely sure of one thing: this place I'd suddenly found myself in was completely real. (page 39)
This is a rather puerile description of a heavenly environment that could only arise in the mind of a person steeped in a simplistic popular Christian culture. In this transcendental world, he also experienced heightened awareness and time dilation, two common aspects of transcendental experiences.
I spent great stretches of time-which paradoxically felt like no time at all-in the presence of my guardian angel on the butterfly's wing and an eternity learning lessons from the Creator and the Orb of light deep in the Core. (page 103)
And another example.
Without using any words, she spoke to me. The message went through me like a wind, and I instantly understood that it was true. I knew so in the same way that I knew that the world around us was real-was not some fantasy, passing and insubstantial. The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I'd say they ran something like this:
"You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever."
"You have nothing to fear."
"There is nothing you can do wrong."
The message flooded me with a vast and crazy sensation of relief It was like being handed the rules to a game I'd been playing all my life without ever fully understanding it.
"We will show you many things here," the girl said-again, without actually using these words but by driving their conceptual essence directly into me. "But eventually, you will go back."(pages 40-41)
Eben Alexander never tells us what amazing lessons he learned via this telepathic communication, except that the afterlife is very loving. So we are left without this undoubtedly valuable knowledge. Nonetheless, there is one aspect aspect to his experience revealing it not to be so much an NDE, but a fantastical hallucination with very little in common with an NDE.
Eben Alexander's statements about his memory function during his experience is one of the most interesting, and at the same time most disturbing statement for those believers in the literal immaterial reality of his experience. In fact, his statements about his memory function reveal his experience to be hallucinations occurring during a gradual emergence from coma. His statements about his memory function are very revealing.
My meningitis had been so severe that my original memories from within coma did not include any recollections whatsoever from my life before coma, including language and any knowledge of humans or this universe. (see his AANS-Neurosurgeon (2012) article)
That was not a problem for me, because throughout my experience I had no earthly memories whatsoever, and the only pain and heartache I felt was when I had to return to earth, where I'd begun. (page 79)
During his amazing experience, or NDE, (or whatever type of experience it may have been), Eben Alexander repeatedly states he had absolutely no memories of his life prior to the beginning of his experience (see pages 24, 30, 31, 78, 79, 117). However, during an NDE, many NDE-ers undergo life-review, and all NDE-ers remember their personal sense of identity and everything about their lives prior to their NDE's. Yet here we have an experience where the person undergoing it claims to lose his sense of identity, and has absolutely no memory of his life prior to his soul, (mind / non-local consciousness / universal consciousness / whatever you want to call it), awakening in the transcendental world he entered during his experience. But all believers in the literal reality of the NDE claim all memories are retained within the soul. Chris Carter is one of the most outspoken proselytizers of this belief, and states as much in one of his books:
So the upshot from this long-winded discussion is that the notion of extracerebral memories is by no means "totally absurd." We can now see-contrary to Edwards' assertion that "it must surely be dismissed as nothing but a vague picture which is of no scientific value whatsoever"-that the theory of extracerebral memories can be considered more scientific than the mechanistic alternative. One prediction of the theory of memory traces-that they can be localized in the brain-has been convincingly proved false, and the theory is now left with the unfalsifiable ad hoc explanation that memory is stored in several places in the brain. Yet we have seen that the theory of formative causation not only has prima facie support from the available evidence but also entails several easily testable predictions. In Popper's terms, the theory of memory traces has become a metaphysical theory, and the theory of formative causation, with its notion of extracerebral memories, is the remaining scientific alternative! (page 97 in Carter C, (2010), Science and the Near-Death Experience)
So if the soul is the repository of memory as claimed by Chris Carter, as well as Pim van Lommel, Jeffery Long, and many others, how is it possible to forget all prior memories when disembodied? After all, when disembodied the soul is freed of the limitations of the physical body, the conscious soul still has access to all memories as is revealed by all other persons reporting their NDEs. Furthermore, Eben Alexander is amazed that he was able to clearly remember all details of what he underwent during his experience.
If one had asked me before my coma how much a patient would remember after such severe meningitis, I would have answered "nothing" and been thinking in the back of my mind that no one would recover from such an illness to the point of discussing their memories, anyway. So you can imagine my surprise at remembering an elaborate and rich odyssey from deep within coma that comprised more than 20,000 words by the time I had written it all out during the six weeks following my return from the hospital. (see his AANS-Neurosurgeon (2012) article)
For the next six weeks or so [Woerlee - after his recovery], most days went the same. I'd wake up around 2 or 2:30 A.M., feeling so ecstatic and energized by simply being alive that I would bound out of bed. I'd light a fire in the den, sit down in my old leather chair, and write. I tried to recall every detail of my journeys in and out of the Core, and what I had felt as I learned its many life-changing lessons.
Though tried isn't really the right word. Crisp and clear, the memories were right there, right where I had left them. (page 128)
How is this possible? His memories of his experience returned as he wrote them down in the 20,000 words he mentioned writing during a 6 week convalescence. These may well be accurate memories of his experience. I cannot say otherwise. Believers in dualism and the literal reality of the experiential content of the NDE claim that the soul is unaffected by anything affecting the physical body. During his experience of disembodiment in this transcendental world, the apparently disembodied mind / soul of Eben Alexander could remember experiences undergone during the earlier parts of his experience (see pages 68, 69, 103). For example, at one point he was sent away from the "Core", back to the Realm of the Earthworm's-Eye View:
"We will show you many things, but you will be going back." That message, delivered wordlessly to me at the entrance to the trackless darkness of the Core, came back to me now I also now understood where "back" was.
The Realm of the Earthworm's-Eye View where I had started this odyssey.
But it was different this time. Moving down into the darkness with the full knowledge of what lay above it, I no longer experienced the trepidation that I had when I was originally there. (page 68)
This passage clearly reveals that his apparently disembodied mind / soul was able to form new memories, and recall these memories. Accordingly, the memory function of his apparently disembodied mind / soul functioned normally. Moreover, the soul is unaffected by the functioning of the body. So why was he then unable to recall memories of his life prior to his illness? After all, these memories are supposedly also stored within his soul / separable mind / consciousness. So he should have been able to access memories of his life prior to his illness. There is only one explanation possible according to believers in the literal experiential reality of NDEs. His mind / soul was not dissociated from his body. It was captive inside a hallucinating body with sufficient memory function to form new memories of hallucinations, but unable to remember its past life! This is further emphasized by the statement of Eben Alexander that these experiences occurred during a period his brain no longer functioned, at a time his brain was "soaking in pus" (page 125).
The fact that the mind of Eben Alexander was locked firmly inside his skull, means that those parts of his brain required for laying down long-term memory functioned well enough to form long-term memories of his experience. True, this also implies these parts of his brain may well have functioned sufficiently to remember his prior life. But he still had amnesia of his prior life. However, while amnesia of a past life, (called "retrograde amnesia"), is incapable of explanation by a soul unaffected by disease, such retrograde amnesia is well explained by a malfunctioning brain capable of forming new memories, but incapable of remembering the old. Situations in which this occurs are well described in a case study and neurology review (click here to read this excellent review of retrograde amnesia by Levine and his colleagues).
Summarizing, Eben Alexander's retrograde amnesia cannot be explained by disembodiment and memory in his soul, because a disembodied soul has no retrograde memory loss. Instead, his memory loss of his prior life during his experience is fully explained by saying his experience was a structured hallucination.
Eben Alexander claims his experiences occurred during his coma, stating in an interview on a populist website Skeptiko (Click here to read interview).
In fact, I know that my experience happened within coma because of certain anchors to earth time in memory.
In fact the only so-called "proof" of this assertion is given in the passage of this discussion, where we read:
… one of the most amazing things about Dr. Alexander's experience is that his physician is in the other room with his wife talking about whether they should terminate use of the ventilator and they go in and Dr. Alexander pops out of his coma. He starts reaching for the ventilator tube and starts pulling on the tubes and then his eyes wake up and he starts talking. And in his book you'll read a letter from his physician that not only says this but says that it's absolutely stunning and an amazing medical miracle that something like this could happen.
This unbelievably uncritical statement by Alex Tsakaris, (a believer in everything and anything suggestively paranormal), is not a veridical experience. It was no more than observations made during the return of consciousness, as was clearly indicated and stated in his book
Holley stared at Sylvia. "Eben," she said into the phone, "I have to call you back. He's ... your father is coming back ... to life."
Holley walked, then ran into the ICU, with Dr. Wade right behind her. Sure enough, I was thrashing around on the bed. Not mechanically, but because I was conscious, and something was clearly bothering me. Dr. Wade immediately understood what it was: the breathing tube that was still in my throat. The tube I no longer needed, because my brain, along with the rest of my body, had just kicked back to life. He reached over, cut the securing tape, and carefully extracted it.
I choked a little, gasped down my first fully unaided lungful of air in seven days, and spoke the first words I'd spoken in a week as well:
"Thank you." (pages 112-113)
This description of the removal of the breathing tube is one that would induce side-splitting convulsions of hysterical laughter with incontinence in any physician acquainted with the management of desperately ill patients in an intensive care unit. It is truly silly drama! Such a passage can only be a product of someone ignorant of all procedures in an intensive care unit. A neurologist caught removing an endotracheal tube [breathing tube] in such a cavalier manner from a deathly ill patient on an intensive care unit would immediately be thrown out of the hospital, and struck from the medical register for malpractice. So I imagine the intensive care physicians, together with the neurologist, determined that Eben Alexander was conscious, carefully built off the ventilator support, and removed the tube after following the usual procedures.
Nonetheless, aside from amusingly ignorant passages such as this, the passages prior to and after clearly reveal that the only veridical aspects of his experience were during his return to consciousness (see Chapters 22, 23, and 24). Eben Alexander provides no evidece to indicate he may have been conscious, or apparently comatose. So the level of evidence in his statement is equivalent to saying, "Trust me, I'm a doctor. And I'm not only just a doctor, but a neurosurgeon who knows all about these things." This is not evidence, but a belief system, as was pointed out by Dr. Ernst Rodin, one of the respondents to his AANS-Neurosurgeon article (see the reactions to his AANS-Neurosurgeon (2012) article).
The 16-point Greyson NDE-Scale is a generally accepted method of scoring whether an experience could be considered an NDE. So even though the Eben Alexander experience is one where considerable objections can be raised as to its origins, it may still be classified as an NDE with this scale. Here is the scoring system from the IANDS website (Greyson NDE scale). I have reproduced the scale below, with the attributes reported by Eben Alexander underlined in red, bold, underlined letters.
1. Did time seem to speed up or slow down?
0 = No
1 = Time seemed to go faster or slower than usual
2 = Everything seemed to be happening at once; or time stopped or lost all meaning [page 103]
2. Were your thoughts speeded up?
0 = No
1 = Faster than usual
2 = Incredibly fast
3. Did scenes from your past come back to you?
0 = No [pages 24, 30, 31, 78, 79, 117]
1 = I remembered many past events
2 = My past flashed before me, out of my control
4. Did you suddenly seem to understand everything?
0 = No
1 = Everything about myself or others
2 = Everything about the universe
5. Did you have a feeling of peace or pleasantness?
0 = No
1 = Relief or calmness
2 = Incredible peace or pleasantness [pages 40-41]
6. Did you have a feeling of joy?
0 = No
1 = Happiness
2 = Incredible joy [pages 40-41]
7. Did you feel a sense of harmony or unity with the universe?
0 = No
1 = I felt no longer in conflict with nature
2 = I felt united or one with the world
8. Did you see, or feel surrounded by, a brilliant light?
0 = No
1 = An unusually bright light
2 = A light clearly of mystical or other-worldly origin [page 38 and others]
9. Were your senses more vivid than usual?
0 = No
1 = More vivid than usual [pages 95, 130]
2 = Incredibly more vivid
10. Did you seem to be aware of things going on elsewhere, as if by extrasensory perception (ESP)?
0 = No
1 = Yes, but the facts have not been checked out
2 = Yes, and the facts have been checked out
11. Did scenes from the future come to you?
0 = No
1 = Scenes from my personal future
2 = Scenes from the world's future
12. Did you feel separated from your body?
0 = No
1 = I lost awareness of my body [page 29]
2 = I clearly left my body and existed outside it
13. Did you seem to enter some other, unearthly world?
0 = No
1 = Some unfamiliar and strange place
2 = A clearly mystical or unearthly realm [throughout book]
14. Did you seem to encounter a mystical being or presence, or hear an unidentifiable voice?
0 = No
1 = I heard a voice I could not identify
2 = I encountered a definite being, or a voice clearly of mystical or unearthly origin [page 103]
15. Did you see deceased or religious spirits?
0 = No
1 = I sensed their presence
2 = I actually saw them [his deceased sister - see Chapter 35, pages 165-171 ]
16. Did you come to a border or point of no return?
0 = No
1 = I came to a definite conscious decision to "return" to life
2 = I came to a barrier that I was not permitted to cross; or was "sent back" against my will.
The total score on the Greyson NDE Scale = 16. This qualifies the experience as a quite profound NDE - at least according to this scale. Furthermore, his NDE mainly consisted of Affective and Transcendental elements, which is something mainly occurring in people expecting to undergo a life threatening event (see analysis by Bruce Greyson 1985). Was this the result of expectations derived from his experiences prior to coma? As a neurosurgeon, he almost certainly understood the dangerous nature of his illness prior to losing consciousness. This would explain why the elements of this NDE correspond more with an expectative than a reactive NDE. Yet while his NDE was undoubtely profound according to this scale, this scale omits one important factor. It omits the fact that all persons reporting an NDE do retain, and can access memories from their prior existence. As is discussed above, this property of the apparently disembodied conscious mind of Eben Alexander is singularly lacking. This is why it becomes doubtful whether his experience is not better explained as a complex hallucination.
All the above facts can be summarized in a list clearly revealing that the experience of Eben Alexander, no matter how wondrous, or how miraculous, was not truly an NDE.
All that can be said about this experience is that it is a description of a profound, structured, culturally determined hallucination, occurring during the return to consciousness from a serious illness. It is not an NDE, as is proven by a lack of any memory of his life before his illness during the period he was supposedly disembodied. Furthermore, the spiritual interpretation of this undoubtedly profound experience a permeated with uncritical and populist foolishness. All other serious commentary on this experience says the same, e.g. by Sam Harris and Ernst Rodin (an eminent USA neurologist) in response to an article by Eben Alexander. A review of his book in a serious Dutch newspaper (de NRC - click here to read review) even compared the experience of Eben Alexander to an eternal "magic mushroom trip".
Eben Alexander survived a serious illness during which he apparently underwent life-changing mental experiences without any veridical moments to confirm when they occurred. Subsequently he and his co-author wrote this experience up in a very populistic manner, as he stated in the acknowledgment to this very same co-author - Ptolemy Tompkins.
Ptolemy Tompkins for his scholarly contributions from unparalleled insight into several millennia of literature on the afterlife, and for his superb editorial and writing skills, used to weave my experience into this book, truly doing it the justice it deserved. (page 174)
So the credence given this story is not so much a product of careful analysis of the facts. Rather, it is a manifestation of something else as was so eloquently described by Ivor Tuckett more than 80 years ago:
Perhaps what has impressed me most in studying psychical research is the prevalence of the will-to-believe among psychical researchers. With very few exceptions, their object is clearly not to get at the truth by scientific methods of inquiry, but to establish some hypothesis. (page iii in Tuckett 1932)
The final conclusion is that this experience is an account of hallucinations undergone while regaining consciousness from a severe and life-threatening illness. To regard it as anything more, is to elevate the interpretation of this experience to a paean of praise of the "unscientific method", a celebration of uncritical thinking, and a hagiography without import or meaning.