I recently finished reading Dr. Eben Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I’m pretty much not persuaded. As an anecdotal account of an EHE (Exceptional Human Experience), it’s an interesting read, but it has little to do with real science. There are a lot of places where I take issue. For brevity’s sake, here are five.
Issue Number One
Everything about this book and Dr. Alexander’s website is organized for one primary purpose, in my estimation: to make a LOT of money. Perhaps it’s just me and all my jaded time spent in financial markets, but any time I see a setup designed to rake in the Big Bucks, my P.T. Barnum neurons get super-skeptical. From the nonstop TV appearances (look for him on Oprah’s OWN TV on Super Soul Sunday, December 9th!), to the radio interviews, to the speaking gigs extending out into 2014, to the nonprofit foundation established as a place for me to send him my money, I smell an inherent conflict of interest. People love to be assured that death is nothing to fear and that their non-embodied future is most certain to be a happy one. And as every organized religion discovered centuries ago, they’re willing to pay and pay and pay for that authoritative assurance.
Also, as I watch Alexander on these interview shows, I have the distinct impression that the scientist in him doesn’t quite fully believe his own message. Anytime Dr. Science, Mr. Market and Uncle God show up in the material world together, Science invariably suffers.
Issue Number Two
The fact that Alexander is a Medical Doctor and a neurosurgeon to boot, is played to the hilt. It’s clearly intended to lend special credence to his experience: because he’s someone who intimately knows the structure of the brain and how it works, if he says his experience can’t be based upon the workings of the human brain, who am I to discount or disregard his account? It IS brain science, after all.
Well, I’m sorry, but anyone who studies the brain to even an elementary degree can only come to ONE conclusion: what we don’t know about its workings far exceeds what we do know. To declare outright that a Near Death Experience (NDE) can’t be based upon things happening in the brain is to deny not only his training and experience, but also his recognition of the enormous complexity of the networks of cells that make up the organ. We have empirical evidence of whole brain hemispheres being destroyed and the remaining hemisphere taking over and doing double duty, leaving the patient healthy and worldly well. Why is it such a stretch to think the brain can’t deal with a little e coli bacterial infection?
Issue Number Three
I’ve worked as a grief counselor and explored the NDE literature and attended IANDS (International Association for Near Death Studies) conferences off and on for more than two decades, mostly as an interested observer. I was also the Executive Director of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology for a brief stint, where these kinds of experiences are reported regularly. What I find over and over at EHE gatherings (and in Proof of Heaven), is people struggle to put words to experiences that are very difficult to put into words. One reason that might be is because the speech and language centers in the brain are taken offline during many of these experiences (which ironically, could serve as conjecture or indirect evidence that this is indeed a brain-based phenomenon – that the dominant left hemisphere housing the speech and language centers needs to become non-operational (similar to what happened with Jill Bolte Taylor during her left-hemisphere stroke), subsequently allowing the right hemisphere, full of imagery and neuroceptive sensation, free rein). I’d love to have Alexander ingest an entheogen and then come back and tell me THAT experience wasn’t brain-based.
Issue Number Four
The brain is inherently a meaning-making organ. Our first impulse in the wake of any kind of intense, traumatic or inexplicable experience is to try to put words to it, to make some kind of meaning of it, to develop a meaningful, integrative, coherent narrative. How I envision that process is experience-recording neurons in the right hemisphere, threading across the corpus callosum to the speech and language centers in the left hemisphere and struggling to produce that narrative. Heaven and an Afterlife have been meanings human beings have constructed and have been working to integrate in the wake of traumatic experiences for centuries. They are the story the brain makes up which makes reasonable sense, without other plausible evidence.
But we also used to subscribe to the made-up, left hemisphere story that ships disappearing far out at sea fell off the edge of the earth while the sun was revolving around it. Ultimately, some curious skeptics came along and offered some competing observations and hypotheses – more accurate ones based upon a wiser, more authentic reality. For which True Believers often consigned them to hell, death or prison in no particular order.
Issue Number Five
There is a convention in science where the best scientists subscribe to something called Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor “is the law of parsimony, economy, or succinctness. It is a principle stating that among competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected” (Wikipedia). I think there are more elegant, simpler explanations for Alexander’s experience rather than offering it as proof of heaven. For example, one might take into account the concepts of the Unthought Known or Neuroception – unconscious threat detection – which begins recording experiences in utero and stores them as imagery and sensation in the non-language parts of the brain before that capacity comes online. That could certainly be offered up in part to explain Alexander’s experience.
Early on in the book, Alexander proclaims that “I had already been taught the one thing – the only thing – that, in the last analysis, truly matters. I had initially received this piece of knowledge from my lovely companion on the butterfly wing upon my first entrance into the Gateway. It came in three parts, and to take one more shot at putting it into words (because of course it was initially delivered wordlessly), it would run something like this:
You are loved and cherished.
You have nothing to fear.
There is nothing you can do wrong.”
Sounds a lot to me like the neuroceptive feeling state a healthy, well-cared for fetus might experience and recall years later under acute stress, learning described in much of the Fetal Origins literature. In my mind, that’s a much more elegant, secular, Occam-ish hypothesis, one better supported by rigorous research on embryonic influences like Harvard’s Project Viva, than Alexander’s so called, N of One “study.” It’s a hypothesis that, unlike many religious decrees, doesn’t by implication automatically reserve me a place in nonbeliever hell.