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“Proof of Heaven”?

Posted on Sep. 19, 2014 by | Comments (16)

proof-of-heavenIt has been two years now since the best-seller lists in the “Non-Fiction” category were dominated by books claiming that the writer visited heaven, and then returned to write a book about it. The most famous was Dr. Eben Alexander’s tale, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, which was released in October 2012, featured on Dr. Oz, on Larry King Live, on Oprah and on the cover of Newsweek. It  sold over two million copies and had been on the best-seller list for 35 weeks as of July 2013; more recent sales figures are not available, but it is no longer near the top of the best-seller list. But almost two years since the book came out, a lot of interesting facts have emerged that make the book seem less like a non-fictional account of heaven, and more like a convenient fiction to get a doctor in trouble out of his predicament and at the same time, make him filthy rich and immune to the criticism of the scientific and medical community. Now he has a website to suck in more readers, and is bragging about his next book to come out soon, called Map of Heaven.

The basic story is that Alexander, a neurosurgeon, was infected by a virulent strain of bacterial meningitis and was put in intensive care for seven days in 2008. Doctors also used drugs to induce a coma, which shuts down part of the brain. After his infection had subsided, he awoke from his coma, sure that he had experiences of heaven. He gave an elaborate account of it which takes up most of the book, complete with descriptions of millions of butterflies, and seeing his late sister in a peasant dress and having a conversation with her. He asserts that he was medically dead during this time, that his cerebral cortex was shut down, and that he miraculously came back to life with a memory of a pleasant short trip to celestial paradise.

But soon after his book came out, investigations into his past were conducted. In a 2013 article called “The Prophet” (paywall), Esquire contributing editor Luke Dittrich dug up a lot of facts which suggest it may all have been a fable concocted to cash in on the widespread religious belief in heaven—a fable made all the more persuasive coming from the mouth of a neurosurgeon.

Here are some of the key points established by Dittrich (given here roughly as summarized by Jerry Coyne in his useful discussion of Dittrich’s piece):

  • After repeated lawsuits, Alexander temporarily or permanently lost his surgical privileges at two different hospitals. For example, as Dittrich wrote, “In August 2003, UMass Memorial suspended Alexander’s surgical privileges ‘on the basis or allegation of improper performance of surgery.'”
  • Alexander has been repeatedly accused of falsifying evidence related to his surgeries—a “court-documented history of revising facts,” in Dittrich’s description.
  • One of the key stories which begins Alexander’s book is a near-collision with another parachutist—supposedly Alexander’s first near-death experience, and his first “proof of heaven.”  As Alexander claimed in his book,

    I had reacted in microseconds… How had I done it? … I realize now that…as marvelous a mechanism as the brain is, it was not my brain that saved my life that day at all. What sprang into action the second Chuck’s chute started to open was another, much deeper part of me. A part that could move so fast because it was not stuck in time at all the way the brain and body are.

    But rather than revealing a profound cosmic truth, this event may not have happened at all. When Dittrich dug into the story, he found that Chuck, named in the book as the other parachutist involved, had no recollection of this aerial brush with death. Confronted with this discovery, Alexander claimed that he changed the other parachutist’s name to “Chuck,” supposedly for legal reasons.

  • Some elements of the book appear to be artistic embellishments, such as the “perfect rainbow” that greeted Alexander upon his return to full consciousness. This flourish seems to be ruled out by weather records.
  • Although Alexander claimed his coma was caused by bacterial meningitis, emergency room doctor Laura Potter told Dittrich that she induced Alexander’s coma medically to stabilize his condition. Contrary to Alexander’s claims, his brain was not inactive during the coma. As Dittrich notes, “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.
” However, Dr. Potter told Dittrich that Alexander was actually “Conscious but delirious” during his days under sedation.
  • One of the crucial moments in Alexander’s tale is his claim that he clearly cried to God just before going under. According to Dittrich, Dr. Potter

    … has no recollection of this incident, or of that shouted plea. What she does remember is that she had intubated Alexander more than an hour prior to his departure from the emergency room, snaking a plastic tube down his throat, through his vocal cords, and into his trachea. Could she imagine her intubated patient being able to speak at all, let alone in a crystal-clear way?

    “No,” she says.

Dittrich’s research paints an incredibly damning picture. As Coyne sums up, “the story looks like a sham, confected by a once-brilliant but now failed neurosurgeon who reclaims his time in the spotlight by pretending that he saw heaven. ”

An even more scathing commentary was provided by Sam Harris, who has done research in neurophysiology and brain function. Harris first eviscerates Newsweek magazine for running the story uncritically and providing no skeptical or scientific second opinions. In his words:

Whether you read it online or hold the physical object in your hands, this issue of Newsweek is best viewed as an archaeological artifact that is certain to embarrass us in the eyes of future generations. Its existence surely says more about our time than the editors at the magazine meant to say—for the cover alone reveals the abasement and desperation of our journalism, the intellectual bankruptcy and resultant tenacity of faith-based religion, and our ubiquitous confusion about the nature of scientific authority. The article is the modern equivalent of a 14th-century woodcut depicting the work of alchemists, inquisitors, Crusaders, and fortune-tellers. I hope our descendants understand that at least some of us were blushing.

Harris then goes on to carefully dissect Alexander’s claims, especially the assertion that his cerebral cortex was “shut down” or “inactivated.” His claim is not based on an fMRI or EEG or PET scan or any test that would tell if his cerebral cortex was inactive, but only CT scans, which tell you nothing about the activity within the cerebral cortex. If Alexander is such a great neurosurgeon, why doesn’t he know this?

Harris consulted Dr. Mark Cohen, a neurophysiologist at UCLA Medical Center, who pointed out the obvious problems with Alexander’s account:

As you correctly point out, coma does not equate to “inactivation of the cerebral cortex” or “higher-order brain functions totally offline” or “neurons of [my] cortex stunned into complete inactivity”. These describe brain death, a one hundred percent lethal condition. …

We are not privy to his EEG records, but high alpha activity is common in coma. Also common is “flat” EEG. The EEG can appear flat even in the presence of high activity, when that activity is not synchronous. For example, the EEG flattens in regions involved in direct task processing. This phenomenon is known as event-related desynchronization (hundreds of references).

As is obvious to you, this is truth by authority. Neurosurgeons, however, are rarely well-trained in brain function. Dr. Alexander cuts brains; he does not appear to study them. “There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness …” True, science cannot explain brain-free consciousness. Of course, science cannot explain consciousness anyway. In this case, however, it would be parsimonious to reject the whole idea of consciousness in the absence of brain activity. Either his brain was active when he had these dreams, or they are a confabulation of whatever took place in his state of minimally conscious coma.

There are many reports of people remembering dream-like states while in medical coma. They lack consistency, of course, but there is nothing particularly unique in Dr. Alexander’s unfortunate episode.

So, if we add all this up, we have a neurosurgeon who makes fundamental mistakes about how the brain works, because he is not a neuroscientist or neurophysiologist—and that is a BIG difference. On top of this, he has a history of falsifying records and was in trouble with numerous malpractice suits, so his medical career was effectively over. And when Dittrich checked with other people, many important details in the book turned out clearly false.

This does not seem to trouble Alexander or any of his followers who want to believe him. They, like so many others, are willing to be duped out of their money for the book and make him rich, all while he tells them fairy stories to confirm their beliefs and make them feel good. It wouldn’t be the first time some religious figure separated people from their money—but perhaps the first time it was done by a neurosurgeon in a white lab coat.

Donald Prothero

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books. Read Donald’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

16 Comments

  1. brad says:

    Sounds like he has narcissistic personality disorder.

  2. Rob says:

    These stories seem to imply that God is confused. He can’t tell whether people are dead or not, and keeps taking people to heaven by mistake. Then, oops, the person is not dead, and has to send them back to earth. (Maybe God was in a coma and his foreknowledge was not functioning.)

  3. Todd says:

    Thank you Dr. Prothero for debunking Alexander.

  4. John Greatorex says:

    Alexander’s ‘thousands of butterflies’ implies earth’s conditions must be prevalent in heaven – plants, atmosphere, etc. and thus, thousands of caterpillars eating heavenly stinging nettles and cabbage – or might it be garbage?

  5. Vicki says:

    Tina Brown has a lot to answer for……printing this garbage was almost ..but not quite, the low point of her career.

  6. Debbie Henderson says:

    Since Alexander’s book came out, I’ve had a great number of believers quote his experience as “proof” of that heaven exists and of the afterlife. Unfortunately, they quickly dismiss any criticism I may offer, even when I discuss neurobiological processes of those experiencing coma, because he is a neurosurgeon, who should know more than a mere psychology instructor about such matters.

    It is my hope that this article and information pertaining to his prior deceptive behavior will gain as much attention as has his book.

    Thank you Dr. Prothero

  7. Desiree says:

    Dr. Donald Prothero

    I left the new age due to watching wrong suicide info go out at a Hay House event where an angel medium Doreen Virtue told a mom wrong suicide info and another medium John Holland sat on the stage doing absolutely nothing to call out the wrong suicide info that is not any kind of a suicide truth but was in fact one of the most dangerous myths on suicide..

    I wrote and called Hay House .. I have nagged and nagged and can not get them to correct the suicide statement or get them to address how they are going to protect the public from Doreen Virtue having seemingly at event and online told people some kind of angel message not to get flu shots.

    I tried to get Hay House CEO to realize Doreen Virtue using Natural News as source to make people perceive elderberries as safe and flu shots as toxic was dead wrong… but nothing moves these people beyond their excuses and greed.

    http://desireekrautkramer.blogspot.com/2014/06/deepak-chopra-challenge.html
    http://desireekrautkramer.blogspot.com/2014/07/reid-tracys-reply-to-my-letter.html

    Is there anyway Professor that you could help bring together a group of educated people in science who are teachers to call out the dangerous wrong new age medical statements going out .. that no one is calling out …

    Take a look at what Dr Brian Weiss a Yale MD ( publisher Hay House) is doing.. past life deck
    http://www.hayhouse.co.uk/cards/1401943675/past-life-oracle-cards

    With a woman who I not only caught giving out wrong suicide info but who actively encourages people to see themselves as not fully or really human.. Take a look at this video & ask yourself how any psychiatrist could in any way give credence to such whacked stuff. I thought a Yale degree was supposed to mean something..

    Dr Weiss obviously felt he would be able to endorse such shit for his gain and no one notice.. thus bringing medical credence seemingly to that which no reputable psychiatrist would ever dare give it and him profit at the expense of real mental health and the fields of psychology and parapsychology.

    Dr Weiss did not upon hearing of Virtue giving out wrong suicide info.. call it out publicly as wrong.. Nor does MD Weiss call out Virtue’s dangerous anti-vaccine comments.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQdn88TANak&list=UUxsG-yjeM5dH_YOHpK

    In this video take a listen as medicine is called dog and pony show and listen as people are taught by new age Ester Hicks of Hay House ( actively plugged by James van Praagh just like he plugs Doreen Virtue ) that belief in medicine is what makes it work…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKRUGfrqR1E

    • Ed Graham says:

      Desiree, you have correctly identified fraud. You have pointed out how money is the only thing these people worship. Unfortunately, you still believe in Mediums, Angels, talking to the dead, and other things supernatural. If you apply the same level of scrutiny to all things, you will not believe in any of this crap. Come on, you’re half way there.

    • a Syd says:

      Desiree, check out the website Science-Based Medicine.

      It’s URL: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org

      The information is there, but the true believers will never look for it, and even if you try to show them they will reject it. You are a rare new age person who has a conscience and the self-respect to stand up and declare that the emperor has no clothes. It’s ironic that these “spiritual” people are so lacking in integrity. They talk of “big pharma” and never notice that homeopathy is running a pure scam worth millions of dollars, with no overhead costs from health and safety or efficacy studies. It’s the same with every new age sphere of interest: cynical businesses extracting money from self-centred hypocritical dupes. As a 60s hippie, I find the whole new age thing an embarrassment discrediting truly alternative modes of thinking and being. The revolution sucked dry by the gumption-less wishful thinking of do nothings masquerading as radicals or just plain alternative life stylists. Stylists is all they are.

      You have shown some gumption and some humanity, and I applaud you. I hope you can put some cracks in the carapaces of some of your old friends and take them with you out of the soft parade of charlatanry and exploitation you have discovered. Stay well, and remember love and peace! a Syd

  8. Tracy says:

    For those who might have missed it,Eben Alexander and Dr. Raymond Moody debated Steve Novella and Sean Carroll on Intelligence Squared on the topic ‘Death is Not Final’.

    http://intelligencesquaredus.org/debates/past-debates/item/1020-death-is-not-final

    Needless to say Steve and Sean did a fine job of defending against the proposition.

  9. Anthony R says:

    I had read debunkings before about Alexander ‘s story, but this expose shows he isn’t just a true believer in a perceived position of authority, but a true charlatan who clearly has the same ethics in his newfound writing career that he showed as a neurosurgeon. Can’t say I’m surprised.

    I can’t help but imagine the religious implications of his story though. Are people randomly popping in and out of heaven as people all over the world fall in and out of comas? It must be rough on the heavenly bookkeepers. Did Alexander have to wear a visitor pass while he was there?

  10. Boghos L. Artinian MD says:

    Toggle navigation
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    1. The Day I Died
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    BMJ 2003; 326 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.326.7383.288 (Published 01 February 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:288

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    Wait for the thawing

    I would like to bring to a halt the ongoing debate regarding the mind
    -body duality, ‘near death’ and ‘out of body’ experiences, pending the
    first successful thawing of a frozen person who had been enrolled in a
    cryonics program.

    Should this first revived person, and the others that would follow,
    be able to provide us with detailed itineraries of their souls during the
    deep-freezing of their bodies, I would be convinced of the duality of the
    mind and body, and believe in the possibility of an afterlife.

    If, on the other hand, a hundred years of frozen ‘solitude’ have
    passed like a few seconds (containing only the ‘near death’ and the ‘out
    of body’ experiences) for the revived persons, I could then be sure that
    the soul cannot exist independent of a living body.

  11. Rob Bower says:

    Charlatan? Quack? Visionary? Believer? These are not mutually exclusive. I believe it is a fundamental element of human nature that many of us can persuade ourselves that we are telling the truth, when that version of truth benefits us personally. As any salesperson, politician or religious leader knows, it is far easier to convince an audience, if you have convinced yourself first. And if the proposition in question brings personal gain, I myself am the easiest person to convince.

  12. Dani Ellis says:

    Where are the after life jaunts into “hell” and back,I don’t recall any books being written about experiences of “going the other way”.How about a medium contacting Hitch and getting them to “ghost write” his account of living hell,as surely such a blasphemer will
    no doubt have descended to this place of purgatory.If you believe all that crap?

  13. Dani Ellis says:

    Do animals have religion?or are they too intelligent for that bit of human superiority?

  14. Evelyn Haskins says:

    How VERY odd. as Alice said!

    Why would Heaven be filed with butterflies, of all things! Butterflies after ll are merely the relatively short reproductive stage of insects that feed from vegetation. So where are all the trees and weeds for the caterpillars to feed from?

    Then why would his sister be wearing a peasant dress? Does one wear peasant clothes in Heaven? Does a soul NEED any clothing?

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