It 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.