Book Reviews

Proof of Heaven: Review

Proof of HeavenIn 2008 Eben Alexander fell into a coma and had a Near Death Experience. He was suffering from an ultra rare form of bacterial meningitis which caused extensive damage to his brain, giving him a 97% mortality rate. Proof of Heaven is his account of what happened and it’s a fascinating read. What makes this case of NDE particularly interesting is that Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon so is uniquely qualified to explain exactly how and why his experience couldn’t be a mere hallucination.

The book recounts in detail what happened during the week he was in a coma, pieced together from his medical records and testimony by his family and the doctors who helped him to recover. Woven into the narrative of his brain being eaten by E. Coli is an account of Alexander’s childhood and family history. This is significant and poignant because he was adopted as a child and had always dreamed of finding his biological parents.

More Real than Reality

Alexander had no memory of his earthly identity during his NDE, which is unusual and probably due to the fact that the part of the brain normally connected with conscious experience wasn’t functioning. This may have allowed him to ‘go deeper’ and have a more archetypal experience. He vividly describes how his experience moved between different levels, or perhaps you could say dimensions.

He starts in the underworld in a realm he calls the Earthworm’s Eye View which is characterised by a throbbing darkness filled with writhing primordial beings. After enduring this for a while, a light appears, accompanied by beautiful music. This Spinning Melody seems to be a kind of vortex of sound and light which opens a gateway into the next realm or dimension. He describes a green, lush world like earth, but ultra real. Here he meets a beautiful (of course!) girl sitting on a butterfly wing who becomes his guide to the afterlife. She transmits knowledge to his mind directly, without words, which he translates:

“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

“You have nothing to fear.”

“There is nothing you can do wrong.”

Then comes a description of shimmering beings which reminded me a little of the visions of Old Testament prophet Ezekiel (quoted in Escaping the Crystal Sphere). Alexander describes how “flocks of transparent orbs, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamer-like lines behind them.” They emit a booming chant of joy, almost as if they are propelled by sheer ecstasy.

Finally, he arrives at the Core and meets God. There’s no beard or anthropomorphic nonsense here, just an immense void which is dark and yet filled with light. In the form of an Orb, the Girl on the Butterfly Wing translates and gives answers to his many questions; answers he is still learning to understand after returning to this world.

The ‘Problem’ of Consciousness

Before he experienced it for himself, Dr Alexander was a sceptic. He believed the brain creates consciousness and that people who reported experiences like his were making them up. Like most neuroscientists, he had never even read the many reports on Near Death Experiences, and it was only after his NDE that he did so. Needless to say, he is no longer a sceptic.

Proof of Heaven includes an interesting discussion on the so-called ‘problem’ of consciousness, as well as a break down of the various hypotheses often used to explain away NDEs. This book makes a welcome addition to the literature on the subject, as Alexander says: “Those who assert that there is no evidence for phenomena indicative of extended consciousness, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are wilfully ignorant. They believe they know the truth without needing to look at the facts.”

His experience shows that the death of the body and brain does not mean the death of consciousness. What he saw shouldn’t be interpreted literally though. While many people undergo similar experiences in a NDE, what they see and how they interpret what they see is culturally conditioned. Somebody raised in a Western or Christianised culture might report seeing angels or a figure like Jesus, but somebody from an Eastern or Buddhist culture might describe bodhisattvas or devas.

Proof of Heaven is not ‘proof’ of heaven. It is compelling evidence for the survival of consciousness and for the brain not being the source of that consciousness.

Sceptic Attack and Debunking

Perhaps it was the provocative title or the fact that Dr Alexander presents what he calls a perfect storm of a NDE, but the inevitable backlash erupted shortly after the book was published. Sceptics rushed to debunk the book and its author. They pointed to the malpractice lawsuits against Dr Alexander and the fact that the account of his experience wasn’t reliable.

There was a particularly nasty hatchet job published by Esquire, written by Luke Dittrich, which framed Alexander as a liar. The article itself is behind a pay wall, but The Wire published this which references it. Key points in Alexander’s story were seized upon and taken out of context. It may be true that he tweaked the weather when describing events, but that can be put down to artistic licence.

However, the comments made by one of the doctors who treated Alexander were more serious. Dr Potter was quoted as saying Alexander was ‘conscious, but delirious’, which would seem to falsify his entire account. But this relates to only part of his experience, and Dr Potter has since claimed her words were taken out of context and used to misrepresent the facts. The International Association for Near Death Studies has published a debunking of the Esquire article which is worth reading to get the full picture. You can read it here:

>Esquire article on Eben Alexander distorts the facts

It’s a shame this happened, but not surprising. As IANDS says, Proof of Heaven is the opposite of what Luke Dittrich claimed. Alexander’s experience couldn’t have been a hallucination or a fantasy because his neocortex wasn’t functioning. He almost died, and his love for his family brought him back to life. He returned with a larger view of reality and a deeper understanding of the nature of consciousness and what it means to be human.

I recommend this book not just because it presents the facts about Near Death Experiences from a neurological perspective, but also because it’s a great story. Eben Alexander’s entire life prepared him for this experience. He needed to learn how much he was loved, and I suspect that’s something most of us could do with remembering.

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9 thoughts on “Proof of Heaven: Review

  1. A great post for debate Jessica, which may or may not have a winning side!

    I guess at the end of the day whether he was conscious or unconscious, dreaming or delirious, the experience that manifested during his illness seems to have changed his view on life and opened him up to understand more about who he is and perhaps how he can live more deeply.

    Surely this can’t be a negative outcome but rather his attempt to try and explain this scientifically to the world might have been his downfall, as up until now, no one seems to be able to.

    Karen

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    1. Hi Karen

      I agree – he came unstuck trying to capture an ineffable experience and wrestle it into a scientific paradigm. Consciousness is inherently mysterious so we’ll probably never get to the bottom of what’s really going on – in our heads or in the world. But it is fun to try!

      We’ll have to wait and see how much the experience has changed him, I suppose, and only his closest family and friends will really see it. He’s certainly milking it for all its worth, but he has set up a non-profit charity called Eternea to contribute to research and education. You can visit the website here: http://www.eternea.org

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    2. If Jessica had comment ‘likes’ turned on you would have just got one from me Karen.

      I think modern the need to ‘scientise’ all experiences and beliefs to make them ‘real’ has caused a lot of grief and obscured a lot of truth.

      IMHO, Alexander should have just offered up his experience as true for him and allowed us to evaluate it on that basis. Instead he tried to appropriate the authority of science to jam it down people’s throats. A backlash was inevitable.

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  2. Having read your blogpost, the pages you link to plus several other commentaries on Alexander’s book that I googled I’m inclined to give very little credence to either Alexander or his critics. In fact about the only useful take home message I found is that popular discourse about consciousness is rife with entrenched opinions underpinned by very sloppy thinking.

    Everyone seems unclear as to what they mean by ‘consciousness’, sometimes using it to mean ‘objective consciousness’ (i.e. “he is unconscious”) even though few things could be as subjective as consciousness, sometimes meaning subjective consciousness even though that too is unreliable and – due to it’s inherent subjectivity – inexpressible, and sometimes to mean ‘conscious memory’ which is an entirely different kettle of fish.

    Alexander’s thesis is essentially self refuting. He claims that consciousness is independent of the brain because the bits of his brain that maintain consciousness were knocked out but he was still conscious. But if it can’t be said that consciousness resides in the brain how can it be said to depend on specific parts of the brain? There was obviously enough of his brain functioning to maintain heartbeat and other vital functions and to prevent his personality and memories from dissolving, so why wouldn’t it also be able to maintain consciousness. Alzheimers patients seem to suffer more profound neurological disruption without losing consciousness.

    Even among doctrinaire physicalists there is hot debate over which part(s) of the brain allegedly give rise to consciousness. Perhaps the most prolific neurological researcher on this topic, Antonio Damasio, claims to have located it in a shifting matrix of rather small axonal loops in the prefrontal cortex. Under Damasio’s model there would only need to be a tiny portion of the brain still functioning for consciousness to remain so it is entirely possible that a core of Alexander’s consciousness was maintained by his brain even while he was unresponsive or in seizures. A bit like those who have been brain damaged and considered to be in a coma but have later been found to have been conscious but suffering from locked in syndrome.

    Alexander claims that consciousness is so delicate and dependent on so many parts of the brain that ether can knock it out. But can it?

    Ether is, in many ways, a lot like alcohol. We know that alcohol (or a knock on the head) can interfere with the laying down of long term memories (i.e. retrograde amnesia). So it’s possible to have a night on the town where you pick a fight, make inappropriate approaches to members of the opposite sex and vomit all over the back seat of a taxi and yet ‘black out’ and have no memory of it the next day. Does this mean you were unconscious? Maybe people affected by ether are all having wonderful dreams of flying through the heavens on Pegasus or talking to beautiful women who sit on butterfly wings but they simply can’t remember them when they come out of it.

    And what about dreams themselves?

    Time passes in very odd ways during altered states. You can be woken by the alarm, put it on fifteen minutes snooze then go back to sleep and have a dream that seems to take hours or even days in the quarter hour before the alarm goes off again. Maybe Alexander’s entire experience took place during the first few seconds of his partially regained consciousness and not while he was comatose at all. Perhaps the memory of it was constructed retrospectively by his disrupted brain (as any competent psychologist can tell you, retrospectively constructed false memories are surprisingly common and relatively easy to deliberately induce. Try googling ‘Bugs Bunny at Disney World’).

    The prominent philosopher of consciousness, David Chalmers, posits that consciousness is so subtle it is possible for someone to lack it entirely without any change in their neurology or behaviour whatsoever. He calls such ‘beings’ p-zombies. As they would never have experienced consciousness they would not know what it is and would not even realise they have none. Chalmers believes that consciousness is the one aspect of the human mind which is not entirely a function of the brain.

    I don’t have a horse in this race. I have no opinion as to whether consciousness is dependent on the brain or not. But overall I’m inclined to discount Alexander’s claims, primarily because he relies so heavily on the bogus authority of his status as a neurosurgeon while displaying little insight into altered states or what consciousness is, much less what possible neurological correlates they may or may not have.

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    1. You make some interesting points there cabrogal. Consciousness is something we barely understand and we obviously need a lot more research into how it works and what it is. Experiences like that of Alexander can contribute to that, but only if we define what we mean by consciousness in the first place, as you say. I think his problem was that before his experience, he’d never really thought about consciousness, despite being a neurosurgeon – a strange state of affairs. Reading his book was frustrating at times because he seems almost naive in his approach to what he was seeing whilst in his coma. It made me wish he had been a mystic rather than a neurosurgeon – perhaps then he might have had more insight.

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      1. Consciousness is something we barely understand and we obviously need a lot more research into how it works and what it is.

        I’m inclined to agree with Chalmers when he says the hard problem of consciousness (why do we have a sense of subjective experience?) will persist even when all other mental functions have been fully researched and ‘explained’ (whatever that means). According to James Trefil it’s the one question currently faced by philosophers and scientists that we don’t even know how to ask.

        Of course an even harder question is “how do other people experience subjectivity?”. In my favourite Greg Egan story the universe is saved from collapse into tautology by the sheer insolubility of that problem.

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        1. I agree that we’ll never fully understand consciousness – mainly because we can’t get outside of our own consciousness to look at it so we’re constantly chasing our tails. It’s like a hall of mirrors or a maze that we’ll never find our way out of.

          I’ve just been reading an interesting series on experience that talks about this – how we’re hopeless caught in an illusion, going round in circles, and then we die. The first part can be found here: http://dondeg.wordpress.com/2014/07/16/experience/

          Enjoyed your post on Greg Egan – sounds like a great story! Not sure where I stand. I’ll have to mull it over…

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