In October 2012 journalistic endeavour hit yet another embarrassing low when the cover of Newsweek featured the claims of neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander. This Virginia State licenced medic claimed to have fallen into a coma from a very severe case of E. Coli related bacterial meningitis. He claimed that a complete and total shutdown of his cerebral cortex resulted in a perfect glimpse of the afterlife. He argues that if his cerebral cortex was completely inactive that such visions could not have been a product of brain function and there lies his central thesis; that consciousness not only is independent of brain function, but survives bodily death itself. To quote the authors own words “The current understanding of the mind now lies broken at our feet for what happened to me destroyed it”. Neuroscientist Sam Harris was quick to point out the obvious in that his cerebral cortex could not possibly have suffered a complete and total shutdown as he has managed to write a best seller and grace the cover of one of the worlds most respected current affairs publications. This achievement was in no part due to journalistic regard for scientific scrutiny and media sensationalism would yet again delve another blow to those who believe the media has a duty to respect scientific integrity above profit. Unfortunately such aspirations in today’s media seem almost as delusional as the subject matter of Dr. Alexander’s book.
The possibility of fraud
It was an article written by Sam Harris “This must be heaven” that first drew my attention to Dr. Eben Alexander. Upon reading his analysis of the surgeon’s claims as well as having read the original article in Newsweek made me incredulous of the idea that a State licenced medical practitioner with several years on the job could have wrote a piece so simplistic and unscientific. This suggested to me that there could be a darker motive behind Dr Alexander’s claims. Anyone who is active in scepticism and free thought are all too aware that some of the ideas that believers try to defend are true testimony to the view that almost any notion that appeals to our desires can be wrapped up as truth by our all too fallible cognitive processes. However when it is a medic and the topic at hand is part and parcel of what should amount to professional knowledge then one should immediately start to ask questions. Such suspicion is all the more warranted given the high levels of sociopaths and narcissistic individuals that are attracted to guru/mystic and life coach positions as they have the potential for huge financial returns as well as giving celebrity status to the people involved. Is it really possible that a neurosurgeon was of the belief that his brain function was completely redundant while he was in a coma? Could such a person of significant professional standing really believe the over the top clichéd depiction of heaven in which he described in the Newsweek article?
“It took me months to come to terms with what happened to me. Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma, but—more importantly—the things that happened during that time. Toward the beginning of my adventure, I was in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky.Higher than the clouds—immeasurably higher—flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them. Birds? Angels? These words registered later, when I was writing down my recollections. But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms”.
It is not impossible that a medical doctor or other scientific professional could harbour such far-fetched abjectly unscientific positions. In the course of my own career I have met with views from both doctors and scientists whom I have the utmost professional respect for, which quite frankly would make one wonder how such divergent personas could even exist. Take for example the case of Ayman al-Zawahiri, now leader of Al Qaeda, following the death of Osama bin laden. He graduated with a masters degree in surgery and after working as an army doctor subsequently established his own clinic in the town of Maadi. Needless to say the concept of Islamic Jihad will not be appearing as an article in a prestigious scientific publication anytime soon. While a neurosurgeon profiting from claims that are patently unscientific but dressed up in the language of science should rightly be treated with suspicion, this does not amount to absolute proof of deliberate deception.
The Esquire Article
The New York Times best-selling author was to court much greater controversy earlier this year when Luke Dittrich of the online publication Esquire wrote a less than flattering account of Dr. Alexander’s troubled past.
“But there is another point of view. And from this point of view, Dr. Eben Alexander looks less like a messenger from heaven and more like a true son of America, a country where men have always found ways to escape the rubble of their old lives through audacious acts of reinvention.
By the end of our interview, there’s a note of unease in Alexander’s voice. He pulls out his iPhone and puts on the voice recorder. He tells me he is concerned that some of the stories I’ve brought up could be taken the wrong way by readers”.
The article goes onto state that Eben Alexander was subject to five malpractice lawsuits within a career just spanning ten years. He was accused of falsely editing medical reports and was ordered to undertake a course in professional ethics following a challenge by a tobacco farmer who had the wrong vertebrae fused and his medical report subsequently altered to hide Dr. Alexander’s surgical errors. The article goes on to describe an account of a near fatal parachute accident involving Dr. Alexander and a guy named Chuck. Dittrich states that a person by the name of Chuck did exist but that he knew nothing of the event that Dr. Alexander described in his book. When Dr. Alexander was confronted about this discrepancy, he explains that the Chuck in his story was not the same Chuck in his former parachute club but was another member of the club who he gave a pseudonym Chuck for legal reasons that he claims were dictated by the publishers of the book. When Dittrich pushes him as to why the publishers would prohibit him from mentioning the real name of the person involved as there was no accident or fatality, the author gives no comment. Dittrich goes on to ask Dr. Alexander if he was still in contact with the false Chuck and is told that he is not and that there was no way of contacting him.
Dittrich further goes on to contradict Dr. Alexander’s claim that be fell into a coma as a result of bacterial meningitis but was rather put into a medically induced coma followed by states of sedation in which he appeared to be delirious. This is what Dr. Potter, one of the ER doctors who treated Dr. Alexander wrote of his treatment.
“We couldn’t work with Eben at all, we couldn’t get vital signs, he just was not able to comply. So I had to make the decision to just place him in a chemically induced coma. Really for his own safety, until we could treat him. And so I did…. I put him to sleep, if you will, and put him on life support.”
After Alexander was taken from the ER to the ICU, Potter says, the doctors there administered anesthetics that kept him in the coma. The next day, she went to visit him.
“And of course he was still in an induced coma,” she says. “On ventilator support. They tried to let him wake up and see what he would do, but he was in exactly the same agitated state. Even if they tried to ease up, a little bit even, on the sedation. In fact, for days, every time they would try to wean his sedation—just thrashing, trying to scream, and grabbing at his tube.”
While Dr. Alexander’s central claim is that of complete cerebral cortex shutdown. Dr. Potter insists that while the patient was been weaned out of anaesthesia his state was conscious but delirious. Astonishingly Dr. Potter informs Dittrich that Dr. Alexander told her that he was dramatizing the event for his book. He was apparently taking “artistic licence”. No such artistic licence is apparent at any of Ebens discussions and his account is marketed as fact. He has on several occasions stated that current scientific consensus on this issue will be radically altered to support his stated position.
We don’t have to take Dittrich on his word in relation to the fact that Dr. Alexander had the joint worst record for medical malpractice lawsuits in the State of Virginia. One has to look no further than online medical practice records which reveal his highly contentious professional history. Here is a link to his healthgrades.com review.
My facebook encounter with Dr. Alexander.
Eben Alexander, MD Cyril Butler Pure scientific materialism is hopelessly simplistic — many neuroscientists actually get the profound mystery of the “Hard Problem of Consciousness” and what it tells us about the nature of reality, that spirit/soul is absolutely real. Some, like Sam Harris, cling to that kindergarten level thinking of pure materialism. I’m sure they have their reasons — I prefer to get closer to actual truth. Clearly millions of other souls get the far deeper mystery, too. One has free will that enables them to make their own choice — as do you.
The above text is the last remaining evidence of our confrontation that took place yesterday on facebook. The text is still there at the time of writing this but for how long more remains to be seen. Notice the distinct lack of input from myself as I have now been censored and blocked from his page. I can only restate my original reply to this Deepak Chopra-esqe piece of what the great Randi himself would no doubt term woo. Firstly Dr. Alexander just how exactly how does fabricating evidence simplify our understanding of human consciousness and its origins? Yes many neuroscientists and I would guess the population in general would agree that the science of human consciousness is in its infancy, but how does pretending that there is evidence that this is anything other than a poorly understood product of brain function that is either brain dependent or entirely a construct of the brain itself when there is absolutely no such data, help in finding the truth as you put it? You say the spirit/soul is absolutely real? Where is your evidence for this? If someone has religious faith that these are real then that is an entirely different matter but you are arguing from a position of evidence? Where is this evidence? You call the branch of science that gave bionic movement to amputees and quadriplegics as well as a whole other range of emerging technologies Kindergarten science. Yes genuine neuroscientists as well as skeptics such as Sam Harris have their reasons for challenging populist gurus and quacks and it is because they damage ideas that work. You undermine the very fabric of a modern economy when you undermine science. It is one thing for a non-scientific mind to engage in such feeble talk but amounts to a breach of trust when people who should know better engage in such behaviour. It is damaging to science and it is damaging to the medical profession when folk are not honest and upfront with evidence.
Why is it Kindergarten science to study the example of a patient with Alzheimer’s, the very example I put to you yesterday that was quickly deleted from your page? Mr X starts losing his keys more than usual. His wife of 40 years puts it down to the stresses of work as he is near retirement. Gradually she gets more alarmed as he starts to forget important dates and anniversaries etc. His concerned wife seeks a medical evaluation. A geriatrician asks him to count back from 100 in multiples of 8. He is slower than average but still can recall the days of the week, who the president is, the current year, as well as where he graduated. One day while watching TV his wife notices that he is missing. She raises the alarm only for a neighbour to call to the door with him telling his wife that she found him wandering in a confused and agitated state. The patient is subsequently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and put on a cholinesterase inhibitor treatment. Mr X is one of the lucky ones. He is one of up to 70% of patients according to US NIH who respond to this type of treatment. The clinician warns the couple that the beneficial effects of the treatment will be short lived. The most they can hope for is 12 months, but to expect major regression from 6 months onwards. One morning Mr X is found to be rambling incoherently muttering names from 30 years previous. His wife looks to him and asks if he knows who she is. He gets confused and agitated without answering her question. In the coming weeks he loses all speech and all sense of direction and memory. His wife is destroyed with guilt for wanting her misery to come to an end. Later respite comes in the form of pneumonia and the patient ends his battle with life. Dr Alexander in your professional opinion where exactly does this “new understanding” of neuroscience of brain independent consciousness come into this in relation to 1) The progression of symptoms 2) The short term ability of cholinesterase inhibitors to temporarily halt symptoms? Even if your story wasn’t entirely fabricated, why would you have such clear and descriptive visions of the afterlife without a functioning cerebral cortex when Mr X could not remember his wife’s name even with a partially functioning cortex? Are you of the belief that after death this consciousness will somehow re-emerge? Are you of the view that the god you describe of love and a universe of one just wanted to destroy the world around Mr X’s family but that all would be made good in its own time? How could you possibly have evidence for such nonsense even if you did believe it on faith?
You say millions of souls get the idea. Yes millions believe in the power of prayer i.e. that divine beings intervene in human affairs. Yes as an Atheist I am in a minority that believe such a notion is utter nonsense. However empirical evidence does not bow to populism. Millions believe in the authority of elders and belief as a result of culture and tradition but that is not science. I have to brace the surreal feeling that I have typing this as I am to a neurosurgeon. You talked about Kindergarten beliefs. The above paragraph would make good educational material for a ten year old. The fact that you are not embarrassed by these beliefs is a sheer testimony of the issues we face in terms of having a rational society and a progression of scientific endeavour.
Still on the theme of Kindergarten beliefs is your notion of free will. As a sceptic and not a neuroscientist I only know the basics of current understanding of decision making. I would expect professionals giving lectures on the subject to at least know significantly more than me. Dr. Alexander we can show beyond a shadow of a doubt that free will is an illusion. fMRI has shown that we can predict the decisions one will make several seconds before they make them. We have known this for at least a decade. Is the German race the most intrinsically evil race of the 20th century for electing the most evil regime of that era? Why were you so eager to remove this example from your facebook page if you claim to be a man of science?
Dr. Eben Alexander given all of the above can you understand why many might believe you are in the false hope industry and are cynically preying on vulnerable peoples hopes and desires for material other than spiritual gains?