Faulty Vision

Bernard M. Patten

Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, M.D. (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 2012, ISBN 978-145695199). 196 pp. Softcover, $15.99.


 

The reason this kind of rubbish gets published is that it sells. And it sells because people want to read about heaven in the hope that heaven really exists and that they some day (but not quite yet) might get there. The book Heaven Is for Real was published in 2010 and sold over one million copies; as of January 2015 it was still at the top of Amazon’s list of “Christian Books & Bibles”—far outselling versions of the King James Bible.

Proof of Heaven, a copycat of Heaven Is for Real, published in 2012 and was still a best seller as of January 2015. It is number two on Amazon’s list of “Christian Books & Bibles.” Heaven might not be real, but the money made from writing about it is.

Dr. Eben Alexander is a highly trained neurosurgeon who has performed thousands of operations; he believed that what religious people call the “soul” is really a product of brain chemistry and that near-death experiences might feel real to the people having them, but in truth they are simply fantasies produced by brains under extreme stress. He changed his views and wrote Proof of Heaven after developing a rare brain illness that put him in a coma for a week and threatened his life. He did recover.

As a board-certified neurologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology, I am qualified to talk about the medicine in Proof of Heaven. Let’s start with his Glasgow Coma Scale scores. The Glasgow Coma Scale or GCS is a neurological scale that aims to give a reliable, objective way to measure the conscious state of a person for initial as well as subsequent assessment. A patient is assessed against the criteria of the scale, and the resulting points give a score between 3 (indicating deep unconsciousness) and either 14 (original scale) or 15 (the more widely used modified or revised scale).

We are told that Dr. Alexander’s score was 8 out of 15. He claims that 8 means severe. That is not true; 8 is a moderate score. “Severe” would be in the range of 3 to 7; “Moderate” is 8 to 12; “Mild” is 13 or higher. The details are not given, but from the descriptions of Dr. Alexander’s behavior, he had to have at least a 4 on motor (withdraws) and a 3 on verbal (he had said, “God, help me”). That leaves a 1 for eyes (meaning the eyes do not open at all, and yet even when Dr. Alexander was in the intensive care unit, his eyes did open on their own—that would be a 4). Scoring a 4 on eyes would bring his total up to 11.

Conclusion: Dr. Alexander exaggerated his Glasgow Coma Scale score to make his condition look more serious than it was. Other exaggerations include his statement that his cortex and brain were destroyed. His recovery proves they were not. His statement that meningitis primarily involves the cortex is not true. Meningitis primarily involves the meninges, the connective tissues surrounding and protecting the brain, and that is why it is called “meningitis.” His CAT scan showed just that—swelling of the meninges. His cortex was OK.

Dr. Alexander also places much importance on his spinal fluid sugar level being low at 20. Every patient whom I have taken care of with meningitis, including patients with tuberculosis meningitis, syphilitic meningitis, and torula meningitis, has had a spinal sugar level of 0 and made a nice recovery with treatment. A sugar level of 20 is low but not as bad as Dr. Alexander would like us to think. In fact, a sugar level of 20 in this clinical setting would favor recovery, which is what happened in his case.

Alert readers will notice that nowhere in this book does Dr. Alexander mention the results of his electroencephalogram (EEG). Why not? I think it is because his EEG showed electrocortical activity and that would have thrown his case for complete cortical brain destruction right out the window. It would be interesting to know if it also showed REM (rapid eye movement sleep), because I think he had a dream of heaven, nothing more. By the way, even if an EEG shows no activity, it would not mean a brain is dead or destroyed. I took care of a young woman who was in a real coma for six weeks (a Coma Scale score of 3, the lowest score one can get, indicating that motor, verbal, and eye responses were all absent). Her EEG on repeated tests showed no activity, and yet she woke up and recovered completely. That miracle occurred because of all my hard work keeping her alive with management of infections, electrolytes, nutrition, and so forth, plus the fact that she had a reversible cause of coma.

 

Now let’s talk about the author of this book. Dr. Alexander presents a classic case of what may happen when people do not feel loved. He admits that he didn’t feel loved, and he knows it is because of the resentment he has toward his (sixteen-year-old unwed) mother who abandoned him. Multiple studies of humans and animals show that lack of mothering during early infancy may lead to psychological problems in adulthood. He admits that is true in his case. He spent months alone in a crib in an orphanage. His feeling of not being loved (he tells us) played a role in his abuse of alcohol, depression, and the slumping of his academic neurosurgical career, both of which led to “lost years” during which he did not and could not function normally. His solution to his lack of love problem is his discovery that he is loved by the spirit that created the entire universe. Rejected by his real parents, he was accepted by God. Furthermore, Dr. Alexander thinks he is someone very specially favored by the great spirit because, as he says, “I was granted full access to the cosmic being that I really am. I was allowed to die harder, and travel deeper, than all NDE (near-death experience) subjects before me.” It is unlikely that he has had access to all the data on all the previous near-death patients in the world. Exaggeration appears to be the author’s forte and fault.

 

But the real question is: Does this book prove the existence of heaven? To prove something one needs evidence, which has to be relevant and adequate. The evidence of one person sick with meningitis is not adequate: it is not enough in kind, quality, number, or weight to prove anything. A more natural explanation is that Dr. Alexander had a dream that he still thinks was real. Me too. I have dreamed that I made love to Raquel Welch. My dream seemed super real until I woke up in a pile of goo.

Notice that Dr. Alexander’s view of heaven includes a beautiful woman. That woman is blond and sexy, and she understands and loves him without hesitation or reservation. That is the classic male dream—the dream about the unknown woman who loves and understands the dreamer. A dream is a wish that the heart makes when you are asleep.

On the basis of probability, the existence of an afterlife is remote. The dead don’t come back. Before his death, my father promised me that if there was anything on the other side, he would come back and tell me. My father never went back on his word, and his silence on this issue says a lot. And how probable is it that the great creator of all things, the spirit that made the 100 billion stars in the Milky Way and 100 billion known galaxies, would choose only very sick people on this very small planet to reveal heaven to? If God wants us to know about heaven, why doesn’t he just arrive on a white cloud and make an announcement for broadcast on all the television and radio stations?

During his illness, Dr. Alexander be­lieved that his doctors and his wife, Holley, were trying to kill him. He believed he was flying. He believed he was skydiving. He believed the Florida police were chasing him. He believed ninja photographers were on cable pulleys (w
hat?). Why we are so ready to call those delusions “crazy” but reluctant to say that his vision of heaven is also a delusion and just as crazy?

 

 

Bernard M. Patten

Dr. Bernard M. Patten teaches courses on memory, neuroscience, and logic at Rice University and at the Women’s Institute of Houston. Formerly he was vice chair of the department of Neurology and Chief of Nerve and Muscle Diseases at the Baylor College of Medicine.


A review of Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, M.D.

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