Sunday, December 16, 2012

Book review: Proof of Heaven by Eban Alexander

I like books about the brain, and I also like life-after-death stories, which why I couldn’t resist the allure of Proof of Heaven: a Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.

In November 2008, Dr. Eben Alexander, a respected brain surgeon who was not particularly religious, had a near death experience (NDE). He contracted a rare and virulent form of bacterial meningitis and was in a coma for seven days.That he recovered fully is also very rare; people in his state of illness have a 90% mortality rate, and those that recover usually remain in a vegetative state. One might say the whole scenario was miraculous.

Dr. Alexander does. But his main reason for writing this book is not to share a rare medical event. He wants to tell the world that he experienced Heaven during his coma. Since in his expert opinion this experience could not have been generated by his incapacitated brain, it means there really is a soul.

He opens the book with a preface about skydiving, which he did on a regular basis as an undergrad. The writing here is wonderfully descriptive, and I thought, “This guy can write!” Unfortunately, he does not take this approach to the rest of the book. While he does provide a few vivid passages, particularly about his NDE, he glosses over much of his career and family life, rendering everyone else in his story two-dimensional.

I also don’t believe he succeeds in proving the existence of Heaven or an afterlife. In the main text, he says over and over that only the cerebral cortex of the brain could generate so vivid and coherent an experience as he had, but his cortex was not functioning at all. He does not explain why he believes his cortex was “offline” except in an appendix where he addresses the question. Here he does go into some detail that could be too specific for the layman, but he clearly states he’s dealing in theories. His cortex should have been nonfunctional based on what is known about the brain’s anatomy and physiology, but he does not have any proof.

A main point Dr. Alexander wishes to make is that science is itself a worldview that is limiting, and if we need to be open that all we still don’t know. A worthwhile point, to be sure, but I believe Dr. Alexander has taken the opposite tack with regard to his NDE. He is no longer open to what science does not know about the brain, which is a lot. There may well be a physical explanation for his experience that science cannot yet detect. 

Dr. Alexander would no doubt see me as the kind of reader who seeks to invalidate his experience. That’s not the case. I do not doubt he had this experience and that it changed his life, nor do I question his statements on how unlikely it was that he would contract and then fully recover from his illness. I just don’t think he’s provided a thorough inquiry in this book to prove anything. He relies on his credentials - of a well-educated and respected neurosurgeon who did not believe in NDEs before his experience - to convince the reader.

More persuasive is the chapter on near-death experiences in The Undead by Dick Teresi. Teresi is a science writer who provides plenty of examples (in particular, the story of a patient who had all the blood drained from her brain for a radical surgical procedure) that demonstrate NDEs cannot be explained by brain function as we currently understand it. NDEs feel so much more real than dreams and are much more coherent than psychotic hallucinations, and it's hard to imagine what part of the brain might be dreaming or hallucinating in NDEs when there is no activity measurable by EEG and no blood in the brain.

Be that as it may, we still don't know, and may never know, what is going on with NDEs, and Proof of Heaven is not that helpful. For an even-handed approach to where science and spirituality intersect, I recommend journalist Barbara Bradley Haggerty’s Fingerprints of God. Like Alexander, Haggerty brings a willingness to believe in God to the table, but she goes much further to investigate whether or not all such experiences can be explained or discounted. That she ends up having her faith affirmed just goes to show that nobody yet can prove one way or the other that God and Heaven exist.

See what The New York Times had to say about the book: "Readers Join Doctor’s Journey to the Afterworld’s Gate."

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