Why Proof of Heaven Does Not Prove There’s a Heaven.

The state of the universe.
Oct. 23 2012 12:05 PM

Heaven Help Us

Another “Harvard brain scientist” finds faith and tells the world.

Depiction of heaven at the State Hall of the Austrian National Library, finished in 1730

By Alex Eben Meyer

Newsweek is dead. The 80-year-old magazine will cease publication at the end of the year, a teary-eyed Tina Brown said last Thursday. Before we sink too deeply into grief, let's all remember what lies beyond these earthly, stapled pages. Newsweek may have passed away, its paper turned to dust, but the Newsweek spirit carries on, not as matter or material, but in a state of pure electron flux, a ghostly form that rides the WiFi waves around us. Its words will rise off the printing press and be transformed into an energy that's everywhere at once, but also nowhere. The magazine will become an online angel—a Web-based publication that penetrates our minds with truth and light. In death, it will be reborn and find everlasting life. …

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Sorry, I'm getting all mixed up. I've been having a little trouble focusing since I read Newsweek's cover story from Oct. 15—the one with a picture of a hand reaching up into the clouds and a headline promising that "Heaven Is Real." It's a personal account of meeting God, excerpted from a memoir published this week, called Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey Into the Afterlife. A neurosurgeon? More than that! The author, Eben Alexander III, makes a point of saying that he's a skeptic and a scientist, a skeptical scientist who happens to have spent some time (did he mention?) at a little school in Boston called Harvard University. This science-minded Harvard skeptic never thought he'd find the truth of Jesus Christ. But the facts are just the facts: Alexander has been graced with the divine, and he'll share that grace with us. He's become a neuro-prophet.

This experiment in out-of-body consciousness began in fall of 2008, when a case of bacterial meningitis put Alexander in a coma and "shut down" his “entire cortex.” What he means by that is never clear—you might think this state would be synonymous with death, which is sort of what Alexander claims, even though he's now alive and writing books. But it's a waste of time to quibble over details, since according to the author, the fact of his brain's inactivation is the only thing that could possibly explain what happened next. While Alexander was in the coma, and his brain was “totally off-line” he drifted from this world of Harvard neuroscience into a land of pink and puffy clouds, and chanting flocks of angels, and a glowing orb that speaks telepathically, and a blue-eyed lady-friend, and lots and lots of butterflies. You would not believe how many butterflies there are in Heaven.

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"I've spent decades as a neurosurgeon at some of the most prestigious medical institutions in our country," Alexander writes, reminding us that he's no sap. "I sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God somewhere out there who loved us unconditionally. In fact, I envied such people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided. But as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself." He was just like you and me, you see, at least until he fell into a coma—and flew into the sky, and entered the mind of an earthworm, was forced to reconsider all his Harvard science skepticism about the loving Lord above.

Is it even worth rebutting this interpretation? Even before it was published, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeons Journey Into the Afterlife has reached the Top 10 of the Amazon best-seller list, so we may as well prepare ourselves for the out-of-mind publicity that's sure to follow. For starters, Alexander says it took him "months to come to terms with what happened," as if he'd had to reconstruct the ultra-real experience after his recovery. One might timidly suggest that the story is confabulated—that is to say, his wounded brain filled in the gaps in time with a holy flight of fancy. (Perhaps his experience of "flying" came from memories of skydiving while a student at University of North Carolina?) It also seems at least half-plausible that Alexander's dreamy chit-chat with Jehovah happened in his head, as he was emerging from his coma, and during a time in which the author says he suffered from what's called "ICU psychosis." In the book—which I've had the great displeasure of perusing—he describes waking up to "a strange and exhausting paranoid universe" in which "Internet messages" showed up wherever he looked, and a "grinding, monotonous, anti-melodious chanting" filled his head. "Some of the dreams I had during this period were stunningly and frighteningly vivid," he says.

It was only later on that he worked out the fine points of his astral projection, in part by using a commercial meditation aid called "Hemi-Sync"—a $12 music CD that purports to mimic psychedelics and expand the mind with alternating beats. "Hemi-Sync potentially offered a means of inactivating the filtering function of the physical brain by globally synchronizing my neocortical electrical activity, just as my meningitis might have done, to liberate my out-of-body consciousness," he explains, as only a Harvard neurosurgeon can. Scientists who are a bit more skeptical have described these claims as silly.

Alexander claims to have been waffling on the matter of his faith before the meningitis. But the book reveals that he's always been a devout or at least a searching Christian. Long before he found himself in the "God-soaked and love-filled darkness" of his coma, Alexander took his family to church and made his children pray every night before they went to bed. His story of enlightenment is suffused with the most conventional evangelism: He was lost and now is found; he has "good news" to share with all. According to the memoir, Alexander was abandoned as a baby, spent Christmas as an orphan, and later on became a depressive alcoholic. Then he goes to a meeting in Jerusalem and finds the spot where Jesus ate his final meal, and while he's there (through some celestial stroke of luck), he contracts the deadly bug that will restore his faith and change his life and put him in a coma for a very biblical duration of seven days and seven nights.

Now, by grace of God, he's scheduled to appear on Nightline, Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and Fox & Friends. His book is almost guaranteed to be a huge success, a work of neuro-prophecy that hauls in massive neuro-profits. There's no doubt that Alexander's publisher is looking back with greedy eyes at another publishing sensation from three years ago, by the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor. That one, called My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, was also based on the rather dubious idea that we might draw a deeper understanding of the universe from debilitating brain damage. Bolte Taylor's rise to fame and neuro-guru-status began not with meningitis but with a cerebral hemorrhage, one that taught her how to find nirvana by allowing her "life-force power" to "flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria."

There are some minor differences between Alexander and Bolte Taylor. For one thing, he's the better stylist. (Perhaps he availed himself of a holy-ghost writer?) For another, his spirituality is tilted more toward Christianity. Though he likes to use a generic, oriental name (Om) for the God he finds inside his head, his story ends at the altar of a church, tears running down his cheeks as he takes communion. Bolte Taylor, for her part, started doing neuroscience to understand why her schizophrenic brother thought that he could talk to Jesus Christ. (Presumably it wasn't because he had meningitis.) Her own sense of the beyond leans away from Western monotheism, and relies instead on a pseudo-secular, tech-inflected mysticism. At the end of her famous TED talk, which has now been viewed almost 10 million times, she breaks down in what must be crocodile tears while promising a universe of connected consciousness, one of compassion and of peace.

But the similarities between their stories, and their public presentations, are far more striking. Like Alexander, Bolte Taylor makes a point of credentialing herself as a Harvard scientist, and a brain specialist to boot. It's this priestly status that makes their nutty stories of enlightenment seem like something more profound—brain-based facts. Bolte Taylor frames her insight in the witless mumbo-jumbo of left-brain/right-brain pseudoscience; Alexander needs the magic of his "inactivated" cortex. Either way, a fuzzy bit of neuroscience is brandished as a notary seal to authenticate some metaphors about quantum physics or other science-y illumination.

If only insight were so easy! As it happens, Bolte Taylor isn't quite a "brain scientist," in the sense of being someone who is actively engaged in research. She has a Ph.D., and did complete a post-doc in a Harvard lab, but she stopped writing research papers early in her career and never took a tenure-track position. She's more a performer and an educator than a scientist, giving public lectures and singing songs about biology with her guitar. That's not to say that public education is not a splendid and important task, but only that it might be wise to study the credentials of those who claim their membership in the holy neuro-priesthood.

The same goes for Alexander, whose long list of scientific publications is almost exclusively devoted to the technique of neurosurgery. In other words, he hasn't spent much time in formal research on the function of the brain, let alone the deeper questions of cognition or higher consciousness. And while he did spent many years working at Harvard hospitals, I'm not sure what that says about his status as a "brain scientist," or if that designation would mean anything at all.

Even if these two were on the faculty of Harvard, or if they'd won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, what platform would they have for expounding on the secrets of the universe? We've now grown so enamored of the brain that the mere mention of the thing eliminates the need for further clarity. The blinding power of neuroscience has been invoked in recent years by marketers and pollsters, by trial lawyers and self-help authors, and now our faith in brain-based explanation has reached its logical conclusion. It's become its own religion. In the middle of her TED talk, Bolte Taylor hoisted up a hunk of pickled neural tissue and waited for the audience to respond with oohs and aahs. She worked it in her hands like a charismatic preacher would, while the spinal cord dangled like a snake.

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