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A Scientist's Response to Proof of Heaven
, October 29, 2012
This review is from: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife (Hardcover)
As a researcher who has been studying the nature of consciousness and trying to build bridges between the best of science and the best of spirituality for more than 50 years, I was fascinated by Eben Alexander's Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Near-Death Experience and Journey Into the Afterlife.
One of the ways we get new knowledge and refine our knowledge about the spiritual is by listening closely to and working with the accounts of people who have what I will loosely call "spiritual experiences." In recent decades our culture, e.g., has been strongly affected by previously unheard of familiarity with Near-Death Experiences, NDEs. When I first began working in psychology 50 years ago, I knew about NDEs because I had read a lot of very esoteric psychical research literature, but aside from knowing that NDEs happened and a few of their characteristics, very little was known by anyone, and the average person had never heard of them. When Raymond Moody published his Life After Life book on NDEs in 1976 and it hit the bestseller lists (more than 13 million copies sold to 2012!), it resonated with people's spiritual needs, and now there is widespread knowledge about qualities of NDEs.
One of the things that most impressed me about people's accounts of their NDEs back then was that people with very different backgrounds and religious beliefs, including people with no formal religious beliefs to speak of, described the qualities of NDEs in a similar way. But if NDEs were nothing but the distorted functioning of a distressed brain, you would think that, like most hallucinations resulting from brain malfunctions, the content of those hallucinations would be very much affected by a person's life experiences, cultural background, and individual beliefs. That there was so much commonality immediately made a case that people were telling you about something that might be real in some sense. By analogy, I have never been to Rome, but accounts I have heard of what Rome looks like by people who claim to have been there show so much commonality that I have high confidence that there really is a place called Rome.
From my perspective as a researcher, however, there is a major drawback to collecting more accounts of NDEs today that didn't apply when they were first collected. Back then, almost everyone who finally came forth with an account noted that they had never heard of such things before they had their own NDE. Indeed they usually had never talked to anyone about what they had experienced, or had tried to talk to others and been so severely rejected (you must have been hallucinating, that's crazy, the work of the devil, etc., etc.) that they remained silent about it, and so there was very little obvious influence from cultural background or others' opinions creating the similarity in their accounts. Now there have been so many articles, books, TV specials, etc., about NDEs that when you hear about someone's recent NDE, you have to wonder how much is this an accurate report of something that is "real" and how much their experience has been colored by all their previous knowledge about what NDEs are supposed to be about.
I am particularly concerned with the potentially biasing effects of previous knowledge because a lot of my early research was on hypnosis, and I had it constantly demonstrated in my research that about a quarter or so of the population could have profoundly real-seeming experiences of any arbitrary nature whatsoever suggested to them by a hypnotist. I doubt that most NDEs are in this category of the purely arbitrary, all a product of suggestion, even the ones occurring today, but even if a major part of what a person experiences is "real" in the sense of belonging to some reality external to their belief system, still the way they perceive it may be influenced to some unknown degree by the now widespread cultural knowledge of what NDEs are supposed to be about. This doesn't mean there's no point in studying most people's NDEs, just that we have to be careful about this possible biasing factor. There's nothing particularly novel about this, of course, people's descriptions of ordinary reality are often biased by what they believe, emotions of the moment, etc.
So one way of getting a less biased picture of what NDEs are like might be to simply give more weight to experiences collected in the early days of research, when most accounts were from people who had never heard anything about what NDEs were supposed to be about. Another way of trying to get beyond such a biasing factor is to study more extreme types of NDEs, NDEs with characteristics that are not all that common or known in our culture, and this is a major reason why I find Doctor Eben Alexander's Proof of Heaven book of great value. One of the most common features of NDEs established in the early research, for example, was that at some point the person having the NDE, the NDEr, reaches some kind of "border," or "barrier," or "bridge" or "gateway," and although they want to go on to what seem even more wonderful heavenly reaches of the experience, they are not allowed to go cross this border or go through this gateway, because if they did, there would be no chance of them returning to physical life. Sometimes, knowing this, the NDEr chooses to come back to physical life, sometimes he or she is forced to come back to physical life even though they desperately want to go on.
What lies beyond this gateway?
Doctor Alexander is a neurosurgeon, and he describes a seven days long NDE caused by a usually fatal brain infection that, given our current medical knowledge, we would say totally knocks out all the higher functioning of the brain, everything that makes us conscious human beings. From the outside medical perspective, he's in a totally unresponsive coma. Inside, at first he experiences his NDE almost like a vegetative state, with no real thoughts occurring in it, and going on "forever," although no ordinary concept of time or duration meant anything to him in that condition. And yet eventually he rose above this, with assistance that he perceived in a most interesting way - - I won't give away this very thought-provoking aspect of the book - - and eventually went through a gateway, and reported an exceptionally profound experience.
Because his experience was exceptionally "positive," a word that hardly begin to convey its power, as a human being I want to believe that his was a true glimpse of the reality of the universe, that we're all under the care of a loving, alive, intelligent universe, like physician Richard M. Bucke reported in his Cosmic Consciousness experience, described in my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together.
That's my personal reaction, but as a scientist, I have to bracket that reaction. That is I don't deny it or suppress it, but I recognize that this is something with strong emotions underlying it and it has a possibility of biasing an otherwise relatively objective attempt of mine to understand the experience. So as a scholar and scientific investigator of NDEs, I look at the content of Doctor Alexander's experience, in so far as he can convey it, note the similarities and differences between some other reports of profound experiences by different people in different times and places (like the Bucke Cosmic Consciousness experience mentioned above, or the Darkness of God experience reported by John Wren-Lewis reported on my TASTE (The Archives of Scientists' Transcendent Experiences) site (go to [...] Collected Archives, and select account number 0051, The Darkness of God), and - - - Here's where I'd like to say I understand it's clearly connected to such-and-such phenomena in ways that are very interesting - - - but I can't yet say much more than that this is really interesting, and I want us to learn a lot more about this kind of thing! I know, this is the traditional scientific conclusion to almost all reports, "More research is needed," but it's true! Indeed I would say the implications of NDEs are infinitely more important than 99 percent of what we study in science, so research on NDEs should have an enormous priority in life, but that's not the political reality we live in. ;-(
I also give some extra credence to Doctor Alexander's account because he wasn't a "believer," he wasn't heavily invested in some religious belief system that he had a desperate need to prove. He had a certain, shallow, conventional religiosity from his family background: going to church on Christmas and Easter, otherwise not really giving religion and spirituality any thought. He had heard of reports of NDEs, but, like too many physicians, who are closed minded rather than scientific about this area, he dismissed them as nothing but the hallucinations of a malfunctioning brain. He wouldn't tell a patient they were crazy if they reported unusual experiences to him: in his role as a doctor, as a healer, he would always be nice to them. But accounts of NDEs were just noise to him, damaged brain hallucinations. When he had his own NDE, though, that was something else again!
So, moving into book review mode, am I recommending Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife? Absolutely! Who am I recommending it to? Anyone seriously interested in the meaning of life, and anyone willing to try to bracket their own previous beliefs and preconceptions and be very, very stimulated...
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