Proof of Heaven

The instant best-seller’s claims
are being questioned

Proof of Heaven, the story of neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s self-professed trip to the afterlife and a New York Times best-seller about the joy of being dead and coming back, addresses a basic human question: What happens after we die? This perennial question continues to provoke philosophical, religious, and existential interest. In modern times, the issue of “heaven” has garnered much attention with the analysis of near-death experiences (NDEs) and other incidents shared by people who claim to have been there, including those who say they were reacquainted with lost loved ones along the way. It’s a powerful and sensitive subject that many of us want to know more about, but not everyone is engaging in the conversation fairly.

I know how pronouncements like mine sound to skeptics, so I will tell my story with the logic and language of the scientist I am…


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A Doctor Dumbs It Down

Dr Eben Alexander

Dr. Eben Alexander: neurologist turned author

Dr. Eben Alexander is not a stupid man. After all, he is a neurosurgeon and has authored a best-seller. In his story about his trip to the afterlife, he keeps it very simple—too simple. To briefly explain his use of simplicity, think of the mental systems that work together to drive our decision-making and behavior: the intuitive and the cognitive. Our intuition kicks in automatically and our cognition comes into play only when we need to think things through. Cognition drains us of mental energy, and when faced with complex mental thinking, we stop paying attention. To avoid this cognitive drain, Alexander has dumbed down his afterlife story to the point that his book has been described as thin and uninformative.

I was a speck on a beautiful butterfly wing; millions of other butterflies around us. We were flying through…indescribable colors…arcs of silver and gold light…

The Power of Simplicity

It’s true that employing a solely cognitive approach to communicating a story, lacking intuition and emotion, can waste time. The “Fluency Theory” contends that if people are easily comprehending ideas and information, then they are more likely to believe what they are reading or hearing. In other words, if you ask people to think too hard and deplete their store of mental energy, they will stop listening and miss your point completely. However, dumbing down his NDE story, or simplifying his message, wasn’t just about helping readers better understand his trip to the hereafter. For Alexander, a board-certified neurosurgeon facing a multimillion-dollar medical malpractice lawsuit, there may have been more to it.

I spent great stretches of time—which paradoxically felt like no time at all—in the presence of my guardian angel on the butterfly’s wing and an eternity learning lessons from the Creator…

Five Suits and One Coma

The Prophet

Esquire’s August 2013 article showcasing Dr. Alexander

A recent Esquire article detailed the 5 medical malpractice suits leading up to the publication of Proof of Heaven. One patient sued Alexander for failing to mention that permanent facial paralysis was a potential side effect of surgery. That case was settled out of court. Another case came about when Alexander performed a spinal surgery on a patient’s 5th and 6th vertebrae. Instead of fusing C5-6, he accidentally fused C4-5, and then didn’t realize that he had made the mistake until months later, when the patient complained of continuous pain. Alexander went back into the official operation report and changed all references to C5-6 that he had originally made, revising them to read C4-5 instead. Later that same year, the hospital revoked his surgical privileges. That $3 million lawsuit was just beginning at the time Alexander was admitted to the hospital preceding his NDE. As he slipped into a coma, the doctor was tied for having the most medical malpractice law suits against a single health care provider in Virginia during the previous 10 years.

All the human emotions are present, but they’re deeper, more spacious—they’re not just inside but outside as well. Imagine every time your mood changed here on earth, the weather changed instantly along with it…

A History of Malpractice

As of 2007, health care practitioners in Virginia are required to report all paid claims over $10,000 during the previous 10 years. To provide perspective regarding the reported data, the Virginia Board of Medicine displays information about the paid claims experience of other practitioners of the same specialty, along with the practitioner’s history of paid claims. Paid claims are not expressed in dollar amounts. Dr. Alexander reported the following paid claims over the past 10 years.

Location: Boston, MA

Year: 2004

Settlement

Amount of this claim is: Above Average

Practitioner Comments:

Patient had signed informed consent that preexisting numbness and weakness could worsen after difficult lumbar disk surgery. Insurer recommended settling out of court to avoid costs of litigation.

Location: Lynchburg, VA

Year: 2009

Settlement

Amount of this claim is: Average

Practitioner Comments:

1.) Although cervical discectomy/fusion performed adjacent to intended level, patient had dramatic reduction in symptoms. Surgeon did not initially realize that surgery had been performed at unintended level, due to the patient’s favorable course, but x-ray two weeks post-op showed fusion one level above intended level. Informed patient after follow up revealed durable benefit. Settled in mediation at insurer’s recommendation.

Location: Lynchburg, VA

Year: 2009

Settlement

Amount of this claim is: Average

Practitioner Comments:

2.) Although cervical discectomy/fusion performed adjacent to intended level (before knowing about other case #1), patient had dramatic reduction in symptoms. Surgeon did not recognize that surgery performed one level above intended level due to favorable course. Patient’s symptoms recurred, requiring repeat surgery months after surgeon left practice. Settled in mediation at insurer’s recommendation.

Location: Worcester, MA

Year: 2009

Settlement

Amount of this claim is: Average

Practitioner Comments:

Patient developed infection in a deep brain stimulator. Infected unit was removed expeditiously, but a small plastic piece remained in her neck. This provided a nidus for ongoing infection, necessitating a second procedure for its removal. Patient hospitalized for 2 days, discharged with no ill effects. Insurer recommended settling out of court to avoid costs of litigation.

Location: Worcester, MA

Year: 2011

Settlement

Amount of this claim is: Average

Practitioner Comments:

Patient had slow recovery after worse deficit following redo brainstem decompression, claimed she was not advised of the degree of risk. Insurer recommended settlement to avoid potential cost of litigation.

You are loved and cherished.

You have nothing to fear.

There is nothing you can do wrong.

At Issue for Most

The treating neurosurgeon has said that Alexander was merely sedated and his dream-like state and subsequent hallucinations were caused by anesthetics. In his book, Alexander claims his cortex was so compromised by bacterial neuronal death that he could not have been able to dream or hallucinate. To the scientific community, this divergence is an issue. The premise that someone might use his authority as a neurosurgeon to market a book about his journey to the afterlife is alarming. To claim that there is nothing in neuroscience to explain his experience is like saying there’s nothing in physics to explain some newly observed phenomenon. To be deceptive and say there’s nothing in science that can explain it—and subsequently use your own authoritative degree as a practitioner to back it up—is a classic ruse of a con artist. Oliver Sacks, the renowned psychiatrist and professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine, recently agreed, saying “To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific—it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states.”

Then, looking toward the distant peaks, opposite to where the mid-November sun was starting its ascent, there it was…

A perfect rainbow.

Where’s the Proof?

In the scientific world, data have disproved the validity of subjective NDEs. Most believe that a brain in an oxygen-deprived state of abnormal energetic balance is simply not a reliable source. A story that promises hope and unimaginable rewards, from a neurosurgeon of all people, is dubious at best. Most scientists in the world would tell us that he was in a dream-like state induced by coma-enhancing drugs. Perhaps Dr. Alexander, being a board-certified authority, should provide evidence for his claims. Until he does, his story will fall on deaf ears in the scientific community. Scientists generally don’t listen to each other directly, they review each other’s evidence—or proof.

Reference

  1. Dittrich L. The prophet. Esquire website. August 2013. http://www.esquire.com/features/the-prophet?click=smart&kw=ist&src=smart&mag=ESQ&link=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.esquire.com%2Ffeatures%2Fthe-prophet.
  2. Eben Alexander III, MD. VA Health Provider website. http://www.vahealthprovider.com/results_paid.asp?License_No=0101239440.
  3. Habib C. When proof is not enough: Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven and the problem of objectivity in science. Reality Sandwich website. January 10, 2013. https://realitysandwich.com/167248/when_proof_not_enough_eben_alexander/.
  4. Oliver Sacks debunks near-death and out-of-body experiences, as well as religious “revelations.” Why Evolution Is True website. December 13, 2012. http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/oliver-sacks-debunks-near-death-and-out-of-body-experiences-and-religious-revelations/.
  5. Science on the brink of death. Sam Harris website. November 11, 2012. http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/science-on-the-brink-of-death.
  6. Shenhav A. Proof of heaven? Quite naturally… Huffington Post website. November 4, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amitai-shenhav/proof-of-heaven_b_2073570.html.
  7. Sternberg RJ, ed. Why Smart People Can Be so Stupid. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2002. http://www.yale.edu/yup/pdf/090331_front_1.pdf.