Memory, Consciousness and “Proof of Heaven” by Eben Alexander

During my Christmas Holidays, I enthusiastically read the book “Proof of Heaven” by Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2012).  This book having been on the bestseller list, despite what its title says, does not provide even an inkling of a proof of the existence of Heaven or God. It only shows the personal journey of Mr Alexander, in a coma, through his mind over a seven day period.  In fairness to good surgeon, it should be mentioned he himself didn’t like the title. The book attracted many accolades as well as heavy criticism. He was exposed as a person who lost his surgeon’s licence and hadn’t been practicing for several years.  He was finger-pointed as a medical professional who altered medical records of a patient suing him for negligence.

The crux of the matter is, as Mr Alexander rightly pointed out, he only wanted to tell his personal experience which was not relevant to all the peripheral mud-slinging unless his detractors wanted to brand him as a dishonest person cooking up a story to make money. It should also be acknowledged that he had to seek assistance from many people around him to write the story in the world around a person in coma. So everything in the book may not be up to the scrutiny. It is up to the scientific community to see through his central claims rather than spending time undermining his personal credibility. It is easy to be a sceptic or critic and find faults with someone or something not shedding much light on the issue at hand. That process, in my opinion, doesn’t make our views any scientific or more logical. In any case, Mr Alexander’s story is very unconvincing proof of a NDE as he didn’t even claim to have encountered any provable experience like an out of body view of the world. An out-of-body experience at least tells us something that would be very difficult for the person to otherwise perceive.

According to Prof. Edelman, the consciousness is what abandons us every evening when we go to sleep to reappear in the morning as we wake up. Immediate memory is supposed to be consciousness itself. If the NDE which Dr. Alexander experienced had been an unconscious phenomenon, how, as Dr. Michael Shermer asked, could he remember it? Did he see a dream just before he woke up? Memory is thought to be mainly a physiological process. If it weren’t, why do we remember our sensory perceptions that we paid attention to and not everything that simply passed by us? How can, then, our immediate memories record things which elude us immediately afterward? For an example, take subliminal messages. As Mr. Alexander even couldn’t recognize, at once, the angel who helped him as his dead, biological sister, he didn’t experience anything out of ordinary but a simple dream-like-state? No definitive answer!

Our memory may well be a more complex process than we believe.  According to Prof. Antonio Damasio, the mind is not just the brain but the interacting system of the brain and whole human organism. Perhaps, our body may record our experiences which don’t register in our consciousness. We don’t know for sure. This enquiry can also lead us to the age old idea of a soul. Is there an entity external to our physical reality? Or the memory and consciousness may be individual-specific external micro-organisms interacting with our bodies; a part of an extended organism. This externality rules us when we are asleep and interacts with us when we are awake? Was Mr Alexander’s coma such a state?

Thus, Mr Alexander’s encounter with a NDE doesn’t add much value to our understanding of spiritual concept of Heaven or God. In similar vein, his critics could neither add anything substantial to the debate on NDEs. This is more so as I don’t believe in hiding the head in the sand and refuse to see what may be real unless proven otherwise.

All the questions and doubts I had before reading “Proof of Heaven” and various reviews of it, I still harbour in my mind. However, I profoundly congratulate Mr. Alexander for coming out with his story to strengthen the case for research into NDEs. When taken into consideration all the wasted resources on many exotic topics in main stream science, investigating something relevant to human experience in a space avoided by serious science should always be applauded.

At the end, I tend to agree with the following statement Mr. Alexander made in his book.  In my mind, it takes us to the core of humanity and the essence of some of our religions.

“Love is, without a doubt, the basis of everything. Not some abstract, hard-to-fathom kind of love but the day-to-day kind that everyone knows-the kind of love we feel when we look at our spouse and our children, or even our animals. In its purest and most powerful form, this love is not jealous or selfish, but unconditional. This is the reality of realities, the incomprehensibly glorious truth of truths that lives and breathes at the core of everything that exists or that ever will exist, and no remotely accurate understanding of who and what we are can be achieved by anyone who does not know it, and embody it in all of their actions.” p71

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The website aims to show the possible origin of religion through a ‘uniquely’ human process which has links to the seclusion of girls at puberty. It also advocates the view that the Paleolithic Venus figurines are related to these puberty rites and hence, the prehistoric Venus figurines may carry a much larger meaning. Thus, Religion is something more than a throwback from our animal past.
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