Anybody who follows parapsychology knows there is a consistent back and forth between proponents and skeptics. Every time a new story comes out, the skeptics go hard to work to shut it down and an incessant debate rages between the two sides. It’s been called the Culture War. I normally try and steer clear of all this, because it gets kind of old after awhile. However, there has been a recent ruckus over an Esquire article put out on Eben Alexander – the neurosurgeon who had an Near Death Experience and whose story went “viral”. Since I put up a post on Eben not too long ago, I feel a bit responsible to post an update, because the Esquire article has been shown to be inaccurate, at best, or possibly a deliberate hit-piece against Eben, at worst. I want to help set the record straight, because Eben’s story has been an inspiration to many people and it deserves to be shown in the right light. Although, perhaps this is exactly how one gets sucked into the Culture War, with no hope for return. I’ll have to be careful, hehe!
The link below is for the Esquire article about Eben Alexander. As you follow the link, you’ll notice Esquire decided to make people pay for this article, which was written by Luke Dittrich.
It basically consists of two arguments: (1) against Eben’s reputation as a doctor, and (2) another against the validity of his NDE. Both parts were essentially an attack on his character, in attempt to make him appear untrustworthy.
A couple weeks ago a full rebuttal to the Esquire article came out from the International Association of Near Death Studies. It was written by NDE researcher Robert Mays. It covers pretty much everything from the Esquire article in relation to Eben’s NDE, or point (2). It’s a pretty informative read.
I’m going to focus on a key aspect of Part (2), because I think it’s the main sticking point, as far as the validity of Eben’s NDE. Eben says his coma was brought on by the bacterial meningitis and was persistent throughout the week. Dittrich claims his coma was mainly chemically induced by hospital staff and that Eben was occasionally awake and delirious throughout the week. Dittrich then makes the argument that Eben’s brain was not “off-line” and the NDE was a vivid hallucination.
It would seem Dittrich’s main reason for claiming this was from his interview from Dr Laura Potter, Eben Alexander’s ER physician. However, when Dr. Potter learned of the article she gave out the following statement:
“I am saddened by, and gravely disappointed by the article recently published in Esquire. The content attributed to me is both out of context and does not accurately portray the events around Dr. Eben Alexander’s hospitalization. I felt my side of the story was misrepresented by the reporter. I believe Dr. Alexander has made every attempt to be factual in his accounting of events.” — Dr. Laura Potter
Also, in the back of Eben’s book was a statement by Scott Wade who was his main doctor during his illness. It says:
” …. Despite prompt and aggressive antiobiotic treatment for his E.coli meningitis, as well as continued care in the intensive care unit, he remained in a coma six days and hope for recovery faded (mortality over 90%), Then, on the seventh day , the miraculous happened – he opened his eyes, became alert, and was quickly weaned from the ventilator. The fact that he went on to have a full recovery from this illness after being in a coma for nearly a week is truly remarkable.“
In his book, Eben did talk about making guttural groans and thrashing around in his bed, but this is apparently normal for a person suffering from bacterial meningitis. This was also discussed in the IANDS article, where they quote from Eben’s book.
“Contrary to Luke Dittrich’s assertion, Eben Alexander did disclose the use of sedatives in a ‘chemically induced coma’: ‘At times, early in the week, I would move. My body would thrash around wildly. A nurse would rub my head and give me more sedation, and eventually I’d become quiet again... By the end of the week these occasional bursts of motor activity had all but ceased. I needed no more sedation, because movement—even the dead, automatic kind initiated by the most primitive reflex loops of my lower brainstem and spinal cord—had dwindled almost to nil’“
I suspect it is this part of what Dr Potter said, that Dittrich distorted. The funny thing is, I actually thought this strengthened Eben’s case. This showed that not only had the meningitis attacked his cortex, which was where the infection started, it had actually progressed to the point that it was attacking deeper, more primitive, brain structures. How can one have a hyper-real lucid experience via higher brain functions within the cortex, when the brain isn’t even capable of putting out primitive reflexes? More along these lines below.
In addition, there are a couple of other pertinent points.
(1) There seems to be a mistaken assumption out there that one has to have zero brain activity to have an NDE. This is just not true. NDEs have been reported from people with little, to zero, brain activity with severe trauma, to folks with no injury in the waking state but faced with an imminent and deadly threat. This means even if the Esquire article was correct and Eben’s coma was chemically induced, it is still hard to explain away an NDE on this basis alone. Also, whether his coma was chemically induced, or not, seems to do little to explain the other problem I talked about in my earlier post, quoted here for convenience:
” …. this leaves skeptics open to claim it happened during a reboot of the brain as he came out of the coma. Here’s the problem with that explanation, though. Patients who fall ill with bacterial meningitis, or similar conditions, do indeed end up going through a sort of reboot process. As the brain comes back online and the various areas start to communicate again, patients typically go through a very confused state of affairs, which is called ICU psychosis. Dr. Alexander remembers going through this and confirmed he was pretty far out of it, as to be expected. However, he also remembers his NDE, as a hyper-real, crystal-clear lucid experience, with near-prefect memory recall. Why would the brain be able to produce a hyper-real, crystal-clear lucid experience at an earlier time, during coma, when it was even more impaired? You wake up from a coma because the brain has presumably healed itself enough to regain “waking” consciousness, but it’s still not a fully-functioning consciousness at that point in time. It is disconnected, to say the least, which is why one goes through ICU psychosis. So, how did he have an ultra-real, lucid experience when his brain was even more impaired than this?”
(2) Again, it’s hard to argue that Eben’s brain was not severely impaired. I covered some details of that in this blog post, but I also thought the IANDS article gave another good summary, which I will quote here.
“Eben Alexander had developed a severe case of bacterial meningitis. There were lots of measures of how serious his condition was: the very quick onset of his symptoms, persistent seizure (status epilepticus), the presence of E. coli bacteria in his cerebral spinal fluid (CSF), the high white blood cell count and high protein level in his CSF, the very low glucose level in his CSF, and the CT scans of his brain that showed diffuse edema, damage in all eight lobes of his cortex and widespread blurring of the gray-white junction.
And there were several specific neurological exams showing severe alterations: abnormal posturing indicating damage to the cortex and thalamus, florid papilledema indicating elevated intracranial pressure, fixed pupils indicating brainstem damage, and no vestibulo-ocular reflex also indicating brainstem damage. Alexander’s motor response declined further to “no motor response to noxious stimuli,” indicating widespread cortical and brainstem damage.”
As mentioned, rich and complex NDEs (with veridical components) have happened in cases with less apparent brain trauma than what we have here. It’s always a stronger case if you can show there was zero, or close to zero, brain activity, as far as showing consciousness can exist independent of the brain. But, Eben’s NDE never was generally considered one of the better NDEs, as far as providing solid evidence along these lines. But, it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed as “just a hallucination”, either.
I think its been shown the Esquire article was an unfair representation of what really happened. It may even have been an intentional hit-piece meant to damage Eben’s story. It wouldn’t be the first time something like this went down, that’s for sure. In fact, the damage is done. Esquire has a larger reading base than IANDS. Even with a solid rebuttal, anybody who wants to be skeptical will just go back and reference the Esquire article and confidently proclaim: “NDE debunked!“. If folks don’t want to dig deeper to see what really happened, that’s what they’ll walk away with. All too often, that’s how it seems to work.
However, it’s hard to silence the truth, especially when it comes in the form of an inspirational story like Eben’s. I’m sure we’ll learn more, as time goes on. And, this won’t be the last time something like this happens.