Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Proof of Heaven or the living dead?

Many NDE true-believers have claimed that the reason I didn't see Heaven was I didn't die. Even cardiac arrest patients who have had NDEs weren't truly dead, just clinically dead. Or, in the words of Miracle Max, they were mostly dead. If they were really most sincerely dead, they wouldn't have lived to tell the tale. But Eben Alexander never actually died, clinically, in the Miracle Max sense, zombified, or in any other definition of the word. Here again is that instructive account from a doctor who was treating Alexander during his bout with meningitis (as quoted in the famous Esquire expose of Eben Alexander).
"And of course he was still in an induced coma," she says. "On ventilator support. They tried to let him wake up and see what he would do, but he was in exactly the same agitated state. Even if they tried to ease up, a little bit even, on the sedation. In fact, for days, every time they would try to wean his sedation—just thrashing, trying to scream, and grabbing at his tube."
Alexander's claim that his brain was basically dead during his coma simply isn't supported by the evidence. My illness and strokes put me into a six-week coma; his coma was induced and he became agitated every time his doctors tried to decrease his sedation. Surely my brain was more incapacitated than his, and it didn't cease functioning. He was mentally altered, to be sure, as I was before I slipped into my coma and every mornings before and since. But whereas my illness caused me to slip into a coma even before my strokes, his coma was induced by his doctors to control him so they could save his life. And, remember, he also claimed that he screamed out while he was intubated. I can attest from personal experience to the impossibility of that claim. 
This pic was taken during my second bout of Legionnaires' disease. Yes, second.
And this is what happens when brain cells die. 
It's not as bad as it looks.
Fortunately, my brain damage was stopped before my "string of pearls" strokes turned into a treasure chest. When brains truly cease functioning their owners do too. This is the National Kidney Association's blunt definition of brain death.
Brain death is a legal definition of death. It is the complete and irreversible cessation (stopping) of all brain function. It means that, as a result of severe trauma or injury to the brain, the body's blood supply to the brain is blocked, and the brain dies. Brain death is death. It is permanent and irreversible.
When I was a small child, my uncle explained to me that Beethoven was deaf when he wrote his later symphonies. But I misheard; I thought he said that old Ludwig was dead when he wrote them. I puzzled over this, trying to understand how that could be. I imagined him dropping dead beside his piano, suddenly coming back to life, playing a few notes, scribbling them down, then dropping dead again...over and over.

Could this be what happened to Eben Alexander? And did he come back in order to blave, which according to Miracle Max means to bluff?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Handing out presents on Santa's trusty...butterfly?

This is my brain on strokes. At least the MRIs finally proved that--despite all evidence to the contrary--I'm not completely brainless.
The MRI images of my brain after my strokes on both sides of my brain are pretty horrifying. But, contrary to what my doctors proclaimed, it didn't signify "profound brain damage." The proof is that I'm writing this now.

On the other hand, Eben Alexander was not even in a natural coma. He was in a medically-induced coma because his meningitis made him so mentally altered that he was lashing out at the doctors trying to save his life. Therefore, the only reason he was unconscious was because of the drugs his doctors gave him. Here are the words of one of the doctors treating him, as quoted in the famous Esquire expose of Eben Alexander.

"And of course he was still in an induced coma," she says. "On ventilator support. They tried to let him wake up and see what he would do, but he was in exactly the same agitated state. Even if they tried to ease up, a little bit even, on the sedation. In fact, for days, every time they would try to wean his sedation—just thrashing, trying to scream, and grabbing at his tube."
The doctor's report clearly shows that Alexander was most certainly not brain-dead. Every time his doctors attempted to remove him from sedation, he became uncontrollable again and they were forced to put him under once more. Here's a quote from Proof of Heaven.
"During my coma my brain wasn't working improperly—it wasn't working at all."
Yet, his brain worked perfectly fine--if manically so--every time his sedation was lifted. My brain, on the other hand, wasn't supposed to be working at all, at least according to my doctors after they viewed my MRIs. This is ironic considering that I think my consciousness was actually restarted by those very MRIs. (The distinctive MRI voice was the first datable element in my coma-dream.) Or, more accurately, it was activity related to the MRIs--especially moving me--that jumpstarted my cognition.

Near-death experience true believers like to cite the fact that Alexander is an neurosurgeon to bolster his literally unbelievable claims. But if he were being a true man of science, he never would've claimed that his brain was actually dead during his experience. His brain was no more dead than Claire Wineland's was when she had her non-spiritual coma-dream. She was in a medically induced coma too. The web is rife with coma-dream experiences told by people who were in drug-induced comas. Eben Alexander's story is simply one of them. It's such a common experience that it's not covert enough to be considered covert cognition. Here's a Livescience article about medically induced comas, which ends with the dreams and hallucinations often experienced by patients: What is a Medically Induced Coma?

My favorite account was from a Disqus member called NoAZPhilsPhan. It was in the same article about Claire Wineland's video What It's Like To Be In A Coma I've referred to repeatedly. People were always telling him that he had an NDE, but he had reasons to doubt it.
I was in a 10 day coma, medically induced the last few days, after I passed away on the OR table during emergency surgery. Many of my organs, like my kidneys shut down. I remember walking down a very, very wide hallway. On each side there were massive doors that opened up to beautiful scenes like valleys, fields with lakes, tropical beaches and the like. I remember hearing someone playing the guitar and singing, over and over again, "Knock, knock, knockin' on Heaven's door". After a little while I realized it was a dear departed friend of mine who was a musician so I said "Bob, is that you?" ( I could not see him only hear him). He said "Yea, it's me buddy, but we don't need you right now why don't you go home." So I turned around and walked back.I had many people say to me that it was an afterlife experience. I'm not so sure of that because all of this happened around Christmas time and during my coma I also helped Santa Claus deliver presents to Norway and England. Oh, by the way... those soda drinking polar bears are real as well.... I met them and we went sledding.
Coincidentally, his coma came around Christmastime. He didn't he ride on the wings of a giant butterfly, as Alexander claims, but perhaps he could've combined the two. Instead of using Santa's trusty sleigh, they could've given Rudolph the night off and hitched a ride on a giant butterfly.

Friday, September 25, 2015

God say me eat COOKIE

Part 3 of a two-part blog about my encounters with nursing home and hospital clergy. I suppose you can call it part 2.1, since it's unpacking the subject of the second blog. I really should stop labeling linked posts with numbers. (Part one.)

Naturally, atheists think they're right about the nonexistence of God and consider the faithful misguided, at the very least. In fact, that's the very word I once used to describe the family members lamenting the fear of the dark they thought was preventing the poor dying girl in my ICU room from "crossing over." The same goes for believers, of course. How can atheists deny the "evidence" of God's work? But what sets the two groups apart? And what was different about the prevaricating hospital chaplain and his probable motivation for his behaviour?

When was the last time you read about a child being killed in an attempt to drive religion out of them? Take your time; I'll wait. In most cases, the adults involved in tragically fatal exorcisms are doing this through love, not malice. But surely it's unfair to link the probably well-meaning mainline Protestant hospital chaplain to such ignorant, fringe religious thinking, you may say. I agree, despite the fact that I snarkily used an image from The Exorcist to illustrate my last blog.

But what links these religiously based behaviours is an absolute conviction of the righteousness of their cause. It's a belief that the ends justify the means, and a faith that God is guiding their actions. Atheists, on the other hand, believe that their own biases and desires are shaping their motivations--duh!--not some outside force. They therefore tend to consider their moral actions with utmost seriousness. Far from being rudderless without God to guide them, it's been my experience that nonbelievers think far more deeply about the consequences of their actions. The faithful are more likely to translate their inner voice as God telling them to do, coincidentally, exactly what they want to do.

That's like Cookie Monster telling himself that God is the voice in his head. God say me eat COOKIE! Nom, nom, nom. An atheist is more apt to be like Oscar the Grouch. I love trash, and that's why I collect it. I don't steal trash from other Grouches because it would be wrong to take their battered and worn sneakers just because they have more holes. They love their ragged or rotten or rusty trash too.

So what does this have to do with our lying cleric? He was probably so convinced that he was doing God's work that anything he did was God's will, even if it involved lying. There was a life at stake, after all. Without God's light, she will surely die. Yes, all of her loved ones but one is a nonbeliever, but keeping me from praying for her is like preventing her doctors from treating her. It's God's will that I pray for her, despite her beliefs and her loved ones' wishes. I'm lying, but it's for the greater good.

Of course, he wasn't doing it for selfish reasons, but the fact remains that he lied because he thought he was doing God's work. God's will gave him him license to do exactly what he wanted to do. What a coincidence. No one thinks they're a bad person, and when they do wrong, they can usually find a handy excuse to justify their actions. But those who believe their actions are guided by a higher power don't even recognize that it's an excuse, however justified. To them, it's a command from God. They chomp down on that cookie, convinced all the while that it's not because me love COOKIES.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Saving my life by saving my soul?

A representation of the scene at the hospital, with some creative license.
Part two of my two-part blog detailing the uncomfortable situations I faced with nursing home and hospital chaplains. Part one: All Saints; one "none"

Though it was a fair characterization to place my Free Inquiry essay "Without a Prayer of a Chance" on the "it's okay" side of the prayer issue, I make a distinction between sincere prayers offered by my friends and ones imposed upon me by people who don't know me and for whom it's not personal. Case in point, the probably well-meaning, but nonetheless mendacious chaplain at the Kaiser Permanente hospital where I spent the bulk of the six weeks of my coma.

You would think he had never come across a nonbeliever before. My mother, who is also an atheist, informed the hospital chaplain of my atheism the first time he came into my room while she was there. Joella already knew him, so this wasn't his first visit. My mom allowed him to pray over me, however. Even though she was uncomfortable with it, she felt it was relatively harmless--as I thought after my awakening (as mentioned in part one). It was a generic sort of prayer, God's love and all that.

Keith was raised an Episcopalian, with a couple of priests in his family. He's an agnostic, but his interest in the history of religion led him to become a religious studies major. His second interaction with the chaplain was memorably fraught, fueled by Keith's lack of sleep in those terrible days early on when I was hovering near death. The cleric entered my room, but Keith tried to wave him away. "We talked about this before. Stephanie is an atheist, and you said you wouldn't bother her." "Sorry, I didn't know," the chaplain replied. Keith, who isn't generally a combative person, called him on it. "Isn't there something in the Bible about lying?" Unlike many believers, he's actually read the Bible. That's one of the reasons he's an agnostic.

Now, I generally try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but Keith had written in my records that I was an atheist. And he had reminded the chaplain repeatedly of this fact. You would think he'd want to check that before ministering to a patient. You wouldn't want to pray to Jesus over a Jewish patient or speak of heaven to the family members of a dying Hindu, perhaps offering them a little beef jerky as a snack. My mother is not the type to mince words. She made my beliefs (and hers) perfectly clear. Was it too much to ask that our beliefs be respected? Perhaps he thought he was lying for the greater good. God knows.

He promised Keith that he would stop coming around, but that was a lie too. Unbeknownst to Keith, my mother encountered him two additional times. On the second visit, she repeated that I was an atheist. He said that Keith had told him that, as well (but he neglected to mention his promise not to return). He again asked if he could pray for me, and she agreed despite her reservations. "May you take the lord's light into your heart and be healed," he prayed. My mother was offended by the attempted conversion and the implication that I wouldn't be healed without it. He should've saved his breath. It would've taken the profound brain damage my doctors thought I had for me to believe. The third time he showed up while she was there, she refused his request to pray.

I had one last encounter with the minister, this time personally, after my awakening. I had returned to the hospital to repair a hemorrhaging ulcer caused by my feeding tube. The cleric asked if he could he could pray for me. I nodded reluctantly. But I quickly changed my mind, with a sharp shake of my head. Like the priest in the nursing home, he looked stunned. It was as if the previous encounters with Keith and my mom never happened. Yes, it was weeks later, but given the conflict with him and my relative youth, you would think my case would've stood out in his mind. Was he shocked that I hadn't taken God's light into my heart and was still healed?

To me, his prayer request felt like an imposition--like he wasn't praying for me, but at me. By then I knew my friends had been praying for me. I appreciated the feelings behind their prayers, but it wasn't personal for the chaplain. Why should I have to be subjected to this? And why was I worrying about saying no; didn't my feelings enter into this? It wasn't as if I could get up and walk away.

Yes, I believe all prayers are pointless, but some prayers are more so than others. My friends' prayers were a deeply personal gesture. To them, prayer works, so it was the most effective way they could help me. Forget my feelings about the efficacy of prayer; to them, this was the deepest form of support they could offer.

When Keith told the chaplain--in answer to his question--that he was an agnostic, he said, "Good, there's still hope for you." He wasn't kidding. But Keith isn't an agnostic because he can't make up his mind, but because there's no way to prove the existence or non-existence of God. This comment leads me to believe that the chaplain was indeed trying to save my life by saving my soul. God help me.

Before he left, the minister asked if he could visit me again. I shook my head once more. I'm sure his presence is a comfort to believers, but I just wanted to be left alone.

Monday, September 21, 2015

All Saints; one "none"

Godless at the hospital.
At All Saints Healthcare, five days before my awakening. Sill godless.
In my hospital records, my religion is listed as atheism. Leaving aside that fact that atheism isn't a religion, you would think that would've hung a big No Solicitations sign over my bed to clergy on their ministering rounds. But the day I awoke from my coma, I was visited by the nursing home's resident priest. He sat down beside me and asked me if he could hold my hand. I nodded, though I've always felt uncomfortable with physical contact with complete strangers, even when I didn't have dermatomyositis sore-covered hands wrapped in bandages. At least I wasn't an altar boy. Sorry, I had to make a crack. Now you know why I've always been afraid of saying the wrong thing around the religious.

As he gently took my hand in his, he said, "God is good." Oy! I fixed my eyes on him to prevent them from rolling. (He was the first of countless others who have called my recovery a miracle. I've probably the only atheist who has strengthened the faith of more believers than Richard Dawkins.)

"Do you remember me?" he continued. I didn't, but I nodded anyway, trying to be accommodating. I felt awkward around him. My tracheostomy tube prevented me from speaking, so at least there was no danger that I would accidentally blurt out something offensive. For that reason, among many others (hello...atheist!), I've always demurred when a hospital chaplain asked if I wanted to speak with them. This time, I couldn't just say no.

He smiled at me. "Have you thanked God for your life?" I was literally speechless. "No!" I wanted to say, but all I could do was vigorously shake my head. He looked as if I had slapped him in the face. What was I supposed to say? "Thanks, God, for saving my life after you almost killed me. Oh, that's right, I don't believe in you, anyway." He soon took his leave of this ungrateful atheist, but not before asking me if he could pray for me. As I've said of my friends' prayers (which I didn't yet know about), prayers are more for the prayer, so I nodded. It seemed harmless enough, and I still trying to remain polite.

I wanted to squirm, but I was so weak could barely move. It felt like he was praying at me, not for me. I didn't know why I was being subjected to this visit, and I couldn't wait for it to end. Certainly, my Jewish-atheist mother, who had been there for my awakening, hadn't asked for him. As I eventually learned, the nursing home where I had stayed for five days, after being transferred from the hospital, was called All Saints Healthcare for a reason. It's a Catholic nursing home. I guess No Saints Healthcare wasn't an option?

But this problem started in the secular Kaiser hospital where I spent the bulk of the six weeks of my coma. That story will be told in Wednesday's blog. You'll see why my attitude--at least when it didn't involve my friends' prayers--was closer Eric Wojciechowski's take in his essay, "Please Stop Praying for Me," which was paired with my essay, "Without a Prayer of a Chance," in the October/November issue of Free Inquiry.

Have you had a similar experience with hospital or nursing home clergy? Share your story in the comments section!

Click here for Part 2: Saving my life by saving my soul?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Vaping near-death experiences?

Will carbon dioxide bars replace Moe's Tavern?

In a 1950s experiment,  a psychiatrist named L.J. Meduna conducted an experiment using varying mixtures of oxygen and carbon dioxide. His subjects were psychiatric patients, with "normal" control subjects. This being the 50s, I'm guessing he didn't obtain true informed consent from the mental patients. Yes, this will save you from those revolutionaries, Marie.

The experiment produced many of hallmarks of classic near-death experiences, including terror, ecstasy, cosmic understanding, a feeling of universal love, and harmony with God, as well as bright lights, tunnels, and vivid colors. Here is one story as recounted in Susan Blackmore's classic NDE book Dying to Live.

Then the colors left and I felt myself being separated; my soul drawing apart from the physical being, was drawn upward, seemingly to leave the earth and go upward where it reached a greater Spirit with Whom there was a communion, producing a remarkable, new relaxation and deep security.

So, perhaps it isn't lack of oxygen that triggers NDEs, but the accompanying hypercarbia (high CO2). In the future, will carbon dioxide bars become the new hot trend, like those ridiculous oxygen bars of the 90s?

"I'll have a near-death experience, hold the near death, please."

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Confessions of a stupid bitch

A while ago, a friend shared an opinion piece on Facebook positing the right to comment on what you think was the gist of an article, even you didn't have time to read it, tl;dr;ca (too long; didn't read; commented anyway). It was tongue-in-cheek, but was seriously arguing that this was okay because you are creating your own interpretation of what the piece said, or didn't say, as the case may be. I suppose it was a postmodernist kind of argument. I am not a postmodernist, and I didn't like that post, in either the usual sense or in the Facebook one. I don't think my friend was actually advocating that position...I hope.

To me, there's no excuse for incivility, but even less so if you haven't bothered to read what you're attacking. Perhaps there should be a Godwin's law-like rule for the inverse relationship between the amount a poster has read of what they're commenting on and the quantity of invective they spew. Let's call it Savage's law for now.

In this scheme, the woman who labeled as bogus Claire Wineland's story of her own version of a coma-dream had read only a portion of the article or watched parts of Claire's video before her blinkered mind said, "No way!" If she was especially closed minded, it's possible that she read the entire article, watched the video, and still couldn't accept the idea of Claire's mind translating the ice treatments for her fever into an Alaskan landscape. I had ice treatments too. The only reason I didn't mention the ice packs as another potential source of my ice cream-related coma-dreams in my Skeptical Inquirer article was I didn't know about it then.

The woman who said of my coma-dream, "Didn't experience anything so stupid as this bitch's overactive imagination," clearly got no further than the phrase "near-death experience." She thought I was claiming to have seen Heaven, but had no idea that I had actually said that I didn't see angels or dead relatives precisely because I'm an atheist. Yet she felt perfectly entitled to call my story stupid and label me a bitch.

It's hard to say how much the guy who said of my story, "Does anyone really believe this shit?" had read. Did he even get past the title or only a single word? He refused to name what part of my story he disbelieved. Was "this shit" the story as told in the VICE interview or my article? Or both? Was it stupid and did he also think I'm a bitch? And if it was shit, it was almost certainly bogus, as well. Perhaps it was all of the above.

Yes, these are the same examples I used in my last post. And you may be thinking that these are relatively mild considering the bile often dished out online. But I'm new to being a semi-public figure, and I imagine this is barely a taste of what's to come. I can't help wondering, if this is a form of postmodern online argument, will post-post-post modern online debate bring rational discourse or will it make us envy Socrates his cup of hemlock?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Coping with the not-so-covertly unaware

I was uncommonly annoyed by a one word comment made in an ABC news article thread about Claire Wineland's video, What It's Like To Be In A Coma.That word? Bogus. What about Claire's account was bogus to that woman? Did she think that adorable, bouncy, 18-year-old with cystic fibrosis was lying about her account of integrating things going on around her during her coma into her own version of a coma-dream? Was covert cognition too far outside of her limited mindset? Of course, it was my own experience that made me feel so outraged. I didn't respond to that woman, but I quickly clicked the down arrow to disapprove her comment.

So, I wasn't surprised that my own story would draw similar comments. As a skeptic, knowing that memory is not like a recording but a mixtape or heavily edited document, you always have to keep in mind that your memory is far from infallible. But what do you do when a fellow skeptic challenges your experience using the same logic? Yes, science cannot credit one person's experience because it's anecdotal. But we all have to proceed through our lives as if our memories are at least somewhat reliable. Otherwise, we would be paralyzed with inaction. A true skeptic, however, will acknowledge when their memory is proven wrong, instead of doubling-down like so many people do.

So far, I haven't received much of this kind of logical challenge to my story, however. Some objections I've gotten to my account of my coma experience in my VICE interview and my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience" were clearly not from skeptics, even though that's how they self-identify. Perhaps they rejected my coma experience because it was too much outside their understanding, like the woman in the news article comment thread. Indeed, one woman who had had no memory of the three days she spent in a coma when she was 12 opined, "Didn't experience anything so stupid as this bitch's overactive imagination."

Okay, I admit it. I do have an overactive imagination. When did that become a bad thing? I am a fiction writer, after all. I'll let you decide if I'm a bitch. I opted not to respond to her, but since this was in a thread posted by Skeptical Inquirer's Facebook page, which was sharing my VICE interview, a bunch of skeptics came to the rescue. They correctly surmised that she hadn't read the article. In fact, as it turned out, she thought that I was recounting a visit to Heaven during my NDE. There's no point in bothering to read the article before spewing venom online, right? So, her comment was not about my actual account at all.

However, it's hard to know what was going on in the mind of the person who said, "Does anyone really believe this shit?" A skeptic tried to draw out his explanation in a long thread, starting with, "What, specifically, don't you believe?" But a second poster probably called it when she said, "Another commenter who seemingly didn't read the article."

A third man's objection I've mentioned before. On the surface, he was being a skeptic when he said, "One person's comatose recollection does NOT a true story make." But in another thread he revealed that his son had been in a coma for fourteen years, and he hoped his son wasn't covertly aware.

Most skeptics who have actually read my article seem to be accepting my anecdotal personal recollections. Why? In my article, I presented the science of covert cognition. In didn't say that it's real because of my experience, only that this was how I experienced it. A good skeptic should question anecdotal accounts, but not reject out of hand covert cognition because it's outside their conception of the vegetative mind. The woman commenting on the Claire Wineland article wasn't being a true skeptic because a skeptic would've laid out her objections instead of flatly labeling Claire's story as bogus.

We all (at least those who aren't jerks) have to operate on the assumption that most people are giving the best, most honest recollections their faulty, non-Memorex memories can provide. Even the stupid bitches.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Applied Blasphemy

"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" is one of my favorite films, though "The Life of Brian" is better.

It's not every atheist who has the privilege of experiencing an authentic Miracle of God, you know, the kind they canonize saints over. I mean, you would think that God would reserve them for believers. Certainly, he wouldn't bestow them on someone who has so often mocked him, in person and in print.

Of course, I don't think my survival from kidney and lung failure, multiple strokes on both sides of my brain, and a six-week coma was a miracle. Unlikely, yes, but not a miracle, unless you mean a miracle of modern medicine. You can read about how my doctors bought my body time to begin healing itself in my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience."

But this is not what my religious friends, who were praying for me during my coma, and many others believe. It doesn't matter if I've laid out, step by step, how the actions of my doctors slowly turned the tide. To them, ultimately, God did it (by ensuring that my doctors followed the standard lifesaving procedures?). Indeed, I've been told my recovery was a miracle so many times that I've referred to myself as Miracle Girl. Knowing me, my friends must've known that I was joking, but they couldn't have understood how deeply ironic it that moniker was. I didn't fully "come out" until my work starting appearing in the secularist press. But my religious friends provided invaluable support for me during my long and difficult recovery, and my attitude about these types of prayers changed. Yes, I still think prayer is pointless, but I now see that this was their way of supporting me in a way that was deeply meaningful to them, at a time when my doctors seemed impotent to save my life. After all, my friends truly believed prayers work. To them, praying for me was the most effective way they could help me.

I've made it plain that I don't believe in miracles, but I don't call people out when they claim I experienced one. And when, after hearing my story, strangers tell me that I must have something important left to do on earth, I swallow sarcastic rejoinders like, "You mean like my Skeptical Inquirer article? Or maybe my humanist essays for Free Inquiry?" Instead, I just smile.

A case in point is my essay, "Without a Prayer of a Chance," which is in the current issue of Free Inquiry. My second FI essay,"Sympathy for the Devil-Believers," tentatively scheduled for their February/March issue, details how I came to this attitude after my completely secular upbringing and despite my generally anti-religious beliefs. My exposure to believers and the kind support I received from some of them began to soften my biases. Yes, it works both ways.

The theme of the October/November issue of Free Inquiry is blasphemy, and they've labeled a series of essays, including mine, "Applied Blasphemy." I love that! But coupled with the Washington Post's quote about my Skeptical Inquirer article, "Funny, frequently profane and adamantly atheistic," I sound like the perfect profile of a New Atheist. Actually, I don't at all approve of the New Atheists' tactics. In fact, I've joked that I may be the only atheist who has strengthened the faith of more believers than Richard Dawkins. You don't win a lot of converts by insulting them. And frankly, I couldn't care less if people want to believe in a great big genie in the sky...as long as they don't try to cram their religion down my throat.

This attitude is among the reasons my essay became the "it's okay if they want to pray for me" side of the applied blasphemy theme. As they put it in their blurb for my essay, "I don't credit God for my extraordinary recovery from illness, but I won't begrudge my friends the satisfaction they got from praying for me." A contrasting essay takes the opposite tack, "Please stop praying for me."

That's exactly where I was before my coma. Nearly dying has to change you. In my case, among other things, it made me more forgiving of other people's well-meaning magical thinking...especially when it shows how much they care.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Never on a Sunday...but always on a Monday, a Wednesday, a Friday

My first walk at the famous Vasquez Rocks in 2014. No, I wasn't running from a Gorn.
Sundays are usually dedicated to my rehab walks, where I walk until I'm exhausted. Writing a blog a day has been a form of exercise, too, but it's also been exhausting (and it's been interfering with my formal writing). So starting from today, I will be posting blogs on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. This will allow my to keep the quality up on the blog, while continuing my other writing.

I will do my best to not to be tiresome.

For them, Heaven truly was for real

Not Heaven, but the view over the Alps as we flew back home from Sicily. The clouds eventually cleared.
I think I've given the impression in my most recent blogs that I'm obsessed with near-death experiences. But as a long-time atheist and skeptic, my interests are far wider. Indeed, my essay in the upcoming issue of Free Inquiry "Without a Prayer of a Chance" is about what believers think about my "miraculous" recovery...and my reaction to their reactions.

But that's not what this blog is about. I'm going to recount a tragic drama that occurred in a nearby bed in ICU. I wasn't conscious--covertly or otherwise--at this time, so I'm telling it secondhand based on Keith's memory.

In the bed lay a young girl who had also received a death sentence from her doctors. Her large extended family camped out beside her bed for extended periods, bringing snacks and pillows that they left in the corner of the waiting room for their return. I can't even begin to imagine the pain her family must've been in as the poor girl clung to life. We don't know her story, but it's apparent that they believed that her fight for life was at its end. The parents among my readers may already be weeping, and it brings a lump in my throat, as well. You might want to grab a box of Kleenex before I recount the short, wrenching conversation Keith overheard from the other side of the curtain.

One anguished relative said, "She's afraid to cross over." Another agreed, adding, "She was always afraid of the dark."

To me, this is as heartbreaking as it is illuminating. On the one hand, their faith was causing them distress because they truly believed that her fear of the dark was keeping her soul from "crossing over." [She was so young that she was still afraid of the dark--how heartbreaking is that?] But I think it was their deep faith that made them hope that she would get over her fear and reach the heavenly paradise they so fervently believed in. They of course wanted her to live, but since she wasn't going to, they wanted to take her hand, tell it's okay, and help lead her to her heavenly reward. They truly believed that she would be going to a better place.

I've mocked this idea countless times, but to them this must've been immensely comforting. Keith and my mother, however, had no such faith to fall back on. I think if her family had been nonbelievers, they would've been hoping against hope that she would defy the odds and live, much the way I did. Instead, they were praying that she would find the strength to leave this earthly veil.

Even though I think their faith was misguided, I can't help feeling glad that it gave them some comfort in this most unimaginably painful of times.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

An NDE Just "No" Story

The weird angle was due to being turned to avoid pressure on a bedsore.
What is it that makes near-death "experiencers" reluctant to return to life? Is it really the peace of Heaven, or does it have something to do the state of the patient's hobbled brain?

As reported in Susan Blackmore's classic book, "Dying to Live," in a study of sixteen Indian NDErs conducted by Satwant Pasricha and Ian Stevenson, Indian NDEs more often involve cases of mistaken identity than the supposedly typical scenario of deceased family members or angels leading people willingly away. And they're more likely to fight or bargain their way out of the situation instead of deciding that they're still needed or they have unfinished business on earth. Oh, that's right, my kids still need me. Or, I never did go bungee jumping off the Grand Canyon. Okay, I'll go back, after all.

But in one case in the study, a man argued not about why he should return to life, but why he should remain. A pair of men had lead Chhajju Bania away, sitting him next to Yamraj, the Indian king of the dead. But a clerk looking in his book and says, "We don't need Chhajju Bania (trader). We had asked for Chhajju Umhar (potter)." [Don't you just hate when that happens?]. "Push him back and bring the other man. He has some life remaining." Chhajju Bania likes it there, apparently, and he asks to stay and do some work, but he's refused and pushed back into his body. Typical bureaucracy, leaving you to live your life just because of some stupid rules. Oh wait.

Not surprisingly, this has to do the particulars of Hindu mythology. No Jesus, no angels. I find it interesting, however, that he exhibited a reluctance to return. That's one commonality with Western spiritual NDEs, as well as my earthbound one. I have a speculation that's admittedly not based on any real evidence, which means it doesn't even rise to the level of a scientific hypothesis. Perhaps reluctance to return is the brain's way of explaining why it can't quite breech to veil of full consciousness. It's much the way my mind excused why I was letting the nurse's assistants turn me in bed. I could flip myself over if I wanted to, but it's so much easier to let them do it for me. In other words, it was just laziness. In my mind, they must've been turning me over to keep me from getting stiff, the reason I had always turned before. I didn't know it was to prevent bed sores.

In fact, even after my awakening, it was months before I was strong enough to turn myself. The human mind instinctively makes up stories to make sense of the inexplicable. Is the reluctance to return simply a Just So story, as well?

Monday, September 7, 2015

Just my imagination running away with me

Shockingly, no Christians saw Shiva in their NDEs.
For Jews, sitting shiva means an entirely different thing, and they weren't mentioned in the study. For the record, none of the 700 Indian medical personnel surveyed reported hearing tales of seeing Jesus from their patients. Among the 5000 American doctors and nurses participating in the study, no Christian patients spoke of being greeted by Hindu deities. As I said, there was no word on any Jewish patients, but I'd bet they didn't see Ganesh or Jesus.

I read about this study in Susan Blackmore's classic skeptic-oriented near-death experience book "Dying to Live." She states, "Religious figures [in the NDEs] were, not surprisingly, in conformance with the person's own religion." No duh! You'd think if the patients were actually visiting Heaven, and if, as most religions believe, there is only one true religion. the experiencers would be visiting the same set and cast of characters.

It's almost as if the images of Heaven were nothing more than the product of their own cultural influences.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The view from the other side of the bed

When I wrote my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," I was hoping that my experience and my research into covert awareness would help inform the public about the one in five people with consciousness disorders who have covert cognition. But it didn't occur to me (but should've) that my article would also affect the family members who have already faced that unimaginably painful position...from the other side of the bed.

After Skeptical Inquirer shared my VICE Post Mortem column interview on Facebook, which linked to my article, one woman thought the article was fascinating, but also found it “very painful and heartbreaking to read.” That's because she was forced into a situation no one would ever want to be in. Her father was in a coma and he had a do not resuscitate order. She sadly, and obviously extremely reluctantly, gave the order to pull the plug.

I gave her my sympathy and told her that if he had a DNR, then she did what he wanted. Few ever sign a DNR, and those that do usually have a good reason for it. But ever since she was forced into this wrenching decision, she's probably had pangs of doubt. And then she reads my article explaining why people like her father might still be "in there."

In answer to someone who posted that it sounds frightening to be trapped in a seemingly endless dream/nightmare, I responded that it wasn't really that scary. But another Facebook member, who is living through every parent’s nightmare, responded, “I try not to think how frightening it would be. My son has been in a coma since he was 14. He's now 31.” And in a second post, he added, “I hope it's just blank.”

I said, “I'm so sorry to hear this. My heart is with you.” But, really, there’s nothing anyone can say to ease his anguish. I certainly hope I did nothing to deepen it. I'm afraid the answer is that I did, and it makes me sad. Replying to another poster, he said, "One person's comatose recollection does NOT a true story make." He has good reasons to wish my story weren't true, and I hope for him that his son is among the four out of five patients without covert awareness.

It’s likely that many more who have faced these unimaginably painful situations read my article in SI and the VICE interview. Do I regret publishing it? No, because I think my greater obligation is to those voiceless patients with covert cognition. How many are having their plugs pulled not because they have a DNR, but because their doctors say they're hopeless? Kate Bainbridge and others who were in similar situations have spoken of the same concerns. As a writer, I'm in a unique position to spread knowledge of covert awareness to the general public. Perhaps in the future, my words will give ammunition to the arguments of the family members of the covertly aware when doctors pooh-pooh their observations, as mine did.

The daughter who faced that horrific choice with her father noted the advances in covert cognition research Dr. Adrian Owen I mentioned in my article. I added that he’s made considerable progress in developing techniques to detect covert awareness in community hospitals. In the future, people like her may no longer be forced to guess about cognition of their loved ones. 

So, would I do anything different? Yes, next time I will add a sympathetic paragraph about the countless families facing that inadequate testing and incomplete knowledge.

My heart goes out to them all.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Brain dead arguments: The skeptics version

This is only possible for stick figures, but that doesn't mean NDEs aren't a real neurological phenomenon.
So far I've only taken near-death experience true believers to task. But what about the skeptics? I feel I must take exception to some comments a prominent skeptic, Steven Novella, made regarding NDEs.  
I and most scientist favor the more mundane and likely explanation that memories of NDEs are formed at other times, when the brain is functioning, for example during the long recovery process. 
But I remembered my coma-dream immediately after my awakening. I think such esteemed skeptics are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, dismissing NDEs as simple woo. Of course, the thinking goes, the "experiencers" aren't seeing Heaven. As Keith put it, that would be magic. Mind-brain separation is impossible, as well, so NDEs must all be bunk. I fell victim to the same thinking until I researched NDEs. It was a real eye-opener when I realized that NDEs were experienced in a wide variety of circumstances that aren't life-threatening, such as fainting. And there are plenty of credible theorists who support the basic existence of NDEs, but nonetheless doubt the supernatural underpinnings, such as neurology professor Kevin Nelson, with his REM intrusion theory.

Maybe the brains of the "experiencers" were functioning in a way that the available emergency room equipment couldn't detect. Perhaps, if the hospital where that one patient was taken happened to have a spare fMRI machine handy, we could've found out. As I said in my Skeptical Inquirer article Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-DeathExperience, "NDEs can't be proof of mind-brain separation if the minds of those experiencing them are still active."

Novella goes on to quote the same snippet from the AWARE study that I did in my last blog:  
Among 2060 CA events, 140 survivors completed stage 1 interviews, while 101 of 140 patients completed stage 2 interviews. 46% had memories with 7 major cognitive themes: fear; animals/plants; bright light; violence/persecution; deja-vu; family; recalling events post-CA and 9% had NDEs, while 2% described awareness with explicit recall of ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ actual events related to their resuscitation. One had a verifiable period of conscious awareness during which time cerebral function was not expected. 
He uses it as an example of a dodge because the study failed to find a single instance of remote viewing of the targets by the cardiac arrest patients. (Now there's a shocker.) Fair enough, and he's right to question the validity of anecdotal recalled accounts. Yes, even my own. He's being a good skeptic by doing this. However, I took a different lesson from those findings. I believe it's entirely possible that the one patient was indeed aware, though it had nothing to do with mind-brain separation. It was a form of covert cognition.

I think both sides of this issue are succumbing to the same assumption: the brains of these patients are not functioning. I would add...that we can presently detect. The science of covert cognition is quite new, and it contradicts longstanding neurological understanding so radically that the implications haven't fully sunk in.

Now, Novella makes some excellent points about the methodological shortcomings of the study. He's a clinical neurologist and an assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine, so I'll allow that he knows more about this subject than I do. The same goes for Kevin Nelson, whose extensive research into NDEs has convinced him of the neurological validity of the phenomenon. And let's not forget Dr. Adrian Owen, as well as the other covert cognition researchers who believe, based on their findings, that as many as one in five patients with disorders of consciousness have covert cognition.

If Dr. Owen is able to eventually succeed in developing standardized techniques to sense covert cognition using EEGs, the process could also be applied to heart attack patients. And then perhaps well find that cardiac arrest victims thought to lack brain functioning still have a level of consciousness, as well.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Flights of fancy

In 2008, a multi-center study called AWARE was launched by Sam Parnia, a doctor and assistant professor at SUNY Stoney Brook. The study attempted to determine if out of body experiences during cardiac arrest were real. Images were placed in operating rooms where they could only be viewed if the patient's consciousness were floating above their bodies. I will pause to give the skeptics among my readers a chance to laugh. These same skeptics will not be shocked to learn that not a single patient reported seeing the target images. The NDErs will no doubt have a laundry list of excuses and denials. Here are the results from the study, which was released in 2014.
Among 2060 CA events, 140 survivors completed stage 1 interviews, while 101 of 140 patients completed stage 2 interviews. 46% had memories with 7 major cognitive themes: fear; animals/plants; bright light; violence/persecution; deja-vu; family; recalling events post-CA and 9% had NDEs, while 2% described awareness with explicit recall of ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ actual events related to their resuscitation. One had a verifiable period of conscious awareness during which time cerebral function was not expected.
My take on the cases of awareness--especially the one with supposedly unexpected consciousness--is that these were likely due to a form of covert cognition, not mind-brain separation. My cerebral function was not expected either, after all. In once case the awareness was timed with an auditory signal. To me, this is not a confirmation that OBEs are real, only that the patient's brains are still functioning on some level.

This is what the study had to say:
CA [cardiac arrest] survivors commonly experience a broad range of cognitive themes, with 2% exhibiting full awareness. This supports other recent studies that have indicated consciousness may be present despite clinically undetectable consciousness. This together with fearful experiences may contribute to PTSD and other cognitive deficits post CA.
Based on my knowledge of covert cognition, I believe that many OBEs that are purported to be real because they correspond to verifiable events during the patient's resuscitation were actually a mix of covert awareness and imagination. In my coma-dream, my mind integrated many things going on around me into my dream narrative. As I described in my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," when I was being turned over in my bed to prevent bed sores, I often saw myself being flipped from outside my body. But I always started out as the person being turned before the perspective shifted and I began watching myself. That's something that frequently happens in ordinary dreams. In this case, the turning was real, but I imagined the details surrounding it.

OBEs are a real sensation for many people, however. In a study of 13,000 Europeans, 5.8 percent had experienced the phenomenon. But it's also a sensation that be stimulated electrically in the brain, as Olaf Blanke's famous experiment showed. The overwhelming evidence suggests that as doctors are frantically attempting to save their lives, these patients' mind roam free...inside their own dying bodies.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Deathlessly speechless

If I could've said something, it would've been, "Oy!"

In his book The God Impulse, this is what Kevin Nelson had to say about those who believe "experiencers" like Eben Alexander were actually brain-dead during their NDEs:

The brain doesn't die in near-death. Being near-death is very different from returning from death...the brain is nowhere near physically dead during near-death experiences. It is alive and conscious.

Dr. Kevin Nelson is a professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky, and the researcher who conducted the seminal REM intrusion study of near-death experiences referred to in my Skeptical Inquirer article Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience. NDE true believers like to cite the fact that Eben Alexander is himself neurologist. But he only decided that what he experienced during his coma--which was in fact medically induced, unlike mine--was a near-death experience well after the fact. As I did, as well.

That's because we're interpreting our experiences though a prism of our own preconceptions. I think both sides can agree on this point...at least regarding the other side of the issue. The main arguments against my story from NDEers generally fall along the lines of A) It wasn't an NDE because you didn't die. B) You didn't have a "real" life review. [I'll delve further into objection A and the others in future blogs.]

Many of the arguments presuppose that the brains of those having the NDEs were dead at the time. That is impossible, as Kevin Nelson describes in more detail than I can quote. Alexander must know this, as well. He has chosen to disregard the mountains of scientific evidence that contradict his personal theory, which is also in direct opposition to the reports of a doctor who treated him. This is a quote from the excellent Esquire expose of Eben Alexander, written by Luke Dittrich]:

I ask Potter [Dr. Laura Potter, the first doctor to see Alexander in the ER] whether the manic, agitated state that Alexander exhibited whenever they weaned him off his anesthetics during his first days of coma would meet her definition of conscious.
"Yes," she says. "Conscious but delirious." 
In Proof of Heaven, Alexander purports to have yelled out, in a crystal-clear voice... 
"God, help me!"
 Later in the Esquire piece...

Potter has no recollection of this incident, or of that shouted plea. What she does remember is that she had intubated Alexander more than an hour prior to his departure from the emergency room, snaking a plastic tube down his throat, through his vocal cords, and into his trachea. Could she imagine her intubated patient being able to speak at all, let alone in a crystal-clear way?
 "No," she says.
I can tell you from personal experience that after I had my second bout of Legionnaires' disease, I could say nothing while intubated. All who knew me were no doubt relieved.
Keith fanning me with the white board with which I as forced to communicate.

Now, I’ll confess that, as a skeptic, I've done extensive research on NDEs from a scientific perspective, but until now I haven't been exposed to the vehemence of NDEers. We will never convince each other, of course, and I certainly have no wish to try. I can only present the facts and let the readers decide.

And here is one final quote from the Esquire piece:

His survival is a miracle, he [Alexander] says. His doctors told him that he is alive when he should be dead, and he believes intensely that he is alive for a reason, to spread the word about the love awaiting us all in heaven.
I’m alive when I should be dead, too. I consider my recovery to have been remarkable, and certainly unlikely, but not miraculous. And my mission is to spread the word of science and reason.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Attack of the Pulpit People

This photos was taken five days before my awakening, while I was in a minimally conscious state, the final step before consciousness. I believe it was in this period that I had my most detailed coma-dreams.
Okay, so what would I say to someone who denies that I had a near-death experience? Well, first the smartass point: I was near death and I had an experience. Actually, it's not so smartass after all. NDEs, as referred to in the VICE interview, can be caused by a wide range of events that aren't even life-threatening. Beyond the ones Simon Davis mentioned--migraines and epileptic seizures--fainting, hyperventilation, even intensely emotional circumstances can trigger an NDE. That's because it's a neurological condition that's often triggered by hypoxia and anoxia--low or absent oxygen.

However, I didn't originally think of my coma-dream as an NDE. I thought NDEs were just something the spiritually inclined believed had happened to them. In other words, that they weren't a real phenomenon. My argument in my first draft of my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience" was that the reason I didn't have an NDE was due to my atheism and skepticism. But as I learned ever more about NDEs, I began to realize that I had experienced many parallels with classic NDEs. My nonbelief is still the reason why I didn't see angels or heaven, but a true skeptic revises their beliefs when the evidence contradicts them. NDEs are real.

As I stated in both the article and the interview, one of the main convergences with classic NDEs were the numerous elements from my childhood featured prominently in my coma-dream. Instead of a whole-life review, my mind settled on the simplest, most comforting time in my life--sort of a mental fetal position.

Another one, which was also mentioned in the interview and the SI article, were the voices that filtered into my coma-dream. As I researched the article, I came to learn more and more about what happened to me while I was in the coma. In the first part of this two-part blog, I discussed covert cognition. If the brains of people having the experience are still active, then NDEs can't be evidence of mind-body separation.

The third element--the one that tied things together--was Kevin Nelson's REM intrusion theory. Simon did an excellent job presenting the theory, but I would also add that according to Nelson's study, people who are susceptible to forms of REM intrusion like my lucid dreaming are 60% more likely to have an NDE. (In fact, I should've put that statistic in my article.) But what many of the commentators on the Post Mortem column chose to ignore was the implications of the theory. My coma-dream was indeed an ordinary dream, albeit a very long one. And so are all NDEs. The theory states that this is what's responsible for the surreal, dream-like nature of NDEs. The surreal things I saw were inspired by my secular childhood mental landscape, including campy 50s sci-fi films like Attack of the Puppet People. There's also a scene in the classic horror film The Bride of Frankenstein that featured miniaturized people. I grew up without religion, but loving movies like these.

As for the most famous NDE element of all, the light at the end of a dark tunnel, I admittedly experienced no parallel. I believe that's because when I developed anoxia--as my blood pressure dropped so low that I suffered a series of strokes on both sides of my brain--I was already unconscious from the sepsis that was rapidly killing me. If the anoxia had occurred later, I might've seen the tunnel too. It's something that test pilots often report. Even my boyfriend Keith has seen that tunnels the few times he's fainted, though he didn't have an NDE. That's another well-documented physical effect.

A few commentators on the Post Mortem column complained that I couldn't have had an NDE because I didn't die and come back again. I came about as close to dying as you can be without actually dying, but no, I never actually died. As I've already established, however, near death isn't required to have a near-death experience. Many people who have written bestselling Heaven tourism books like Colton Burpo, the kid of Heaven is for Real fame, didn't die. He was in a coma too. And as I stated in part one, Eben Alexander's brain was not in fact dead during his NDE. Indeed, many of the things he stated as facts in his book Proof of Heaven were proven to be impossible in a famous Esquire expose.

The real problem is that some people are so invested in the idea that NDEs are evidence of the afterlife that anyone who contradicts this from personal experience must be denied or attacked. I think it was this same impulse that led one commentator on the Washington Post article about me and my SI article to insinuate that if I were really dying, I would've seen my dead loved ones. Surely then I would've seen Heaven, right? To me, the final nail in the coffin is the comment I read in an article about another coma survivor, Claire Wineland. A Disqus member named NoAZPhilsPhan recounted his own NDE. People always told him that his NDE was real because he heard the voice of a dead friend. But he doubts the reality of his experience because he also handed out presents with Santa Claus and sledded with the Coca-Cola bears. It was around Christmas time. Coincidence?

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Coma Girl

Coma Girl

Not a miracle recovery, but a miracle of modern medicine

In 2013 I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died after I contracted legionella. The Legionnaire's disease was in turn triggered by immunosuppression caused by the prednisone I was taking for my rare autoimmune disease, dermatomyositis.

I suffered a series of strokes on both sides of my brain when the sepsis caused my blood pressure to plummet. I fell into a deep coma. My kidneys and lungs began to fail, as my body was began dying one organ at a time. My doctors told my loved ones to give up hope for my full recovery. They expected me to die, and even if I somehow lived, I would remain a vegetable or at best left so hopelessly brain-damaged that I would never be same. But unbeknownst to them, while they were shining lights in my eyes and shaking their heads, I was telling them in my coma-dream--my secular version of a near-death experience--to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep. I was experiencing what is known as covert cognition, the subject of my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," which appeared in their July/August issue.

But it wasn't a miracle--despite what so many continue to believe--that I recovered so fully. I owe my life not to God, but the miracles of modern medicine, as well as the nature of the watershed-area brain damage I suffered, as I detailed in my article and in this blog.