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?

6 comments:

  1. Stephanie, I just read (on a facebook post) your fascinating account of your vegetative state and of waking from it. I found it incredibly interesting and appreciated the non-believer viewpoint especially. I'm so glad you are alive and well and back among the conscious. How fortunate you are to have had loving people to be there with you at your bedside to try to stimulate you, to advocate for you, and to watch for signs of awareness. Thanks for sharing your story.

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    1. Hi, Katy. Thanks--I'm glad I'm alive, too! I think I would've been fascinated by my case if it hadn't happened to me. Actually, I'm still fascinated by it. I was indeed very lucky that I so many advocates for my care . Keith and I were just talking about how hard it would be for people who don't have someone to be there for them. I can't say if I wouldn't have woken up without the stimulation, but it's possible.

      At any rate, when Ken Frazier accepted my article, he said that he thought it was important to hear this perspective from a skeptic who lived through the experience. It's funny, but I got a patronizing comment on part one of this blog from an NDE true believer who seems to think I'm being exploited by "the skeptics," as if I hadn't written the article and submitted to SI myself. I'm not going to respond directly, though. As in that Facebook thread, I'm only going to respond to positive comments or constructive criticism not from a believer in woo. My response, instead, will be in my blog. At any rate, I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed reading about my story.

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    1. I have more constructive criticism about your article. Please know that I admire how you survived such a traumatic experience and I do not deminish it as a coma-dream.But I do disagree that your experience was a near-death experience (NDE). Here's why:

      You mentioned how circumstances can trigger NDEs which is true. But you incorrectly conclude that this is "because NDEs are a neurological condition that's often triggered by hypoxia and anoxia -- low or absent oxygen." There are many reasons why anoxia doesn't suffice as an explanation; but the most obvious reason is that NDEs occur in people who do not have anoxia at the time. Find out more by Googling this: "A Critique of Susan Blackmore's Dying Brain Hypothesis".

      You say that as you learned ever more about NDEs, you began to realize that your coma-dream hallucinations had many parallels with classic NDEs. You mentioned three parallels: (1) not having a "whole-life review" but having some memories of childhood, (2) hearing the voices of living people around your body, and (3) describing your experience as "surreal" and "dream-like". However, none of these are elements of your coma-dream have parallels to actual out-of-body NDEs. I will address each one of these.

      (1) The NDE life review involves a perfect playback of a person's entire life while you admit having only some memories of your childhood. To understand the true nature of the NDE life review, Google this: "The Life Review and the Near-Death Experience".

      (2) Hearing the actual voices of living people close to the vacinity of the body is not one of the 15 common NDE elements. Nevertheless, actual NDEs are not limited to hearing actual, verified voices near the vicinity of the body; but also includes hearing actual, verified voices far removed from the body including many miles away. And actual NDEs are not limited to hearing their voices; it includes verified out-of-body visual perceptions of living people many miles away. Google this: "People See Verified Events While Out-Of-Body"

      (3) You describe your coma-dream as "surreal" and "dream-like." You also state that your coma-dream "was indeed an ordinary dream" and "so are all NDEs." But actual NDEs are very different from ordinary dreams. Such differences include: (a) ordinary dreams and lucid dreams are not hyper-lucid and real as actual NDEs are. NDErs often report how waking consciousness is more of a dream than consciosuness experienced in NDEs. (b) NDE studies have shown that a person's memory of their NDE is more real than normal memories and memories of dreams. For evidence, Google this: "Characteristics of Near-Death Experiences Memories as Compared to Real and Imagined Events Memories" (c) dream studies have provided evidence that some non-ordinary dreams yield support for out-of-body realities and survival of consciousness after death. Google this: "Dreams and the Near-Death Experience" (d) NDEs permanently change people's lives unlike hallucinations, ordinary dreams and lucid dreams. Google this: "People are Dramatically Changed by Near-Death Experiences"

      Thank you for hearing me out on this matter.

      Kevin Williams

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  3. I need to correct another an error in your article. This time it concerns Kevin Nelson's REM intrusion study. You also mention that his study and theory "ties things together.concerning your coma-dream. As a reference, Nelson 's REM intrusion theory implies that people who have NDEs have an arousal system predisposing to REM intrusion. He concludes this is evidence that REM intrusion is the basis for NDEs. However, for REM intrusion to underlie NDEs, all NDEs would need to occur in circumstances where REM intrusion was possible which is not the case. Nelson's study concluded that people having NDEs appear to have an arousal system predisposed to both REM intrusion and OBE. But the NDE experts have falsified Nelson's REM intrusion theory. Read the IANDS article by Googling "REM Intrusion and NDEs". The NDE experts show there are factors besides REM intrusion which could explain Nelson's study findings. Rather than concluding that NDErs may have arousal systems that PREDISPOSED them to their NDEs and OBEs, it is equally plausible to conclude that they experienced an increase in REM intrusion (and OBEs) as A RESULT OF their NDEs. There is much support in the medical literature of such aftereffects appearing for the first time, and increasingly, after a person has an NDE. So it is apparent that Nelson's study is putting the proverbial "cart before the horse." The aftereffects resulting from an NDE have no comparison to experiences of REM intrusion. It is very common for NDErs to report major life changes after having NDEs. These aftereffects are often powerful, long-lasting and life-enhancing. These changes also generally follow a consistent pattern. People themselves are practically universal in concluding that their NDE was an actual afterlife experience. Experiencers of REM intrusion are not.

    There are also other striking differences between NDEs and experiences of REM intrusion. Some of these differences include the following: (1) REM intrusion hallucinations are bizarre and unrealistic while NDEs contain coherent and meaningful messages. People usually find REM intrusion experiences to be very frightening. NDEs are usually not frightening at all and are often very pleasant. (2) People who fully awaken from REM intrusion generally recognize it as a hallucination which does not reflect reality. This is does not occur with NDEs. (3) REM intrusion hallucinations also incorporate elements of the actual environment. NDEs often involve elements not in the actual environment where they occur. Indeed, NDEs have been verified to include veridical out-of-body perception of conversations and events far removed from the body and from the actual environment where they occur.

    There are also serious flaws with the validity of the questions from Nelson's questionnaire involved in the study and the conclusions drawn from them. For example, 40% of the NDErs in Nelson's questionnaire replied "no"’ to all four questions designed to assess REM intrusion including whether they had actually experienced a single REM intrusion in their entire life. This fact falsifies the idea that REM intrusion underlies and predisposes a person to have an NDE when encountering a life-threatening event.

    Thank you for allowing me to make this correction

    Kevin Williams

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  4. This is a correction concerning Eben Alexander's NDE.

    You mention that Eben Alexander's brain was not in fact dead during his NDE. But Alexander himself studied his own medical charts and came to the conclusion that his rare form of bacterial meningitis virtually destroyed his neocortex resulting is a loss of all neurologic function - a condition which modern neuroscience regards as irreversible and resulting in a permanent loss of all memories. This was clear from the severity and duration of his meningitis and from its global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations.

    According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way he could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during his time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey he underwent. His brain wasn’t merely malfunctioning; it wasn’t functioning at all - a condition resembling brain death. Yet, he had a full-blown, highly detailed and lucid NDE - one that defies any traditional scientific explanation. Neither could his NDE have been a hallucination because hallucinations involve the neocortex and his neocortex wasn’t available to be affected. He almost miraculously awakened from this severe condition immediately after his doctors decided to suspend treatment and pull the plug.

    His doctors to this day have no idea how he was able to make a complete recovery from such a severe case of bacterial meningitis. And Alexander's case is only one of many where complete recovery from fatal conditions occur. Because of these facts, Alexander has concluded that his lucid NDE experience could not have been produced by his physical brain; but instead from a nonphysical consciousness nonlocal to his brain. His findings support the increasingly popular theory of consciousness known as "holonomic consciousness" and its corresponding theory known as the "holographic principle" as applied to a holographic universe. Alexander's findings suggest the brain itself does not produce consciousness. Instead, the brain acts similar to a radio receiver - a kind of reducing valve or filter - which reduces the larger, nonphysical and nonlocal consciousness down to a more limited capacity for us to function in this physical world. Google this: "Holonomic brain theory" and this: "Holographic Principle".

    Alexander’s critics wonder if his cerebral cortex was actually shut down. Alexander asserts again and again that it was. His critics say it wasn’t. And if it was shut down, then Alexander has the right to claim his NDE occurred during a condition similar to brain death. According to mainstream medical models, humans must have brain function to live. But this doesn't satisfy the skeptics because they’ve created an unwinnable and nearly tautologically and circular argument which goes like this:

    (A) A shut-down cerebral cortex equals death.
    (B) Alexander didn't die.
    (C) Therefore, Alexander’s cerebral cortex didn't shut down

    In other words, finality serves as the marker of death for many skeptics. So they incorrectly conclude Alexander’s NDE was not an afterlife experience. He merely entered into a weird sort of hypnogagia.

    You say there are many things that Alexander stated as facts in his book "Proof of Heaven" which were proven to be impossible in a famous Esquire expose. These accusations against Alexander in the Esquire article were thoroughly debunked. Not long after Esquire published the article against Alexander, a full rebuttal came out from the International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS.org). It was written by NDE expert and researcher Robert Mays. Google this: "Esquire Article on Eben Alexander Distorts the Facts".

    Thank you for allowing me to critique your article with constructive criticism.

    Kevin Williams

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Coma Girl

Coma Girl

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In July of 2013, I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died. When I awoke from the coma, I could barely lift my head. It has been a hard road to recovery. The doctors advised my loved ones to give up all hope for my full recovery, but while they were shining lights in my eyes to gauge my level of consciousness, I was telling them grumpily to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep...in my coma-dream. I was experiencing covert cognition, and the coma-dream was my version of a near-death experience. I'm a skeptic, so I saw surreal images instead of spirits or dead loved ones. According to my research, as many as one in five people with consciousness disorders have covert cognition.

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.