Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Brain dead arguments

It was inevitable that as my story became known outside the skeptical world, some people would feel defensive about my non-spiritual near-death experience and my theories about NDEs. It happened after the Washington post wrote about my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience." And after Simon Davis interviewed me for his Post Mortem column, as well. To some true believers, books like "Proof of Heaven" reaffirm their faith in their eternal reward. Yeah, life sucks, but in the end I'll get to go to the Club Med in the sky. A recent study shows that thinking about atheists increase thoughts of death, even in atheists, which Simon Davis has written about incisively.

Indeed, it's not surprising that a few atheists who have seen heaven in their NDEs have become believers. Most atheists grew up religious; I was raised an agnostic. As I put it to Simon Davis, angels and heaven were not in my mental landscape. There's a reason that the aliens people tend to see in their "encounters" look a lot like the media depictions...and it has nothing to do with spindly little green men buzzing isolated highways.

I have resisted the urge to reply to the commentators on the column. While the epithet Nazi has yet to be thrown, variations of retard has been deployed with regularity. However, I will respond in my own soapbox--this blog. First, Eben Alexander was not brain dead when he had his NDE. This is what Oliver Sacks--that great humanist and polymath whom the world sadly lost a few days ago--had to say about Alexander's experience.
He had a nasty bacterial meningitis. He was in a coma for several days. But when he came to, he described an enormously complex so-called near-death experience. These experiences are often rather stereotyped in quality. People may feel they’re in a dark corridor and moving towards some bright light. Feelings of bliss envelop them as they are drawn towards the light. They sense, in a way, that the light is the boundary between life and death. And they would then come back or “float back.” In Musicophilia, I described such a sequence with a subject, another surgeon as it happened, who had been struck by lightning.
And he had this sort of blissful moment and then he said, “Slam! I was back.” He was back because someone was doing CPR on his heart and his heart started beating again twenty or thirty seconds afterwards. So, his whole cosmic journey only occupied a matter of seconds. Dr. Alexander feels that his cortex was out of action while he was having his visions and therefore it must have been direct supernatural intervention. I think such a claim can’t be sustained and indeed, a few seconds of altered consciousness as one emerges from coma would be enough to give him such a state.
You don't recover from brain death. After brain death, your brain begins to liquify. You know, kind of like watching a marathon of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. You don't come back from brain death...or Honey Boo Boo.

Here's Michael Shermer's take: Why Near-Death Experience Isn't Proof of Heaven. I wish the commentators had been able to read my Skeptical Inquirer article [it wasn't posted until today]. It's not yet available online, though it should be fairly soon, Simon decided to focus, understably considering his readership, on my NDE, but I think the covert cognition I experienced is a crucial piece of the puzzle. Eben Alexander's brain wasn't off, it was on dimmer. Covert cognition means that while doctors can't detect signs of awareness, the brain is still active on some level. That's what I experienced during my coma, and it's the reason why things that were going around me leaked into my coma-dream, despite my unresponsive state.

Kate Bainbridge, also known as Cambridge Kate, is a famous example of the phenomenon. She was the first patient Dr. Adrian Owen tested for signs of covert cognition. Luckily for her, Dr. Owen was able to see that she was, as Kate put it, "still in there," while showing her pictures of her loved ones during a PET scan. His discovery set him on a new career path that I hope will one day help doctors detect awareness in the (as many as) one in five consciousness disorder patients with covert cognition. Meanwhile, Kate received therapy and eventually woke up. Tragically, though she also exhibits no signs of cognitive dysfunction, she remains severely handicapped. There for the grace of the God I don't believe in go I.

I will have to get into the arguments about whether I had an NDE in my next blog or this one will start feeling like it's lasting as long as my coma. But here's a preview: Yes, it was a dream, as are all NDEs according to the REM intrusion theory formulated by Kevin Nelson. But there's more to it than that.To be continued...


  1. I like to think of life as the ultimate NDE. PS wouldn't it make more sense to call her "Cambridge Bainbridge?"

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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.