Thursday, October 29, 2015

Origin Story

My latest Secular Spectrum post tells the tale of how I transitioned from agnostic to atheist and finally evolved into a skeptic. Here's the link: Origin Story.

I was raised an agnostic, so when I realized I had become an atheist when I was 13 or 14, it was hardly a wrenching transition. But I reveled in tales of the supernatural and such pseudoscientific subjects as ESP and clairvoyance. I even thought I might be a bit psychic. Something changed when I began identifying as an atheist, however. Slowly, I began seeing the world through a critical filter. So long ESP, hello confirmation bias.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

On This Day

Two years ago, yesterday, according to the On This Day Facebook app, Keith shared the above photo of me on my four-hour tour of our house during my second furlough, as they called it, from the nursing home, Country Villa Sheraton. Furlough, as if I were getting out of prison. Country Villa was far from the Sheraton, but I was receiving desperately needed physical therapy. One of my most difficult exercises was to stand. That was it. I would just barely struggle to stand up, over and over again. "That's ten," Denise, the occupational therapist, would say. I would rest a bit, then she would say, "Let's do another set." It was like musical chairs without the music...or the fun. The prize was that I would be able to get up from a chair without help. It was utterly exhausting for me--that's how weak I was. Only a month before I could barely lift my head from the pillow.

I have many more readers than the last time I wrote about this, but this previous post makes a good primer about what I went through as I struggled to walk: A Journey of a Thousand Miles. As it details, another physical therapist confided to me that the other therapists thought John Silva, the main physical therapist helping me to relearn how to walk, was rushing my walking.
John Silva helping me on my first walk outside the nursing home.
But if John hadn't put me on such an aggressive program, I wouldn't have even been able to leave the nursing home when I did, and I would've lost my Kaiser Permanente health insurance. I had to be out by November or my coverage would've gone bye-bye. As woefully unprepared as I was to return home, I needed that coverage, considering that I still had a serious autoimmune disease, dermatomyositis. I could've continued with non-Kaiser Medi-Cal coverage, but my quality of healthcare would've suffered without Kaiser's superior care. And, we would've had to pay the nursing home out of our own pockets because it's likely that Medi-Cal wouldn't have paid to keep me there either. A Kaiser social worker who worked at the nursing home confided to me that in a few months time, what Kaiser was doing to me would be illegal. That was because the unfairly maligned Affordable Care Act--better known as Obamacare--would be taking effect then.

During that first furlough, I slipped and hit my head on the toilet because I wasn't used to a four-wheeled rollator. Don't worry, I wasn't hurt; I have a hard head. I'm lucky I didn't crack the toilet. John had instructed me to sign out a walker to be used during my furlough, but he was off for the weekend. A tightly wound physical therapist who disagreed with John's methods refused to allow me to sign out a walker (though this was a common practice). Without John there, I was at her mercy. So Keith went to a large local drugstore to buy one for me, but they only had four-wheeled rollators. The kind of walker I had been using had only two wheels, with rubber stopper ends on the front legs. I later learned that four wheels aren't recommended for people with little physical control. But Keith didn't know that either. If that therapist had allowed me to take a walker with me, I wouldn't have hit my head. As I said, I was okay, but that was a lawsuit waiting to happen.
After I returned home, I tricked out the walker with a tote and a cupholder.

The second home visit went smoother because Keith had ordered a two-wheeled walker from Amazon, which I continued to use until I was strong enough to handle the rollator. To the right is a photo taken on one of my first rehab walks using the walker Keith bought. And below is a photo taken on our first rehab walk at Vasquez Rocks, when I was finally strong enough for the four-wheeled rollator. The rollator opened up areas like Vasquez Rocks that would've been too difficult to manage using the walker, which created a lot of drag, even with the ski glides we put on it.
I wasn't walking fast; it's really windy at Vasquez Rocks.
This Friday, we will be carving pumpkins for Halloween. We'll also be holding a belated birthday celebration for Joella, Keith's mom. During her birthday, she was away on her annual summer pilgrimage to visit her other two sons and their families. Friday will also be the second anniversary of my return home. My homecoming was on the day before Halloween. I did not, as our custom, carve a pumpkin. A knife in my feeble hands was not advisable. I didn't want to return to the hospital so soon after leaving the nursing home. I was still recovering from MRSA pneumonia and I was experiencing painful spasms in my right foot that were eased somewhat by vibrating slippers. Thus, instead of my usual jester costume, I wore a warm sweater coat and matching vibrating slippers, since wearing only one would've looked weird. Yes, it was Halloween, but it wasn't that kind of fun-weird. I was dressed as a sickly person who had just gotten out of the nursing home after a six-week coma. I think the bandage on my tracheostomy site was a nice touch. The gloves were to hide the open sores on my hands, which had not yet healed, a legacy of my dermatomyositis. Maybe I should've used my hands as part of a zombie costume....
Handing out candy and toys to the trick-or-treaters with Joella the day after my return.
Last year, I was strong enough to carve two pumpkins and I wore the jester costume.

Last Halloween with Joella and her dog Sadie. Traditionally, I hand out the toys and Joella gives out the candy. Sadie handles the sniffing.
This year, I will have fuller hair, but more importantly, I won't need to use a cane. I only use it now when I'm out to provide stability. Everyone needs a bit of stability in their lives. I would've benefited immensely from a few extra weeks in the nursing home, but it was certainly nice to be home.

Friday, October 23, 2015

“Please Put a Blanket on Me” — I Was Aware in My Coma

This photo was taken on the day I was transferred to a nursing home, five days before my awakening.

My second post for the Secular Spectrum explores covert cognition, like I experienced, and explains why it negates the arguments for mind-brain separation. NDE true-believers insist that the brains of experiencers couldn't generate what they perceived because their brains weren't functioning. Well, my doctors claimed that I was profoundly brain damaged and wrote me off as a vegetable even as I was experiencing a rich fantasy life. My brain certainly was active enough to produce my coma-dreams.

Here's the link to the post“Please Put a Blanket on Me” — I Was Aware in My Coma

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Coma chameleons

Now that I'm a contributing writer for The Secular Spectrum, I have a new outlet for my skeptical and humanist writing. Therefore, I feel free to write more directly about my recovery again in Coma Chameleon again. This blog is subtitled, My Recovery Chronicles, after all. This post, however, is also a continuation of some of my recent subject matter.Yes, that's right, my fellow coma victim and experiencer, Eben Alexander.

A few months ago, I finally received my hospital records from my 6-week coma in 2013, after being mistakenly given the records from my two-week 2014 hospitalization. Both were due to Legionnaires' disease, caused by immunosuppression. Thanks, prednisone.

The 2447 pages of the PDF (I received it on CD) is a treasure trove of details, sandwiched between mountains of repetitive information. I don't have the space to go into all the information, and I've only skimmed through parts of it. But I did learn one juicy tidbit. I knew that my lungs and kidneys were failing, but apparently my liver wanted to get into the act, as well. When I mentioned this, Keith joked that my spleen was doing fine, as was my appendix. Everything else was going south. My impression is that the liver problems weren't as severe as the other organ failures, a speculation my neurologist later confirmed. Otherwise, I would've been given a Charlson Comorbity Scale of 3 instead of 2. Think of what it would've done for the miracle-believers if I had managed to survive a score the maximum of six out of the twenty-two frequently fatal conditions that make up the scale.

In Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander actually implies that the very rarity of E.coli meningitis in an adult is evidence that God chose him as His Special Messenger. After all, as a neurosurgeon, he was the perfect emissary to the disbelieving medical and scientific community. Yeah, right. Wouldn't neuroscientist Sam Harris have been even better? I suppose his argument is that God chose a rare condition as a sign that this was an act of God. Isn't he special? According the famous Esquire expose, Alexander has a reputation of arrogance. And he hides it so well.

At any rate, he seems convinced that the severity of his illness is another sign of God's hand. But as someone who was at least as close to death, you'll have to forgive me for not being impressed. My doctors were every bit as convinced that my death was imminent. I'll take one life-threatening bacterial infection--in my case, Legionnaires' disease--and raise him multiple strokes on both sides of my brain, severe sepsis, lung, kidney, and liver failure, as well as another potentially fatal bacterial infection, listeriosis. And compared to his measly seven days of coma, I was comatose for six weeks.

Take that, Eben Alexander, messiah to the scientific world.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My first Secular Spectrum post

The theme of my first post for the Patheos Atheist Channel group blog The Secular Spectrum will be somewhat familiar to my regular readers, but I took a particularly satirical tack to introduce my story to a unfamiliar readership. It's not hard to satirize the fact that so many believers think God bestowed a miracle upon such a committed atheist. Here's the link: Miracle Girl?

Friday, October 16, 2015

Without tunnel vision, but on a new path

Eben Alexander didn't see a tunnel either.
One of the complaints I've heard most often from near-death experience true-believers is that my NDE wasn't one because I didn't see Heaven. Needless to say, that's about as circular an argument as is possible without passing out from the centrifugal force. They also complain that I didn't have a life review or see dead relatives. Or, that I didn't die.

Eben Alexander didn't experience any of these either, except for the first (unless you count the iffy identification of the girl on the butterfly, and she wasn't waiting for him in the tunnel, as in classic NDEs). He writes that he would've liked to have seen his father, but Dad was MIA. Maybe he something better to do instead.

Indeed, when you read Proof of Heaven, it becomes clear that it's only his later interpretation of his NDE that categorized it as Heaven in the first place. He saw butterflies, an idyllic landscape, and an orb that emitted an "om" sound. That's more like what you might expect from a New Age guru, not a Judeo-Christian God. And have any of those true-believers ever wondered why other NDErs haven't flown on butterflies or languished in the Earthworm's-Eye View? If this is the afterlife, shouldn't all NDErs see these realms too?

He claims that his NDE was typical, but was it really?

Of course, I've viewed my NDE through my own filter, but as a skeptic, I not only didn't see anything with a spiritual quality, I didn't search for any larger meaning in what I experienced. I think we both had elaborate coma-dreams. End of story.

The back matter of the book is filled with thanks to the flakey New Age and near-death experience groups he's joined since his NDE. There are acknowledgements to NDE researchers and his fellow experiencers. He's obviously drunk deeply from the New Age Kool-Aid cup. In Proof of Heaven, Alexander repeatedly claims that he was a skeptic before his NDE, but he also refers to his wife's supposedly psychic and "intuitive" friends. Yes, spouses can have completely different views on these subjects. Indeed, there are many atheists with religious spouses.

And speaking of which, I will soon be a regular contributor to The Secular Spectrum, a group blog on the Patheos site's Atheist Channel, home of the Friendly Atheist. My editor is Dale McGowan, author of Atheism for Dummies. Do they have a Religion for Dummies or is that redundant? Sorry, I had to make that joke. At any rate, Dale wrote a cogent post about his wife, who was an evangelical when they married. So, of course it's possible that Holley Alexander could've been associated with beliefs Eben doubted before his NDE. But I can't help wondering how firm his skepticism could've been if he so readily rejected the more scientifically sound explanations for his NDE. I mean, come on, the neurosurgeon in him must surely know that his brain couldn't have been offline during his NDE. After all, how could he remember his experience if it had been?

At any rate, as I mentioned, I am now a blogger for The Secular Spectrum, nicknamed SecSpec. I'm also still in recovery, and I have to devote hours every day to rehab. I therefore have no choice but to reduce my blog rate here at Coma Chameleon: My Recovery Chronicles. After all, it wouldn't make sense to have my recovery blog cut into my rehab time.

I will continue to post at least one full blog a week, plus links to my SecSpec posts, with behind-the-scenes content. I'm not abandoning my first love just because it's now an open marriage. ;-)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

About face

Today's blog harks back to some points I made in a previous post about the claim that Phyllis and Betty Alexander saw a "perfect rainbow" heralding the awakening of Eben. This was proven to be impossible by the famous Esquire expose of Alexander. I argued that they could've I either mixed up the timing of the rains and the rainbow, or the memory could've been implanted in their minds by the very suggestion that it had happened. My hypothesis was based on the groundbreaking research misinformation effect research of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and many others.

This is a related phenomenon. Alexander claims that soon before his awakening, he saw six faces in the muck of the Realm of the Earthworm's-Eye View. All but one of them had been praying for him that day or the night before. He draws the conclusion this this is due to their prayers reaching him in Heaven. I would counter that he was simply hearing their voices, just as the voices of my loved ones leaked into my coma-dream. These were all people familiar to him, after all.The other face belonged to Susan Reintjes, a long-time friend of Eben's wife. She calls herself an intuitive and claims to be able to psychically reach people in comas. I intuitively think she's a flake. She says she contacted him remotely from her apartment, and Alexander believes he picked up the call in Heaven. Coincidentally, he learned about this after his awakening.

Proof of Heaven ends with what is supposed to be the big reveal. The girl on the butterfly was actually his long-lost dead sister Betsy, whom he never met because he was raised by adoptive parents. How does he know it was her? He was sent a photo of Betsy. So, he immediately recognized her when he saw the photo, right? Nope. He says that the next morning he was reading Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' book On Life After Death when he was struck by the story of a young girl recounting her near-death experience to her parents. She tells them about being comforted by her brother, only she didn't have a brother. Wait for it...yup, it turns out that she did have a brother who died a few years before she was born. (You think maybe she could've overheard something about the brother, or that it's a complete coincidence?) Then, suddenly, it dawns on Alexander that the woman in the photo--the sister he never met--was the very girl on the butterfly! Wooooooo! It was the clothes that threw him off. Yeah, that's it. It couldn't be that image the girl on the butterfly, after all those months, suddenly morphed in his mind into his dead sister? And perhaps the same thing happened after he was told the story of Susan reaching his spirit while he was in the coma?


Monday, October 12, 2015

I guess his brain fell out

"Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out" is a popular saying among skeptics. Eben Alexander continually proclaims himself to have been a skeptic before his coma-based near-death experience. But his writing throughout Proof of Heaven proves the lie to that claim.

I'm the one who was labeled as profoundly brain-damaged, but if Alexander truly was a skeptic before his NDE, then I can't help wondering about the extent of his meningitis brain damage. Has he had an MRI of his brain since then? And would he release the results if he had? After all, he's yet to show the world the medical records he claims proved that his brain wasn't functioning during his NDE. If it's that incontrovertible, you would think he'd release the records to silence the doubters. Finally, proof of an actual Miracle of God! If his mission is truly to inform the scientific establishment of his important new discoveries, then what's holding him back? Doesn't he have an obligation, as he repeatedly states, to give witness to this groundbreaking development in the understanding of consciousness and reality itself?

I know that this argument is a bit at odds with my recent posts that suggest that Alexander's NDE is basically a hyped-up and retrospectively interpreted coma-dream. And, to be honest, I'm not completely convinced that his story isn't an absolute crock, instead of simply a deluded one. Still, if he's utterly convinced that what he experienced really happened, isn't it odd that he hasn't presented the proof of what he states is his new-found calling? Isn't this supposed to be the reason he was sent back to earth, a messianic prophet spreading the word of God's love? Indeed, he all but states he's on a mission from God...just like the Blues Brothers.

He believes it's no coincidence that God booked a neurosurgeon a return flight to Heaven. Who else would be better suited to spread the word to the unbelieving masses in the neuroscientific community. I dunno, maybe give the same experience to an actual neuroscientist like Sam Harris? Sorry, I don't mean to give ideas to the god we agree doesn't exist.

But then, Sam Harris would've undoubtedly filtered his experience through a skeptical lens. Certainly, he wouldn't have spewed the kind of Deepak Chopra, New Age, pseudoscientific claptrap Alexander does, claiming quantum mechanics proves consciousness affects matter. He states that he now believes in such psychic phenomena as--cue the theremin--remote viewing, precognition, psychokinesis, and clairvoyance. Perhaps instead of dying, his brain really did fall out. Alexander actually states that there is overwhelming evidence for these phenomena. Um, no, unless you think flakey supernatural "reality shows" constitute evidence. If so, watch out for old houses with attics.
Here are a couple of other candidates. They would be at least as credible apostates to the skeptical cause. And they're certainly adept at making magic appear believable....

Friday, October 9, 2015

Casting about for an answer

As I've stated before, the first dateable element in my coma-dream was the MRI voice. It was July 22, 2013--the day my brain began to reboot. "Hold your breath...exhale," reverberated the calming baritone. I couldn't make out the words, nor could I hold my breath because I was on a respirator. But I recognized that distinctive low monotone once I awoke. It's clear from reading Proof of Heaven that Eben Alexander did much retrospective interpretation of his near-death experience of his own. I believe that the bulk of my coma-dream occurred in the last few weeks before my awakening. Those MRI voice segments tended to be brief. Interspersed with the more detailed coma-dream serials of my increasingly conscious mind, they were dispatches from an earlier, barely aware state.

I feared a serial killer had implanted a chip in my head. But that voice was different from the stalker/serial killer who kept whispering all those encouraging things in my brain. Could two serial killers have implanted chips in my head? The second one was a kinder, gentler sort of serial killer, praising my every movement. "Good job! You're getting stronger every day. I will always love you. And I will never leave you." That last one certainly sounded like something a stalker might say. It didn't make sense that a stalker/serial killer would say such positive, supportive things, but who else would plant a chip in my head? My brain was instinctively trying to make sense of what it was perceiving, grabbing ideas from movies and TV shows I had watched.

My awareness was likely flickering in and out at this point. At first my eyes were closed, as they would've been during the MRI. Later, when they were open, I couldn't focus my gaze. As often as not, I was still hearing instead of seeing the people around me. In the earlier state, I sensed only a deep, sonorous voice and a feeling of being dragged. This vague memory remained with me as that encouraging voice morphed into my "new" boyfriend (who wasn't Keith because he had a full beard), Far from being a stalker, he planted soft kisses on my forehead and told me all about his future plans for us. He, too, said he would never leave me. And he hasn't.

You may say that this is nothing like what Eben Alexander experienced. But his NDE--or coma-dream--started out simple, vague, and confused. It became progressively more detailed...just like mine did. Needless to say, it took me weeks longer to slowly emerge than his piddling seven days. And like Eben's NDE, I alternated between scenes from a higher state of consciousness and ones where I was barely aware, covertly or otherwise.

Alexander claims that his cortex had been destroyed, a medical impossibility considering that he's not lying in a hospital, a candidate for organ donation. On the contrary, his brain was every bit as functional as mine was. If it weren't, he wouldn't be able to remember his NDE. That requires a working brain. Duh. His brain was straining to piece together a story, as mine was, cobbling it together from whatever it could perceive, based on his own influences. He may not have been religious before his coma, but unlike me he grew up steeped in the Christian tradition. He says so himself in Proof of Heaven.

Was the first segment of his NDE--the so-called Realm of the Earthworm's-Eye View--simply his brain's attempt to visualize its struggle to emerge from a vicious bacterial attack? That's close to what Alexander once thought before abandoning the idea. Yeah, like that's less likely than flying on the wings of a butterfly. Gee, that kind of sounds like a dream, doesn't it? He actually calls his consciousness at this time "limited." Exactly. To me, his NDE seems more like a long coma-dream than a pitstop in Heaven. It even had revolving segments, as he travelled back and forth between the realms of the Earthworm's-Eye View, the Gateway, and the Core. I had some control over my set group of coma-dreams, as well. When I got bored, I could switch the channel to another favorite program. Perhaps, like me, his coma-dream occurred near the end, as he was beginning to emerge from his coma. And it began with an element from his earlier state...one where his consciousness was still mired in muck.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Did they feed him Miracle Gro brain food?

This was Eben Alexander on Oprah. He looks awfully articulate for someone without a cerebral cortex.
Proof of Heaven is far from it. But I'm going to take a different tack from the Esquire expose of Eben Alexander. To me, what Eben Alexander claims to have experienced was nothing more than a coma-dream. Certainly, fraud comes to mind when you consider his indefensible assertion that his cerebral cortex was basically dead. As neuroscientist Sam Harris said in a cogent blog post, that would imply that his brain grew back. Now that would be a miracle. Though Alexander continually asserts that he's a man of science, his approach to his own case shows that he's anything but.

If he could acknowledge that his brain was still functioning during his near-death experience, he might be able to see patterns that parallel my own coma-dream. When I began reading Proof of Heaven, I was immediately struck by his description of the continual, deep, rhythmic pounding that rang out in his Earthworm's-Eye View segments, which he likens to a distant blacksmith pounding an anvil. That blacksmith must get around, because I heard him too. But then, I imagined the sound coming from as a giant bell that slowly struck out the melody of "Rocky Mountain High." Usually, that is. Sometimes it would lose the beat, but if I listened long enough, it would eventually pick up the melody again. (I was of course imagining the pattern in the first place.) I would often focus on the sound as I attempted to lull myself back to sleep. As I mentioned in my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," a running theme of my coma-dream was that I was in suffering through a miserably sleepless night. That sound was undoubtedly the machinery keeping me alive. But this supposed man of science never considered that as a possibility. I had my own personal production of Stomp performed in my honor, with my ventilator, heart monitor, feeding pump, and dialysis machine, all rhythmically whooshing, clicking, and beeping, punctuated by the frequent wailing of alarms. It's no wonder that I dreamed I couldn't sleep.

Coming up in Friday's blog, the rest of the low-down on Alexander's so-called Earthworm's-Eye View segment of his NDE and what it has in common with my coma-dream.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Lost in the rainbow

In the true-believing International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS), near-death experience researcher Robert Mays writes that Phyllis and Betty Alexander (respectively Eben Alexander's sister and mother), insist that they saw the "perfect rainbow" supposedly heralding Eben's awakening. We're in the midst of a record drought here in California, so there were no rainbows to be seen in during my awakening. And, indeed, as Luke Dittrich showed in his famous Esquire expose of Eben Alexander, according to the head NOAA meteorologist for the region, it was impossible in Alexander's case, as well.

Mays argues that Dittrich never interviewed Phyllis and Betty to hear their corroboration of the rainbow story in Proof of Heaven. He uses this as an example of the alleged hatchet job done to Alexander's reputation. But there is another explanation.

Both may be true.

The recorded weather on the day of Alexander's awakening indicates that a rainbow couldn't have appeared. Mays' sketchy excuse is that there are many causes of rainbows. Leprechauns, maybe? But just because the usual trigger for rainbows--it's baked right into the name--couldn't have occurred, that doesn't mean Alexander's sister and mother are lying. They may well have conflated memories. Or, the rainbow may have been imprinted on their memories after the fact by the very suggestion that it had occurred.

The pioneering studies of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, as well as many other researchers, have shown that simple suggestion can implant memories that people will later swear actually happened to them. The most famous example of the misinformation effect is of course Dr. Loftus' groundbreaking lost in the mall study. 24 participants were given four stories from their childhoods and asked to flesh them out with additional details. Unbeknownst to them, one of the stories was false--the tale of getting lost in the mall at the age of 5. When they were later told that one story was false and asked to pick which one, five of the participants chose a true story. These result have remained consistent through many different experiments. Generally, 25-30 percent of subjects will pick a true story over the planted one.

Add to that the brain's natural habit of conflating events, and it's entirely possible that the Alexanders honestly believe they saw a rainbow. Perhaps they saw a rainbow a week or two after Eben's awakening, and they commented that this was a message from God. Later, they recalled the rainbow as happening just before he woke up. Or maybe Eben misremembered something Phyllis said about seeing a rainbow, and the very act of Eben writing about it set the vision of the rainbow into her's and her mother's memories. I've done the very same thing with my mother. Like Loftus' subjects, her new memory wasn't as definitive and detailed as it would've been for a true memory. But the fact remains that the very act of imagining events can make them seem real, especially upon repetition. Have you ever found yourself "remembering" something that happened, only to realize the event actually occurred in a dream? I certainly have.

Memories are not Memorex moments; they're more like Play-Doh. Certainly, the human brain is a marvelous organ. It provides nightly entertainment shows for us, and for some people, dreams that last for days on end or even weeks. Indeed, there are numerous aspects of Alexander's NDE that remind me of my own coma-dream, and I will detail them in Wednesday's blog.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Wishing neuroscience into the cornfield

These are the words of Eben Alexander in a Newsweek article in advance of the publication of Proof of Heaven:
There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.
A dimension not of sight and sound, but of mind. Brain-free, indeed.What about covert cognition? Leave aside the fact that he gives the definite impression that he was in a natural coma, when, as I've discussed repeatedly, his own treating physician said he was in a medically induced coma in the famous Esquire expose of Alexander.

Not so fast, says an NDE true-believer. According to NDE researcher Robert Mays, Alexander was in a natural coma after all. Of course, I'm suspicious of anything appearing on the International Association for Near Death Studies website, which is not exactly the Association for the Advancement of Science. Still, Mays has a few good points--especially about the Dalai Lama's remarks quoted in the Esquire article, though it was hardly an important part of the piece. But Mays does a good deal of his own cherry picking, with numerous leaps of logic and biased interpretations of his own.

But even if Alexander did fall into a natural coma, current neuroscientific knowledge indicates that his brain was still functioning. He has yet to show any evidence to the contrary. Don't tell me that cognition during comas is impossible. I had my own strange experiences during my coma, and my brain was still functional. The only difference is that he simply decided that his mind was switched off due to his meningitis-infected brain. My legionella-riddled brain was working, despite the fact that my doctors said the same discouraging things that Alexander's doctors told his loved ones. His doctors also pronounced him hopeless, but Alexander chose to believe the pronouncements and call his recovery a miracle. Our situations were quite similar, actually, except the images my brain provided were stripped of religious imagery due to my atheism and nonreligious upbringing. My conclusion was that my doctors were simply wrong.

For the record, though a Glasgow Coma Scale wasn't performed on me, my neurologist estimates, based on my hospital records, that my score at the time of my strokes would've been 6 or 8. And, remember, I was already in a coma when the strokes occurred. Alexander's score was 8. My brain was still conscious (albeit at a low level) at 6 or 8; he has no basis to claim that his brain was totally offline just because he was given a score of 8.

Think of it as an old dial-up modem (sorry, I don't mean to bring back traumatic memories). There was a long wait, but eventually my brain connected. For a while, the signal was spotty--going in and out--but eventually it stabilized and stayed online for good. And until my awakening, I was in a coma. (Actually, I think I was in a minimally conscious state by the time of my awakening, but I was still officially comatose.)

What we have here is a  fundamental difference in worldviews. Granted, he clearly knows nothing about covert cognition, but I doubt learning about it would change his mind. Far from being as scientist, he's chosen to toss out the well-established scientific understanding of brain function. Indeed, in a follow-up article on the "science" of his near-death experience, he stated that consciousness affects matter, a complete misreading of quantum mechanics. He and Deepak Chopra would be a match made in Heaven. Alexander seems to believe that you could actually wish people, or at least matter, into the cornfield. A neurosurgeon is no more qualified to engage in neuroscience than he would be to become president. Here is what neuroscientist Mark Cohen told Sam Harris regarding Eben Alexander's story:
This poetic interpretation of his experience is not supported by evidence of any kind. As you correctly point out, coma does not equate to “inactivation of the cerebral cortex” or “higher-order brain functions totally offline” or “neurons of [my] cortex stunned into complete inactivity”. These describe brain death, a one hundred percent lethal condition. There are many excellent scholarly articles that discuss the definitions of coma. (For example: 1 & 2)We are not privy to his EEG records, but high alpha activity is common in coma. Also common is “flat” EEG. The EEG can appear flat even in the presence of high activity, when that activity is not synchronous. For example, the EEG flattens in regions involved in direct task processing. This phenomenon is known as event-related desynchronization (hundreds of references).As is obvious to you, this is truth by authority. Neurosurgeons, however, are rarely well-trained in brain function. Dr. Alexander cuts brains; he does not appear to study them. “There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness ...” True, science cannot explain brain-free consciousness. Of course, science cannot explain consciousness anyway. In this case, however, it would be parsimonious to reject the whole idea of consciousness in the absence of brain activity. Either his brain was active when he had these dreams, or they are a confabulation of whatever took place in his state of minimally conscious coma.There are many reports of people remembering dream-like states while in medical coma. They lack consistency, of course, but there is nothing particularly unique in Dr. Alexander’s unfortunate episode.
Well said. In fact, he made many of the same points as I did in a recent post. Sam Harris is also a neuroscientist. Here's his take on Alexander's unscientific assertions: This Must Be Heaven, from which the quote was drawn. Yes, Harris is an atheist and a skeptic, and we have our own biases. But like me, he doesn't reject personal accounts out of hand. Nonetheless, the fact remains that being in a coma doesn't mean your brain in has ceased to function. Period. That is, unless you allow your critical faculties to shut down and embrace pseudoscience. Especially when you can channel it into a bestseller.

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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.