Heaven Maybe Real: Cortical Clouds

During the past week I was asked several times about an article that just appeared in Newsweek. Because John Hawks was in town, I wasn’t able to get to it until today. Newsweek deemed the story so important (or sensational) that it made the cover:

For those who couldn’t bring themselves to buy Colton Burpo’s blockbuster (Heaven is for Real) story, this one holds more apparent promise. Why? Because the author, Dr. Eben Alexander, is a neurosurgeon who contracted meningitis and slipped into a coma. While comatose, he experienced something heavenly. Because Dr. Alexander is a Christian, it’s not surprising that he constructs the experience through a Christian lens. This is a common feature of near death experiences (“NDE”): those who claim to have had a religious NDE always have an experience specific to their religion. In this post, I examined a large cross-cultural NDE study (n=877) in which 140 people reported seeing religious figures or having religious experiences. As the authors observe, there is a perfect (and suspicious) correlation between a person’s religion and the religious aspect of NDEs:

Where these [religious figures] were specifically identified, they were always named according to a person’s religious beliefs; no Hindu reported seeing Jesus, and no Christian reported seeing a Hindu deity. This supports the view of many authors that, whereas the central features the NDE are universally present [due to pan-human biological and neural systems], the specific imagery and interpretation is determined by the cultural expectations and beliefs of the individual.

Dr. Alexander, however, asserts that his experience was not a typical NDE and cannot be explained as are other NDEs. As I noted in this post on out of body experiences and soul beliefs, there is a big difference between clinical death and brain death. The former can herald a still-living twilight world for those who are resuscitated and remember; the latter is final and no one has ever come back to discuss it. It is this gap period (during which a person may not be breathing or have a pulse but still has neural activity) that gives rise to the near death experience or NDE. Alexander flatly rejects any such explanation:

“All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the 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 that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.”

Now I’m not a neurosurgeon but I do know a few things about the Human Brain (pdf). Neuroscientist Sam Harris knows more than a few things about the brain. He is rightly skeptical. Neuroscientist Colin Blakemore is similarly skeptical. Because Harris and Blakemore so ably dissect Dr. Alexander’s claims not much more needs to be said. I will say, however, that Dr. Alexander mistakenly seems to believe it is the cortex alone that gives rise to consciousness and makes us uniquely human. Here is our first clue from Dr. Alexander:

“In the fall of 2008, however, after seven days in a coma during which the human part of my brain, the neocortex, was inactivated, I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death.”

The “human” part of his brain? Here he implies that the subcortical and limbic parts of our brains are not human or something “other” than human. This simply isn’t true. Everything in our brain is human and it is the totality of our brain that somehow gives rise to ordinary, wakeful consciousness. Whatever this kind of consciousness is, and however it arises, it takes the entire brain to do it. Consciousness is not localized in the neocortex, as Dr. Alexander seems to believe. Moreover, humans are not alone in having a neocortex. All mammals have neocortex and primates have it in abundance. Humans may have more of it but this hardly makes the neocortex uniquely “human.”

While this may have simply been a careless slip, Dr. Alexander’s continued fixation on the cortex indicates otherwise:

“Within hours, my entire cortex—the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion and that in essence makes us human—had shut down.”

The cortex is not, of course, a little homunculus. Our entire brains make us human, not just the cortex. The cortex is, like all major brain structures, incredibly important. Dr. Alexander’s next cortical reference is revealing:

“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.”

Even if we assume Dr. Alexander had no cortical activity whatsoever (which, as Sam Harris explains, seems unlikely and is unproven on the basis of CT scans), his brain wasn’t dead (if it was, he never would have regained consciousness). His brain, in other words, was still alive and the subcortical systems were still active. No one has ever shown that these systems don’t play an important role in consciousness or memory. In fact, the opposite is true.

After several more references to the essential(izing) importance, centrality, and uniqueness of the human cortex, Dr. Alexander drives his point home:

“I’ve spent decades as a neurosurgeon at some of the most prestigious medical institutions in our country. I know that many of my peers hold—as I myself did—to the theory that the brain, and in particular the cortex, generates consciousness and that we live in a universe devoid of any kind of emotion, much less the unconditional love that I now know God and the universe have toward us.”

I can’t comment on the love and God themes, but can say that cortex isn’t necessary for consciousness. Reptiles, amphibians, and fish don’t have mammalian-type cortex, but they certainly appear to be conscious and have consciousness. It’s all a matter of degree and homologous structure. Watch a video of an octopus or squid doing something amazing and tell me they don’t have consciousness. Yet they don’t have anything like cortex. Neither do birds and they are some of the most amazing, and conscious, animals on the planet.

So where does this leave us? It’s hard to say.

If Dr. Alexander is going to devote the remainder of his life to this new heavenly cause, then I think it incumbent on him as a scientist to make all of his medical records available to the public. His argument from credentials and authority won’t cut it.

While we are waiting for the full disclosure that would be required to evaluate Dr. Alexander’s extraordinary claims, I will say that his travel story triggered in me, for reasons unknown and perhaps inexplicable, some fond memories of “Fluffy Little Clouds” by The (Subcortical?) Orb. This is best in hi-fidelity:

In addition, I couldn’t help but think that Dr. Alexander’s trip resembles the one that Jody Foster took in “Contact,” with the role of Dr. Alexander’s peasant girl being played by the more masculine David Morse:

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3 thoughts on “Heaven Maybe Real: Cortical Clouds

  1. Mike S.

    I agree with what you have posted but would like to add another thought that came to my mind about this.

    He said he was scanned, he said that his cortex was stunned into complete inactivity. Maybe he was being scanned/monitored the entire time he was “out”, maybe not. But how does our understanding and perception of time (while unconscious-or not) fit into this?

    As a reference, I can say that I have had dreams that seemed to last for hours that only occurred in the time between when I woke up and hit snooze and when I woke up at the second time the alarm went off.

    My question is, if I (and others I have spoken with who have had similar experiences) can dream hours in only minutes time, who is to say that all that he experienced happened in the microseconds right before or right after his brain was registered as inactive?

  2. Cris Post author

    In his post, Sam Harris suggests that the doctor’s experience might in fact have happened relatively quickly, perhaps as he was regaining consciousness. Our time judgments about these kinds of experiences are often wildly inaccurate, as you note.

    The scan that he mentioned, a CT scan, isn’t very good at measuring activity. PET or fMRI would be much better. Let’s hope he releases his medical records so we can assess the “scientific” portion of his testimony.

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