Saturday, January 3, 2015

Realer Than Real

A second post on the topic of near death experiences, reviewing "Proof of Heaven" by Eben Alexander.

Santa Claus climbed down my chimney with a copy of "Proof of Heaven", another in a long line of books about the intense spiritual experiences that people have in many situations, but most frequently when close to death. The case is especially extraordinary in that the author is a practicing and scholarly neurosurgeon, and also in that his experience (NDE for short) was remarkably intense, lengthy, well-recalled, and unimpeded by inputs from the surroundings. There were no episodes of hearing what was actually going on in his room, rather just pure experiences of high and low spiritual engagement, interacting with god, angels, swamps, dark regions, etc.

There is no question that Alexander experienced all this, as he has recorded. The problem is with interpretation. His interpretation is absolute- that he was in contact with another reality, which he frequently describes as "realer than real", and "ultra-real", and that this reality was divine, culminating in god, and that he has an important message to bring back that we are loved, and that every one is important. This reality was outside his brain, and his good news is in part that "we are more than our physical body".
"Each and every one of us is deeply known and cared for by a Creator who cherishes us beyond any ability we have to comprehend. That knowledge must no longer remain a secret."

Alexander had long been an Episcopalian, and evidently an irregular church-goer while at the same time a somewhat religiously skeptical scientist. He is a bit unclear about his allegiences, really, but seems to have been a believer at some level (principally for family purposes, but not for scientific ones), and has spent his life in a church culture as well as in a scientific culture. The NDE dramatically confirmed him in his faith, but one has also to ask whether that long life of faith contributed to the content of, and especially to his interpretation of, the experience.

A good deal of interpretation turns on what various areas of the brain are responsible for, and when they were "off" or "on" during his (outer) coma and (inner) NDE. Alexander was in a coma for a week, and portrays his travels in NDE-land as taking place throughout this time, when his brain (the cortex, as measured by EEG and external responsiveness) was largely not active, by conventional metrics. Yet it is possible that it actually took place in a small portion of this time, say the last half hour before he woke up consciously. I certainly have had the experience of an intense, extensive dream taking place in a very brief time, clock-wise. Similarly, having one's life flash before ones eyes, as the expression has it, typically happens in a very brief clock time, but in a much longer subjective time. In short, our sense of time is another construction of the mind, and thus can not be taken at face value under these conditions.

He had a severe case of bacterial meningitis, from which he concludes that it was almost a perfect trauma for an NDE, debilitating the surface all over his brain, i.e. the cortex or higher functions, and possibly only in a layer-specific way. From this he concludes that none of his NDE experiences are possible by typically understood means, since all consciousness requires cortical functions, for instance for sensations of flying and seeing, hearing, etc. Even imagined and hallucinated experiences require their respective areas of the brain, as far as we know.
"The more I learned of my condition, and the more I sought, using the current scientific literature, to explain what had happened, the more I came up spectacularly short. Everything- the uncanny clarity of my vision, the clearness of my thoughts as pure conceptual flow- suggested higher, not lower, brain functioning. But my higher brain had not been around to do that work. 
The more I read of the 'scientific' explanations of what NDEs are, themore I was shocked by their flimsiness. And yet I also knew with chagrin that they were exactly the ones that the old 'me' would have pointed to vaguely if someone had asked me to 'expalin' what an NDE is. 
But people who weren't doctors couldn't be expected to know this.
Many others have seen that astonishing clarity of mind that often comes to demented elderly people just before they pass on, just as John had seen in his father (A phenomenon known as 'terminal lucidity'). There was no neuroscientific explanation for that."

That is all understandable, but I don't think we can be quite as categorical as he is. For the main issue is that we do not know quite how conciousness, let alone this kind of realer-than-real, trippy consciousness, works, even when clearly due to more mundane causes like LSD. It might well be an interplay between higher and lower brain functions, and it might additionally be that in consciousness, as in so many other aspects of cognitive science, cortical functions generally modulate and especially inhibit more central and primitive areas of the brain. The amygdala is a classic case, where its learning of fearful stimuli is permanent and gives rise to involuntary reactions, yet these can be damped by cognitive learning in higher levels of the brain, thereby keeping the subject on an even keel.

Similarly, one might imagine that some core of conscious awareness happens in the thalamic and lower regions of the brain, and that when the cortical brakes are off, that person might experience something precisely along the lines of the NDE- realer than real, incredibly moving, and patterned by very deep emotional archetypes and images, such as the flying through the air with angelic beings that Alexander experienced, among much else. It might be so moving that the person feels compelled to change his life or write books about it, and speaks of it as a scientific voyage, with great understanding and knowledge gained. But this knowledge boils down to very little in the end: that we are all loved by something. And that love seems, to put it mildly, inert, since people are still living and dying every day in misery, on our surface world. The only love in evidence out here is that which we give to each other.

Alexander is keen to recapture some of this experience, and does so in two ways. First is through greater church attendance. He movingly writes about realizing belatedly that he had not really appreciated the whole church experience, but that he now understands it as trying, in our mundane world, to recapture a glimmer of this spiritual experience, (whatever its interpretation), which some are fortunate enough to have intensely, but that all of us have some degree of appreciation for, accounting for the general celebrity of spiritual adepts, prophets, saints, etc. Second is an adventure into meditation, especially methods that claim to provide much faster achievement of out-of-body experiences than normal techniques provide. One has to ask, however, why repeating the experience is important if the knowledge he had gained was so certain, scientific, explicit, and useful. We don't repeat our greatest experiments in the lab just for the fun of it, typically.

Don't get me wrong, I would love to have eternal life and the ability to think outside the brain. Being eternally loved by some tremendous "Om" sounds a little less attractive, but OK. Alexander is understandably convinced by his overwhelming experience and his theological interpretation, but putting tradition & training aside, there is no theoretical reason from biology, computation, or physics, to take all this seriously as evidence of heaven or souls, etc. These are huge hypotheses (given the scientific corpus as it stands) that require different forms of evidence to address, particularly something less obviously subjective and archetypally templated. The weight of tradition may have arisen from a countless number of such mental / spiritual experiences, and if they are misinterpreted as I think they are, the tradition is not pointing us in the right direction, at least in scientific terms. That said, any encouragement we can have to not fear death is a good thing, since this is an important source of our worst characteristics- lack of courage, sentimentality about every reverse and misfortune, etc.

The heaven hypothesis, far from being proven, remains much more a matter of inner, archetypal reality than of any outer "real" reality, even on its own evidence. While it is true that much about the mind remains unexplained by science in its current state, that doesn't demand that vast hypotheses about alternate realities, and the invocation of quantum mechanics in consciousness (yes, Alexander even dabbles in this area) are reasonable, let alone proven. But it is such deep matter, and our consciousness remains such a mystery, both technically and theoretically, that it is understandable that those who go through the gauntlet of this ultimate, compellingly subjective experience would declare it not only real, but realer than real.

  • Capitalism is not the only way.
  • Stiglitz on credit, rent, and wealth. "It’s also true that people who make the most productive contributions, the ones who make lasers or transistors, or the inventor of the computer, DNA researchers — none of these are the top wealthiest people in the country. So if you look at the people who contributed the most, and the people who are there at the top, they’re not the same."
  • Taxes have no effect on work effort.
  • Demand-deficient recessions & stagnation are a scandal.
  • Is god a proper name, or a form of capitalized cultural oppression?
  • Good teachers are critically important.
  • Millions of prime age workers are still on the sidelines.
  • "We have managed to throw away between 5%-10% of the potential wealth of the North Atlantic, and we appear to have thrown it away permanently."
  • "And that is tragic because if Alvin Hansen is right, and I think he is, the gap between these two lines represents an annual loss of output of approximately one trillion dollars."

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