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Sam Harris Won’t Debate Dr. Eben Alexander on Near-Death Experience Science

Industry: Science

Review of the recent controversy over the Newsweek magazine cover story, Heaven is Real, and Sam Harris’s response to an invitation to debate Dr. Eben Alexander regarding

United States (PRUnderground) October 18th, 2012

Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for discussion on the exchange between Dr. Sam Harris and Dr. Eben Alexander and the controversy surrounding Dr. Eben Alexander’s new book, Proof of Heaven:

Sam Harris: There’s nothing to debate either. He can’t reasonably claim that the relevant parts of his brain (not just the cortex) were “completely shut down.” It’s just not a factual statement.

Eben Alexander: Of course, it was premature for him to speak out based on the  Newsweek article — he needs to at least read the book if he wants to avoid making embarrassing statements that he later regrets. Regarding his calim, isolated preservation of cortical regions might have explained some elements of my experience, but certainly not the overall odyssey of rich experiential tapestry.

The severity of my meningitis and its refractoriness to therapy for a week should have eliminated all but the most rudimentary of conscious experiences: peripheral white blood cell [WBC] count over 27,000 per mm3, 31 percent bands with toxic granulations, CSF WBC count over 4,300 per mm3, CSF glucose down to 1.0 mg/dl (normally 60-80, may drop down to ~ 20 in severe meningitis), CSF protein 1,340 mg/dl, diffuse meningeal involvement and widespread blurring of the gray-white junction, diffuse edema, with associated brain abnormalities revealed on my enhanced CT scan, and neurological exams showing severe alterations in cortical function (from posturing to no response to noxious stimuli, florid papilledema, and dysfunction of extraocular motility [no doll’s eyes, pupils fixed], indicative of brainstem damage).

Going from symptom onset to coma within 3 hours is a very dire prognostic sign, conferring 90% mortality at the very beginning, which only worsened over the week. No physician who knows anything about meningitis will just “blow off” the fact that I was deathly ill in every sense of the word, and that my neocortex was absolutely hammered. Anyone who simply concludes that “since I did so well I could not have been that sick” is begging the question, and knows nothing whatsoever about severe bacterial meningitis.

I invite the skeptical doctors to show me a case remotely similar to mine. My physicians, and their consultants at UVA, Bowman Gray-Wake Forest, Duke, Harvard, Stanford and beyond were astonished that I recovered.

In an effort to explain the “ultra-reality” of the experience, I examined this hypothesis: Was it possible that networks of inhibitory neurons might have been predominantly affected, allowing for unusually high levels of activity among the excitatory neuronal networks to generate the apparent “ultra-reality” of my experience? One would expect meningitis to preferentially disturb the superficial cortex, possibly leaving deeper layers partially functional.

The computing unit of the neocortex is the six-layered “functional column,” each with a lateral diameter of 0.2–0.3 mm. There is significant interwiring laterally to immediately adjacent columns in response to modulatory control signals that originate largely from subcortical regions (the thalamus, basal ganglia, and brainstem). Each functional column has a component at the surface (layers 1–3), so that meningitis effectively disrupts the function of each column just by damaging the surface layers of the cortex.

The anatomical distribution of inhibitory and excitatory cells, which have a fairly balanced distribution within the six layers, does not support this hypothesis. Diffuse meningitis over the brain’s surface effectively disables the entire neocortex due to this columnar architecture. Full-thickness destruction is unnecessary for total functional disruption. Given the prolonged course of my poor neurological function (seven days) and the severity of my infection, it is unlikely that even deeper layers of the cortex were still functioning in more than isolated pockets  of small networks.

The thalamus, basal ganglia, and brainstem are deeper brain structures (“subcortical regions”) that some colleagues postulated might have contributed to the processing of such hyperreal experiences. In fact, all agreed that none of those structures could play any such role without having at least some regions of the neocortex still functional. All agreed in the end that such subcortical structures alone could not have handled the intense neural calculations required for such a richly interactive experiential tapestry.

There are 9 hypotheses discussed in an appendix of my book that I derived based on conversations with colleagues. None of them explained the hyper-reality in any brain-based fashion.

Sam Harris: there is absolutely no way for him to establish that he didn’t have his experience as his brain was coming back online.

Eben Alexander: Again, he needs to read the book. In fact, I know that my experience happened within coma because of certain anchors to earth time in memory.  Of course the whole issue of how I remembered so much haunted me from the beginning — before my coma, I would have stated flatly that someone that sick would remember absolutely nothing. And I would have been totally wrong. Memory extends beyond physical brain and physical universe (again, clues from transpersonal psychology, which I knew nothing of before). And time flow in that realm is very different. I would advise the skeptics to contribute to a much broader understanding, instead of just trying to deny, if they’re up to the challenge.

To any skeptic who thinks he has explained my experience as brain-based, he then needs to address the non-local nature of consciousness ~  the broad clinical experience in transpersonal psychology (notably all of the past life clinical work, the reincarnation work from Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker at UVA; also very relevant in terms of how I remembered so much) and address the overwhelming tsunami of evidence of the phenomena of non-local consciousness in Irreducible Mind  (edited by Ed Kelly et alia, 2007) and Consciousness Beyond Life (Pim van Lommel, 2009).

The Skeptiko interview is available at:

About is the first scientifically oriented Podcast exploring new research in controversial areas of science such as telepathy, psi, parapsychology, near-death-experience, psychic detectives, medium communication, reincarnation, and after-life encounters. Each episode features open, honest debate on new scientific discoveries. The show includes interviews with top research scientists and their critics.

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