There has been a constant procession of people who state that they have had personal experience of really – yes, actually – visiting heaven, and coming back to earth to tell us what a grand place it is.
The latest heaven-hopper to hit the media is Dr Eben Alexandra – whose tale is so profound, that one of my fellow contributors to examiner, Pat Patrick is totally enthralled by the account. What adds grist to the mill is that the good doctor is a neuroscientist, and he off all people should not be taken in by the odd mechanisms found inside our brains. He is on par with an atheist converting to Christianity because of a similar trip to heaven.
We know that RE (Religious Experience) is triggered by temporal lobe stimulation, and that the stimulation can come from many sources. Sufferers from temporal epilepsy have so many RE’s that in some cultures they are treated as being blessed. Just because there are so many sources does not mean that one of them is not supernatural stimulation – but it is a bit bizarre to the skeptic to be asked to believe that God communicates with us by tickling our temporal lobes rather than by more direct means.
And we know that limbic shock can be caused by many sources: but unlike RE, limbic shock has a menu-full of possible outcomes, a variety of which occur in each episode. Among the list are flashes of light, out of body experience, meeting dead relatives, hearing a disembodied voice, being in the presence of God, a feeling of great love, the certainty of life after death. F-84 pilots flying their single engined jets at night in “the cone of silence” sometimes reported the sensation of being sat on the wing, watching themselves fly the airplane. At the time written off as spatial disorientation, for in those days, we had not learned fully about limbic shock.
Unlike RE, limbic shock is extremely rare. The stress needed to trigger it has to be extreme, and survivable. One such source is being very close to death, and escaping with one’s life, which is why limbic shock has the popular, if misleading, name of Near Death Experience (NDE).
Our good doctor had been virtually brain dead for seven days, awoke from his coma and reported all the classic symptoms of NDE. Even unto being in the presence of his dead sister.
And that dead sister is being offered as evidence that the episode was real, not just a limbic shock inspired dream. He did not know who she was, until after the event he saw a photo of her and then realized it was the same person
Pretty conclusive – eh?
Not really. The limbic system, among a host of things, deals with long term memory storage and retrieval. New input from the five senses is matched with existing memory to retrieve associated stored memories. Sometimes the new input is misfiled and a false memory is created. When witnesses on a witness stand give evidence that was incapable of being true, they are not necessarily lying, they may be victims of false memory – memories so real that the person remembering them can pass lie detector tests.
When the good doctor saw the picture of his dead sister and it fitted the remembered features of the “ghost” he had seen in heaven, it behooves the cautious to consider that the false memory circuitry had come into play. Which would account for the doctor’s total trust in a sequence of events that occurred in the reverse order.
Does this mean that Dr Alexandra did not go to heaven and meet God. Not necessarily – it is just that his conviction belongs to his personal religion, and does not necessarily have to make us change ours.
What we do know is that NDE is so powerful that those who go through it are truly convinced that it actually happened. Even if they are atheists or doctors of neuroscience: it is that powerful. The fact that the same symptoms occur across different experiences tends to support why many religions have similar roots in NDE, and not that NDE proves that all those religions are accurate/
The good thing to come out of the Doctor Alexandra episode, is that if his vision turns out to be accurate, then he has discovered that the Deity has so much love for everyone, that we are all going to heaven, every single one of us, regardless of our life history as mortal beings. Every single one of us.
That is a truly wonderful philosophy, but I expect that the hell-fire eternal-damnation sort of firebrand will find no comfort in it.