First the breaking news, then the idiotic article.
We’ll go to Salon for the news part:
But … But … What incendiary printed matter are we going to flip through at the dentist’s office now? On Thursday, editor Tina Brown and CEO Baba Shetty announced on the Daily Beast that Newsweek is going all digital. The Dec. 31 issue will be the final issue to roll off the presses.
It is, as most things Tina Brown–related are, a breathless, truly fabulous statement of intent. “Newsweek Global, as the all-digital publication will be named,” the announcement reads, “will be a single, worldwide edition targeted for a highly mobile, opinion-leading audience who want to learn about world events in a sophisticated context.” I feel like there might be a test to get a subscription. Godspeed, readers, who will now have to access your Muslim rage and your racist baby and your gay Obama who needs to hit the road in your highly mobile, sophisticated context way. Whatever that is. Not mentioned: declining ad pages and the fact that as recently as last March, Brown was admitting, “We aren’t making money yet and we won’t make money for another couple of years.”
And now, the idiotic article:
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.
Got that? No Scientific Explanation! What more do you need, silly heathen!
Well, my favorite neurologist Dr. Steven Novella has a different take on that: (Bolding mine as always)
While his experience is certainly interesting, his entire premise is flimsily based on a single word in the above paragraph – “while.” He assumes that the experiences he remembers after waking from the coma occurred while his cortex was completely inactive. He does not even seem aware of the fact that he is making that assumption or that it is the central premise of his claim, as he does not address it in his article.
Of course his brain did not go instantly from completely inactive to normal or near normal waking consciousness. That transition must have taken at least hours, if not a day or more. During that time his neurological exam would not have changed significantly, if at all. The coma exam looks mainly at basic brainstem function and reflexes, and can only dimly examine cortical function (through response to pain) and cannot examine higher cortical functions at all. His recovery would have become apparent, then, when his brain recovered sufficiently for him to show signs of consciousness.
Alexander claims there is no scientific explanation for his experiences, but I just gave one. They occurred while his brain function was either on the way down or on the way back up, or both, not while there was little to no brain activity. During this time he would have been in an altered state of consciousness, with different parts of his cortex functioning to different degrees. This state is analogous to certain drug-induced mental states, or those induced by hypoxia and well documented, and there is even some overlap with the normal dream state. All of these are states in which the brain’s construction of reality is significantly different from the normal waking state.
Documented features of these altered states (and features commonly experienced by everyone during dreams) include a sense of oneness with the universe, a sense of the profound, of being in the presence of a godlike figure, and of automatic knowledge with absolute certainty. The latter is not uncommon during dreams – you just know things in your dreams that were not communicated or directly observed, and you have no doubt about that knowledge.
Dr. Novella isn’t the only one calling attention to this. Sam Harris does so as well in his usual eloquent style.
But Alexander’s account is so bad—his reasoning so lazy and tendentious—that it would be beneath notice if not for the fact that it currently disgraces the cover of a major newsmagazine. Alexander is also releasing a book at the end of the month, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, which seems destined to become an instant bestseller. As much as I would like to simply ignore the unfolding travesty, it would be derelict of me to do so.
Everything—absolutely everything—in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was “shut down,” “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” “totally offline,” and “stunned to complete inactivity.” The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate—it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science. Perhaps he has saved a more persuasive account for his book—though now that I’ve listened to an hour-long interview with him online, I very much doubt it. In his Newsweek article, Alexander asserts that the cessation of cortical activity was “clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations.” To his editors, this presumably sounded like neuroscience.
Again, there is nothing to be said against Alexander’s experience. It sounds perfectly sublime. And such ecstasies do tell us something about how good a human mind can feel. The problem is that the conclusions Alexander has drawn from his experience—he continually reminds us, as a scientist—are based on some very obvious errors in reasoning and gaps in his understanding.
Let me suggest that, whether or not heaven exists, Alexander sounds precisely how a scientist should not sound when he doesn’t know what he is talking about. And his article is not the sort of thing that the editors of a once-important magazine should publish if they hope to reclaim some measure of respect for their battered brand.
Goodbye print Newsweek. And good riddance.
If you have any interest in either the Newsweek article or the criticisms of it, I urge you to read the whole Sam Harris piece. It is a very entertaining and effective destruction of a shoddy piece of pseudoscience trash. As for the Novella piece, I always recommend that you read every thing he writes, either at NeuroLogica or at Science Based Medicine.