I haven’t read a near death book in a while and when Eben Alexander’s book came out in 2012 and he was making the talk show circuit, I decided to give it a pass. Having read and heard many NDEs over the years, I knew all about the white lights, tunnels, and ability to see your body from above. Long ago I gave up the idea that the brain is the chemical factory of our consciousness and adopted the more cutting edge perspective that our bodies act more like a radio receiving signals. But recently, Proof of Heaven was mentioned in something else I was researching and decided to have a peek at why Alexander’s book had become so popular.
I’m glad I did. Eben Alexander III, MD got sick at home and ended up in the hospital in a coma. From the perspective of a hard- core materialist neurosurgeon, he describes what happened to him when the parts of his brain that would have been required for him to have these experiences was not functioning. The book is written like a thriller cutting back and forth from the medical mystery which had disabled him to the otherworldly journey he undertook. I’d bet he had a great editor too. Honestly, I enjoyed the way this book was written more than what his story adds to the evidence of life after death. Does his book prove life after death? Probably not, but I didn’t need it to.
A reader alerted me to this Esquire article that sheds a different light on the book:
I used to think hallucinations were associated with a particular kind of person- someone who would stand out in a crowd- someone who would need … medication. But that’s not wholly true. I suffer with migraines and, on occasion, I have aura in the classical fortification pattern (those zigzag lines). These are visual hallucinations. So on another level, I know hallucinations can affect many who wouldn’t stand out in a room or need medication.
Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks is a fascinating book because it reveals the diversity found in the human experience. Forget what you thought “normal” meant. It won’t be useful anymore. Turns out, there are many perfectly happy, functional people who have hallucinations.
Photo: Erik Charlton
So what do we mean by a hallucination? Different definitions have been used throughout history. Even today there is confusion over exactly what a hallucination is, because the boundary between hallucinations, misperception, and illusion aren’t always clear. Sacks begins with the idea that a hallucination lacks external reality. (Keep in mind that for a Buddhist, we slipped into nebulous territory by assuming an external reality independent, discrete, and concrete.) Anyway, seeing or hearing (also tasting, feeling, or smelling) things that are not there will qualify as a hallucination for the book’s purposes. Hallucinations appear real to the one experiencing it because the perceptions are fully working to create that reality and project it into the world. This is different from a memory or the use of the imagination where, in the mind’s eye, both are experienced. Hallucinations are further characterized by being involuntary, uncontrollable, and often possessing color or detail beyond everyday average experience. Brain imaging now allows scientists the ability to monitor electrical and metabolic activity while someone is hallucinating.
Photo: Jens Maus
Sacks chose to avoid any analysis of dreams (although he does cover those hallucinations experienced upon falling asleep or waking up ) and the subject of schizophrenia. He does hint at the level of stigma associated with seeing (or hearing) things and how patients will not disclose this is occurring. Oftentimes, people will avoid using the term hallucinating and call it other things. Modern society equates hallucinations with insanity. Sacks cites a 1974 case published in Science where eight healthy pseudo-patients presented themselves at various hospitals complaining about hearing voices. Seven were immediately diagnosed as schizophrenic without any other symptoms. The other one was diagnosed with manic depressive psychosis.
The book takes up the breadth of human experience in which people have hallucinations due to medical conditions and drug use (both prescribed and recreational). There are many first person accounts given in the book. They are all candid and insightful, and open the opportunity to grow our compassion. Some of the medical conditions discussed are Charles Bonnet Syndrome (blindness), deafness, Parkinson’s, migraine, epilepsy, PTSD, and delirium. Various injuries, sensory deprivation, sleep disorders, and grief may also bring on hallucinations. Although the chapters on out-of-body, near-death-experience, and ghosts are interesting, I disagree that science has a full explanation to offer us. From Sacks’ point of view, all mystical experience probably would also count as a hallucination. Again, a limited view.
This is a very informative and enlightening book, sharing what in many cases individuals are afraid to share with the general public and their doctors (for good reason, apparently). It does much to decrease the stigma associated with hallucinations and enlarges our understanding of the range of what it means to have a human body with human perception.
We all have habits. Some are good and some are not so good, but it’s amazing to consider how much of our lives are given over to them. We get up in the morning and activate those circuits and we’re off. If you doubt how much habits rule you, just try to change something. Do your morning routine or just a couple of things out-of-order and see how discombobulated you become. What’s that saying? We are creatures of habit.
In The Power of Habit, New York Times reporter, Charles Duhigg, discusses why habits exist and how they can be changed. The power to transform habits allows individuals, organizations, and societies to implement changes.
In part one of the book, we learn about the habits of the individual. The author delves into the neuroscience of the habit loop and how cravings are created. The real insight here is that habits are not broken, rather they are transformed. The stimulus (or cue) for a habit, along with some kind of payoff will always remain. The individual however can modify the response to the cue and substitute a new behavior. This creates the “new” habit. Be warned, this is not a magic bullet. Changing habits still remains hard work.
The habits of successful organizations are covered in part two. Here we learn how keystone habits are fundamental to the organization and how changing these can have powerful ripple effects. Alcoa, Starbucks, and Target are examined in detail but take care. Not everything about habit change is positive. While Alcoa’s focus on employee safety is to be applauded, Target’s computer marketing data collection may set your teeth on edge. Don’t worry about Big Brother, worry about how you and your purchase information is being exploited.
Part three concerns itself with the habits of societies. The success of Saddleback Church and the Montgomery bus boycott are used as examples of how societal rules and pressures can be brought to bear to affect change. The author concludes with a section called the neurology of free will. This is a last foray into recent discoveries about neuroscience and asks the reader to consider the cases of a murderer and a gambler. Both have habitual behaviors but are treated very differently under the law. It’s a rather odd ending for the book and I wonder if the dichotomy the author was aiming for might better have been used as an introduction to the subject rather than a stomach punch at the end.
The book wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be. It is not a self-help book and no one will be really motivated to implement change by it. It does make you feel change is possible. There are some good discussions about brain science and recent discoveries. However, much of the book is episodic and anecdotal. I wouldn’t use it in a business management setting, so I guess it’s sort of a general interest introduction.