Questions raised over neurosurgeon's book on proof of heaven, near-death experiences

A famed neurosurgeon is facing accusations that he lied in a best-selling book that details his near-death experience and a supposed journey to heaven and back that he contended could be backed up by medical data.

Eben Alexander III has been touring the country since publishing "Proof of Heaven" in 2012. He has appeared on "Oprah," "Fox & Friends," and on the cover of Newsweek, and his book has sold almost 2 million copies.

But his story recently came under fire in an in-depth investigative profile by Luke Dittrich in Esquire magazine. Dittrich says he found incorrect details in the book and uncovered malpractice lawsuits against Alexander where Alexander admitted lying to cover his mistakes. Dittrich says this pattern of deception led him to conclude that Alexander was essentially down on his luck when he became sick and used the near-death experience to reinvent himself.

Alexander, who now lives in Lynchburg, Va., was born in Charlotte, N.C., and went to University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and later Duke University's medical school. He also has taught at Harvard Medical School.

He became ill with a virus in 2008 that placed him in a weeklong coma and almost killed him. During that time, Alexander said, he visited heaven and saw fantastical sights and met a being who told him he was loved.

"Proof of Heaven" is just one of many books about people who have had near-death experiences and say they saw heaven. The authors often tell of beautiful light, meeting dead loved ones and of the overwhelming and all-encompassing presence of God. Other well-known books include "90 Minutes in Heaven" and "Heaven Is for Real," which details the experience of a 4-year-old child.

What makes Alexander's account stand out is his medical background. Alexander has said that when he first woke up he thought his memories of heaven weren't real. But as he applied his knowledge of the brain as a neurosurgeon, he said he finally had to accept that his experience actually happened.

Alexander said his medical records, which have not been released, show that he had no activity in his brain's cortex at the time, making him unable to hallucinate or dream the experience -- therefore it must have happened to his soul, outside of the physical realm.

But according to Esquire, a doctor who treated Alexander said that he was put in a medically-induced coma which he came out of multiple times, "conscious but delirious," meaning Alexander had the brain activity needed to have hallucinated the trip to heaven. Writer Dittrich also shows other events in the book to be false. For example: National Weather Service data show that the rainbow Alexander claimed appeared when he woke up could not have happened.

Alexander's publisher, Simon & Schuster, said the neurosurgeon is traveling and won't be available for interviews until the fall. But Alexander did release a statement.

"I stand by every word in this book and have made its message the purpose of my life," he wrote. "Esquire's cynical article distorts the facts of my 25-year career as a neurosurgeon and is a textbook example of how unsupported assertions and cherry-picked information can be assembled at the expense of the truth."

It is Alexander's claim of proof, rather than the telling of a subjective experience, that has frustrated critics.

Robert Mays, a near-death experience researcher and treasurer of the International Association for Near Death Studies based in Durham, said the Esquire article presents a distorted and unfair picture of Alexander's experience. But as a researcher, Mays also acknowledged that the book doesn't offer undisputed proof of heaven.

For instance, even though there are many accounts of near-death experiences that include unexplainable circumstances, Mays said a skeptical scientist would not be convinced something involving a soul occurred. That scientist would require the phenomenon to be repeated in a controlled experiment to believe the experience was anything more than a hallucination.

(Paula Seligson is a writer for the Raleigh News & Observer. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

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