Academic studies of the afterlife

This afternoon Ontario Today (CBC Radio) aired a call-in segment featuring Dr. Eben Alexander. He is a neruosurgeon who suffered a near-death experience, after which he wrote a book called “Proof of Heaven”

The show greatly disappointed me with its lack of objectivity, featuring little more than lip service to skeptically considering the good doctor’s claims. I am writing a letter to express this disappointment.

It occurs to me (and this is hardly a profound revelation) studying claims of communication with the afterlife would be relatively simple. I am including in my letter a suggestion of an experiment: Give 1000 near terminal people a combination lock, allow them to set the combination in secret. Heck, make it 10,000. The number of locks we are able to open after their deaths increases the likelihood the “consciousness lives on” hypothesis is worth futher study.

My fact-only question here (not interested in a debate about NDEs): Have there been academically rigourous studies/experiements performed along these lines? I would like to include cites in the letter.

(I also invite fellow dopers and skeptics who may have heard the segment to write in too.)

I don’t understand your experiment. The existence of heaven (which I don’t believe in, by the way) does not imply an ability to communicate explicit detailed information (like a combination) from there to here. NDE’s are usually claimed to be proof of heaven/hell because the subject themselves “comes back” and describes it, which wouldn’t help your experiment.

His book is provocatively titled “Proof of Heaven” but the thrust of the discussion is memory and consciousness are not centered in the brain and thus survive death. From this, it is possible to communicate with the deceased.

If consciousness “survives” death and is reachable, stuff that consciousness with a fact while alive, and verify the recollection of that fact persists after death - and can be communicated back.

The existence of an afterlife does not imply the ability to communicate with it.

How do either you, or Dr Alexander, expect the information to be communicated back? Would you hold a séance? That is the traditional way that people who believe that you can communicate with the spirits of the dead go about it, but even according to believers it is a very unreliable, hit-and-miss process.

I think this discussion is better suited to a forum other than General Questions. Moving it to IMHO, where you can still get factual answers and cites.

samclem, moderator

If I was unclear: I would expect the result of the experiment to produce results within the error bars of those expected by chance. In the case of combination locks of sufficient complexity, zero locks opened.

I do not know by what mechanism the Dr. Alexanders of the world claim communication with the dead occurs. He concurred with one of the callers who read a couple of paragraphs from a letter the caller claimed was dictated to his father from his recently deceased (I forget which relative). The upshot of what the caller read was “where I am there is no time, only love… blah blah blah” Whatever mechanism communicated that information could easily add “oh, and that combination you asked me to remember is 36-24-26”

It is not unreasonable to suspect if memory and consciousness survive death, other personality traits may too - scientific curiosity perhaps. I would willingly participate in such a study, and if my current personality finds itself on the “other side” and if afforded the opportunity to chat back at my surviving loved ones, I’m sure I would remember to shout back some information along with the “It’s so lovely here!”

I agree the existence of an afterlife does not mean we can communicate. Nor would I agree the existence of heaven means souls are immortal. Dr. Alexander claimed all this and more - all derived from his having spent a week in a coma.

What irked me more than the typical woo-wielders was his assertion he, as a neuroscientist and as a skeptic, considered 9 hypotheses to explain his experience and as a result of consulting with peers and careful skeptical analysis concluded the only explanation is Heaven, etc. The fact that his methodology (let alone his observations) went unchallenged moved me to write the letter (I’ve already sent it - my google-fu couldn’t quickly enough cut through the host of crystal sellers and psychic claptrap to find any peer reviewed studies).

I hoped to find something akin to studies I’ve heard about that gave no support to prayer being effective, or water dousing provides no information not available through other means.


And even if there is an afterlife of this kind…how can we know it is permanent? Maybe the soul has its own limited kind of energy reserves, and consciousness and memory survive the death of the body … by about five hours, and then they, too, die?

So far, no one has successfully passed the “Houdini” test – sending a message back from death to the world of the living. (It is, of course, claimed that Houdini did send such a message to his widow, but there is also a hearty odor of fish about the event.)

Like mothers in law.