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The Exorcisms of Latoya Ammons: Demonic Possession or Mass Hysteria?

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Imagine a force so potent that it could convince you to put your life in danger, a force so malevolent that it could convince you to kill. What if this force was so devilish that it could result in physical illness as extreme as seizures or even blindness? What could cause 6 highly trained medical staff to collapse in a busy emergency room in a Californian hospital, while routinely treating a patient for cervical cancer, who later died that same day? What if this force was so malignant and lethal that it could drive people to jump to their death off a high rise building in a frenzied panic?  Imagine a force so terrifying that it could affect anyone, anywhere at any time and no country or people were immune to its rage. I believe such a terrifying phenomenon does in fact exist.

Last week the world’s media woke up to the story of Latoya Ammons. This mother of three from Gary, a suburb of Indianapolis, claimed she and her three children became possessed by multiple demons in March 2012. This was to be the start of a long string of sensational claims. The Indianapolis Star newspaper first reported that her physician Dr. Geoffrey Onyeukwu became convinced of the possibility that her story might be true when medical staff at his clinic claimed to witness one of her children being lifted and thrown against a wall by an invisible force. This incident had been documented in an almost 800 page report by the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS). One DCS employee Valerie Washington and registered general nurse Willie Lee Walker claimed to have seen the child become violent, his eyes roll back in his head and place his hands around his older brothers neck threatening to kill him while speaking in a strange demonic like voice. They then claimed to witness the most bizarre incident of the boy walking up a wall backwards and onto the ceiling before then flipping back to land on his feet. They go on to state that the experience caused them to flee the building in a state of terror. Latoya Ammons and her mother Rosa Campbell claimed to have witnessed her 12 year old daughter levitate above her bed unconscious, only to suddenly drop back down without having any memory of the event. DCS eventually took temporary custody of all the children on grounds of neglect due to poor school attendance.

With her children in custody, DCS and the Gary police division conducted an investigation into the property. Even DCS chief Samantha Ilic claimed to be struck by panic while conducting an investigation at the property. She also attested to having a string of bad luck including the breaking of ribs in the following weeks. Gary Police officer Charles Austin claimed that the new batteries in his radio drained out while in the property and that one of the pictures taken on his iphone showed a silhouette figure in the window of the property. He claimed that although he always believed in ghosts, he now very much believed in demons. Local Catholic priest Father Michael Maginot claimed to perform three exorcisms on the premises, the last one said in Latin. This was the last disturbance that was recorded in the property. After a period of six months Latoya Ammons was reunited with her children under the strict condition she was not to discuss demons or use religion as a punishment for her children and they were to receive therapy to deal with past issues. She has since moved house and has had no more untoward experiences. It is also worth noting that no one else reported unusual phenomena at the property either before or after this incident.

The original article in the Indianapolis Star

http://www.indystar.com/story/news/2014/01/25/the-disposession-of-latoya-ammons/4892553/

Ammons was sent for psychiatric evaluation and no obvious signs of psychotic illness were reported but the team noted that she appeared guarded. The clinical team wondered whether her intense religiosity could mask “delusional ideation”. Her youngest son was examined by clinical psychologist Stacy Wright and the two other children were assessed by Joel Schwartz.  They both came to the conclusion that the children appeared to be mimicking the delusional behaviour of their mother. They found no evidence of supernatural ability and Stacy Wright noticed that the youngest boy only reverted into the role of being possessed when the conversation became confrontational or when asked questions that he did not wish to answer. Her notes state that the boy was rational until such questions were asked, then his account became bizarre and illogical and that his answers were inconsistent every time he was questioned. In the days following the original publication of this story in the Indianapolis Star, media from Australia to Ireland also published the story.  Reporters from the Daily Mail wrote that the Chief of Police in Gary believes her house was a portal to hell. They sensationally reference the statements of DCS agents Valerie Washington and her boss Samantha Ilic. If high ranking police officers and a chief from child services can be convinced of the claims of Latoya Ammons then could they be true? Is it possible that malevolent forces were at work at the house on Carolina Street in Gary Indianapolis?

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” Carl Sagan

While the assertions made by high ranking officials are indeed stunning and genuinely disturbing, skeptics will be immediately concerned at the lack of credible evidence for any of the claims made. The story boasts claims of witnessing levitation and a child walking up a wall backwards. Samantha Ilic, chief of DCS testifies to having witnessed the presence of an inexplicable oil like substance on the window of Ammons’ house. Police claimed that after removing it and locking up the house, it returned again. Ammons’ mother, Rosa Campbell, claimed that while an exorcism was being performed, the blinds in the living room started to shake as if being lifted by a storm but the room was not windy. Given the series of bizarre events documented by all concerned, I am extremely questioning as to why no one decided to place a video recording device in all rooms. Both the police and child service authorities are presumably trained in how to gather evidence. Why did Samantha Ilic not take a sample of the strange liquid that was believed to be appearing on the window to have it tested?

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Outside of the house depicting human like shadow in the right window

The only evidence that is offered is a photo of the outside of the house with a shadowy image that appears to be human like and an electronic voice phenomenon recording (junk science). While I am not accusing any police officer of creating a hoax picture, this image or others like it can easily be created using photograph software. There is even an android app for creating ghost photographs. An alternative explanation (and possibly more credible) would be the phenomenon of pareidolia. This refers to our bias for facial detection. Evolution has conferred us with a bias towards facial recognition which is why we automatically identify a face when we see two horizontal dots with a vertical line in the middle. We see faces in clouds and images of Jesus in slices of toast. This is not nature playing a practical joke on us. It may have been a useful trait in our early history to enable babies to identify human help, thus giving them a better chance of survival. The Daily Mail UK received an EVP recording that was taken by the police in the property that supposedly had a segment where a demonic voice utters the word “hey”. EVP has been thoroughly discredited as a science. It is just our mind creating patterns out of background noise. If you look to the tree on the right of the picture, it looks as if its branches and leaves could generate the shadow that we see in the window. Apart from this photo and the less than impressive recording of demons supposedly saying the word hey to a Gary Police officer, there is absolutely no other evidence of anything going bump in the night at this Carolina Street family home.

The interview of Father Michael Maginot by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News depicted a man that is quite possibly very prone to suggestive baloney. He was quizzed by O’Reilly as to why he performed an exorcism on the house without actually seeing any of the children who were in DCS care at this stage? His belief was based on Ammons becoming uncomfortable when he placed religious objects on her face. Given the extreme lack of substantial evidence in this case, what could drive people of high authority to lay their weight behind the extraordinary claims of the family at 3800 Carolina Street?  Here is Father Maginot being interviewed by Bill O’Reilly on the O’ Reilly Factor.

Could the whole story be an elaborate hoax involving many individuals wishing to cash in on fame and fortune? It is a possibility. However I believe there may be an element of human nature at play that is almost as sinister and terrifying as the concept of the devil himself and that is mass hysteria and mass delusion. In the next part I will document just how terrifying mass hysteria can be and how it can have disastrous consequences for society. It can bring about temporary symptoms that mimic psychosis in people who are otherwise mentally sound. It can even result in physical illnesses such as temporary blindness and epileptic like seizures (psychogenic seizures) in what is known as conversion disorder and even lead people to do the unthinkable. Just as fire needs the essential ingredients of heat, a fuel source and oxygen so too does mass hysteria. For its fires to ignite, we need the three elements of credulity, fear or other overwhelming emotions and people sharing a common belief system. Just like a raging inferno that has gone out of control, it can continue unabated before finally dying out when eventually reason prevails.

What is mass hysteria?

 

The term is used to define the escalation of irrational anxiety and fear affecting more than one individual who share a common belief and is usually the result of exposure to what is perceived to be a strange, threatening, alarming or overwhelming situation. The term relates to a phenomenon whereby this irrational fear spreads like an epidemic through the population. Both mass hysteria and conversion disorder have also been used as terms to identify the development of physical symptoms that occur as a result of irrational fear among a group, that lack an organic component. This is also referred to as mass psychogenic illness. Collective delusions are most common during times of societal stress or economic recession. They are most common in women under 35 but as these cases will illustrate, it can affect anyone anywhere at any time.  In the absence of physical illness, mass hysteria is sometimes referred to as mass delusion. One can leave it to the medical profession to debate the terminology of this bizarre and poorly understood condition, but it is important that the general population understand just how pernicious this condition can be and why it is almost always associated with cases of exorcism.

Documented cases

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Irish Moving Statues:  In 1985 Ireland became consumed in the belief that statues of the Virgin Mary, and occasionally other saints, were moving inexplicably.  The country was hit by a wave of reported cases, the first and most famous case being in the town of Ballinspittle in Cork in July 1985. The precipitating factor is believed to have been an optical illusion, but once the idea became established, a tsunami of mass hysteria engulfed the country.  Similar sightings were quickly reported at up to 30 locations around Ireland before finally dying out later that year.  A tiny minority of believers remained with one such group even going to Russia to attempt converting the people there. The statue at Ballinspittle was later vandalised by a Pentecostal group who believed it was a form of idolatry. Anthropologists attribute social and religious repression, alongside economic hardship, and a deeply engrained religious culture for these occurrences.

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Delhi Monkey man: The biting of individuals in East Delhi in May 2001 sparked an outbreak of so called “Monkey man” mass hysteria across the Indian capital city. Several claims of biting and clawing by a mysterious monkey like entity raged across the city for about two weeks. The city zoo confirmed that no animals had escaped. The monkey is believed to be sacred in Hindu culture and believers attributed supernatural causes to the phenomena. Some believed it to be an avatar of the Hindu god Hanuman. The descriptions given were so radically different that police quickly came to realise that the simian entity was nothing more than the product of overstressed and credulous minds.

The Indian Express reported that one person declared “It was as small as a cat” It bit her fingers, and two of her husband’s teeth were knocked out by a “metallic hand.”

Another person on the same street gave this description “It was a monkey alright, and about four foot tall, but as soon as I grabbed it, it turned itself into a cat with tawny, glowing eyes,”

A local newspaper reported that a 4ft Hindu mystic was beaten up by terrified locals who mistook him for the monkey demon.  A number of people were believed to have been killed from jumping off buildings and falling down stairwells trying to escape from their perceived attacker. The wave of panic resulted in the police being unable to call out to all the reported cases due to a lack of vehicles.  Psychologists attributed the outbreak to strong cultural superstition among a largely uneducated population. Electricity shortages and sweltering heat may have also contributed.

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Satanic ritual abuse in day care centres 1980s-1990s: An astonishing and extremely disturbing wave of moral panic swept the western world turning into mass hysteria that would have devastating consequences for many individuals. As more working mothers were leaving their children in day care, alarming theories without any foundation began to develop. These were fuelled by Christian fundamentalists and some law enforcement authorities and psychotherapists. The first such case happened in 1982. Debbie and Alvin McCuan were accused of ritually abusing their children and forcing them into prostitution and being used in the manufacture of child pornography. The charges were bought by the children’s step grandmother Mary Ann Barbour, a woman with a history of mental illness. Coercive interviewing strategies by the authorities extracted statements of abuse that would later prove to be false. As hysteria deepened, the defence witnesses of Alvin and Debbie, Scott Kniffin, and his wife Brenda were also charged with involvement in the abuse. In 1984 the McCuans and Kniffins were sentenced to 240 years in prison. After serving 12 years, all charges against the defendants were dropped.

Probably the most significant of the so called satanic ritual abuse trials was the McMartin Preschool trial in California. In 1983 a teacher at this preschool, Ray Buckley, was accused of sexually abusing a 2 year old boy in a series of bizarre satanic rituals. As the idea became established, the accusations increased, eventually implicating his sister and other teachers at the school. Children accused the Buckley family of torturing and mutilating animals in secret underground tunnels beneath the school.  In 1984 Ray Buckley was arrested along with his sister Peggy Ann, his mother, grandmother and three other teachers.  In 1986 charges against most of the accused were dropped however the trial of Ray Buckley and his mother Peggy would become the longest and most expensive criminal trial in US history. A retrial in 1989 resulted in an acquittal of all charges against Ray Buckley’s mother and several charges against Ray Buckley himself. The jury declared that although some believed abuse may have taken place, the videos of the children being interviewed were deemed to have shown that police employed highly suggestive interviewing tactics. A retrial in 1990 resulted in the jury being deadlocked. After spending 5 years in prison all charges against Ray Buckley were dropped.

The following Wikipedia article shows how this mania spread across America, Europe and Australia.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_satanic_ritual_abuse_allegations

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Mumbai Sweet Water:  In August 2006 the BBC reported that hundreds of people arrived at Mumbai beach to drink the sea water that they believed had miraculously turned sweet.  They attributed this perceived miracle to Makhdoom Ali Mahimi, a 13th Century Sufi saint. The crowds congregated to drink and collect this water even as plastic bottles and other obvious waste floated by. Officials attribute the sweetness to either the influx of fresh water or pollutants. Parents were seen bathing their children in an area that was highly contaminated with several tonnes of raw sewage.

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Gloria Ramirez – The Toxic Lady: Gloria Ramirez from Riverside California became known as the toxic lady when several workers at Riverside General Hospital, who were treating her for cervical cancer, became sick themselves after becoming exposed to her body and blood. They complained of symptoms such as nausea and dizziness which eventually resulted in many fainting. In all, 6 medical staff passed out before the ER was evacuated. Her body appeared to produce a garlic and fruity type odour and her blood contained trace amounts of a paper like substance. Gloria Ramirez died that same day and was buried in an unmarked grave. Hospital staff noticed that more women than men who were treating her succumbed to fainting. When blood tests on all affected staff returned normal, the incident was put down to mass hysteria. Despite the official hospital finding, the incident became a hotbed for conspiracy theorists and featured on an episode of the X files and Grey’s anatomy.

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Koro Syndrome: This is the belief in some Asian countries that the genitalia are shrinking into the body. Sufferers believe that the penis will shrink back into the body  (in women it is the nipples) and that when this happens it will result in death. The intriguing thing about this condition is it seems localised to Asian countries such as China, India, Japan and Singapore. Many sufferers have gone to extreme lengths to try and prevent what they saw as the shrinking of their genitals. Some have resorted to tying string around their penis and many suffered with the condition for years before being finally diagnosed.

Possible role of mass hysteria in those treating Latoya Ammons and her children

The account given by the Indianapolis Star in relation to Ammons would not be out of place in Salem Massachusetts during the witch trials of 1692-1693. It is worth noting that Dr. Geoffrey  Onyeukwu is one of the first high ranking medical professionals to show a potential belief in Ammons claims, following his initial notes describing her as showing signs of delusion. I looked up Dr. Onyeukwu’s profile in an online physician directory. He appears to have been educated in Obafemi Awolowo University in Osun State Nigeria. He later completed an internship residency at Murtala Mohammed Hospital, Kano.  Nigeria has a rich history of religious and cultural superstition.  This may be an important element in a possible lapse of judgement on the part of Dr. Onyeukwu. His apparent endorsement of the possibility that supernatural as opposed to psychiatric forces as the cause of the disturbances at the Carolina Street family home may be the spark that ignited this possible case of mass hysteria. He said he had not seen anything like it in 20 years and that he was scared.  Could it be his inexperience in this branch of psychiatry, coupled with having been bought up in a society that embraces superstition, both religious and cultural, that caused him to make an embarrassing error of judgement as a medical physician? I have no doubt that what he witnessed was disturbing but nothing about what he describes requires anything more than a professional knowledge of psychiatry. He never claims to have witnessed levitation. The account from the Indianapolis Star states that medical staff witnessed the boy being thrown inexplicably by an invisible force against a wall but not that Dr. Onyeukwu witnessed this himself.  Even if he had claimed to witness such an occurrence, this feat could easily be accomplished by the boy himself without the aid of a supernatural malevolent agent.

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Dr. Onyeukwu told The Indy Star 

“Twenty years, and I’ve never heard anything like that in my life,” he said. “I was scared myself when I walked into the room.”He said he would not speak in more detail unless Ammons had “psychiatric clearance” for the waiver of confidentiality she had signed.In his medical notes about the visit, Onyeukwu wrote “delusions of ghost in home” and “hallucinations.” He also wrote “history of ghost at home” and “delusional.”What Ammons and Campbell say happened next also was detailed in a DCS report of a family case manager’s interviews with medical staff.Chaos erupted.Campbell said Ammons’ sons cursed Onyeukwu in demonic voices, raging at him. Medical staff said the youngest boy was “lifted and thrown into the wall with nobody touching him,” according to a DCS report.

 

The account mentions the boy becoming aggressive and using foul language and disturbing tones.  Again the failure of Dr. Onyeukwu and his medical staff to video record any unusual or supernatural behaviour leads me to believe that he was indeed terrified and may have been of the opinion that the children exhibited behaviour that was not of this world. Medical staff could have used their smartphones to document the strange and disturbing behaviour of the boy they claimed to have observed. This lack of rational evidence gathering leads me to believe most of the staff were indeed hysterical and quite possibly suffering from temporary psychotic like symptoms borne out of genuine terror. The detailed examination of the youngest boy by clinical psychologist Stacy Wright and the two older children by Joel Schwartz, found no evidence of anything paranormal and the clinical psychologist who examined Latoya Ammons questioned whether her extreme religiosity could be masking delusional ideation.

The levitation of the 12 year old girl was not witnessed by either Dr. Onyeukwu or Officer Charles Austin. It is not clear whether Dr. Onyeukwu claims to have witnessed the throwing of the boy by an invisible force at his clinic either. Most of the claims of supernatural phenomena appear to be made by women. (the only exception being the case of the boy walking up the wall which was made by DCS employee Valerie Washington and corroborated by nurse Willie Lee Walker). The article in the Indy Star states that Willie Lee Walker had a history of belief in ghosts and demons. Women are considerably more likely to suffer from hysteria of this sort. In the case of the levitation episode, the claims were made by Latoya Ammons and her mother Rosa. Latoya Ammons’ 12 year old daughter described how she would go into a trance and have no memory of the events. She also described the sensation of being choked or something pressing down on her chest.  This is a common testimony of those who suffer a condition known as sleep paralysis. The fact that Latoya Ammons and Rosa Campbell claimed to have witnessed the girl levitating may be due to the girl having what is termed a psychogenic seizure. This would also explain the girl’s account of going into a trance and losing memory. A psychogenic seizure is usually bought about by extreme stress and hysteria that is without an organic cause. While the patient is unconscious there is often an arching of the back, which in some cases is so extreme that it could be mistaken for levitation phenomena. This may be one of the reasons for the levitation myth in demonic possession.  As the seizure comes to an end, the muscles relax and the body would appear to drop. This would be all the more convincing if the body was covered by bed clothes. Add a pinch of extreme terror and one has the making of a Hollywood blockbuster!

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Artist’s drawing of a patient undergoing a psychogenic seizure while unconscious

In the case of the child walking backwards up the wall, again the witness was DCS employee Valerie Washington. Neither Officer Charles Austin, Dr Onyeukwu or indeed Fr. Maginot claim to have witnessed anything definitively supernatural in this story. During the exorcism on the property, Rosa Campbell shouts to tell Fr. Maginot that the lamp is flickering but by the time he arrives it has stopped. She again shouts to the priest to tell him the blinds are shaking but again the priest performing the exorcism does not testify to witnessing anything that amounts to damning evidence of paranormal activity.

The real heroes of the story are clinical psychologists Stacy Wright and Joel Schwartz

When the children were taken into DCS custody, the youngest was examined by Stacy Wright and the other two by Joel Schwartz. This is what Stacy Wright had to say according to the Indy Star.

 “The boy tended to act possessed when he was challenged, redirected or asked questions he didn’t want to answer. In her evaluation, Wright wrote that he seemed coherent and logical except when he talked about demons. It was then that the 8-year-old’s stories became “bizarre, fragmented and illogical,” Wright said. His stories changed each time he told them. He also changed the subject, quizzing Wright on math problems and asking her about outer space.” Can you die if you go to space?” he asked. “How do you get to space? Do you have to wear a helmet and suit?” Wright believed the 8-year-old did not suffer from a true psychotic disorder.” This appears to be an unfortunate and sad case of a child who has been induced into a delusional system perpetuated by his mother and potentially reinforced” by other relatives, she wrote in her psychological evaluation”.

Joel Schwartz who examined Ammons’ daughter and older son give a similar verdict

“There also appears to be a need to assess the extent to which (Ammons’ daughter) may have been unduly influenced by her mother’s concerns that the family was exposed to paranormal experiences,” Schwartz wrote. Ammons’ daughter told Schwartz that she saw shadowy figures in the Carolina Street home. She also said she twice went into trances. Ammons’ older son told Schwartz that “doors would slam and stuff started moving around.”

 

Wright documents how the youngest boy gave differing accounts of his perceived paranormal experience each time when questioned.  If we look back at the Delhi monkey man case, this is exactly how the authorities became convinced that the story was a figment of peoples imagination, bought about by a case of mass hysteria. There is disparity between the nature of supernatural claims made by men and by women in this story. The only definitively supernatural event claimed to be witnessed by a male was initially made by DCS employee Valerie Washington. Nurse Willie Lee Walker who corroborated her claim, is documented with a previous history of belief in ghosts and demons. When the boy started to speak in a menacing tone and threatened to kill his older brother with his hands around his neck, it is quite possible that this event triggered hysteria in Valerie Washington that then spread to her male nurse companion Willie Lee Walker. The fact that both attested to fleeing the building in a complete state of fear show that they were not thinking or acting rationally. It is quite possible, in fact almost certain, that the boy never walked up the ceiling and that the backward walk up the wall was simply accomplished with the help of holding onto his grandmother, Rosa Campbell’s hand. Mass hysteria can alter our perception of the simplest mundane occurrences making our mind interpret them in fantastic and sometimes terrifying ways.

US law enforcement and critical thinking.

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Images like this will continue to flood the global media until US Police Chiefs and media outlets learn how to critically evaluate extraordinary claims.

The apparent willingness of some high ranking US police officers such as Charles Austin to go public with his claim of believing Latoya Ammons’ story illustrates the need for critical thinking skills to be promoted within some elements of US law enforcement. A number of police departments across the US have been bamboozled into carrying out investigations on the basis of the supposed evidence of self-proclaimed psychics. One of the most prominent cases of this had disastrous consequences for Texan land owners Gena and Joe Bankson, when they were accused of harbouring a mass grave on their land. In 2011 Liberty County Sheriff’s department arrived at a rural property in Hardin Texas, about an hour outside Houston, with a search warrant and cadaver sniffing dogs. They were acting on the basis of a phone call by Rhonda Gridley. In the phone call she made a statement that up to 30 dismembered bodies of men, women and children were buried in a mass grave on the Bankson’s property. Gena and Joe Bankson were later shown to be innocent of any involvement in the macabre claims, but not before the story had reached the global news media. Gena Bankson later went on to tell reporters that she believed that the self-proclaimed psychic Rhonda Gridley, who goes by the name Angel, who made the claim, was mentally unstable. It is very concerning that law enforcement officers in the 21st century would act on the word of those who claim to have psychic powers. In June 2013 Rhonda Gridley was hit with a $6.8 million defamation verdict at 193rd State district court in Dallas for making false and libellous claims to the police. No disciplinary action was taken against officers who acted on the misinformation.

As a society we are all too willing to assume the claims of those in high office are genuine. This case goes to prove the old adage that you should not believe all that is said in the newspapers.  Such unreasoned hysteria is not without harm. It is the fire that caused the witch hunts of the dark ages and that go on to this day in less enlightened parts of the world such as Nigeria and Papua New Guinea. Deaths due to botched exorcisms are on the increase and are no longer just a concern for impoverished countries with low educational standards. Deaths have been reported across Europe and America and some have received much media attention such as the case of Latisha Lawson yet again from Indiana.  Court evidence showed how she and another woman believed her four children were possessed and tried to force them all to drink a mixture of olive oil and vinegar in which she believed would force a demon by the name of Marzon to leave. When one of her children, 2 year old Jezaih, vomited after being forced to drink the mixture, she held her hand to his mouth and forced him to swallow the concoction. It did not go as planned and an autopsy report later confirmed the cause of death to be forced compression of the neck. She was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Despite the Vatican citing such things as (1) levitation (2) speaking in unfamiliar languages and (3) the presence of superhuman strength as evidence for demonic possession and the need for an exorcism to be performed, I have yet to see any credible evidence that such phenomena even exist, let alone, the opinion that certain people have the unique power to cast out malevolent agents from such possessed people. Superstitious belief is an extremely potent catalyst of mass hysteria. Perhaps the greatest metaphorical demon of all is our very belief in such entities.

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Neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander MD – An unlikely proof of heaven

In October 2012 journalistic endeavour hit yet another embarrassing low when the cover of Newsweek featured the claims of neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander. This Virginia State licenced medic claimed to have fallen into a coma from a very severe case of E. Coli related bacterial meningitis. He claimed that a complete and total shutdown of his cerebral cortex resulted in a perfect glimpse of the afterlife.  He argues that if his cerebral cortex was completely inactive that such visions could not have been a product of brain function and there lies his central thesis; that consciousness not only is independent of brain function, but survives bodily death itself.  To quote the authors own words “The current understanding of the mind now lies broken at our feet for what happened to me destroyed it”. Neuroscientist Sam Harris was quick to point out the obvious in that his cerebral cortex could not possibly have suffered a complete and total shutdown as he has managed to write a best seller and grace the cover of one of the worlds most respected current affairs publications. This achievement was in no part due to journalistic regard for scientific scrutiny and media sensationalism would yet again delve another blow to those who believe the media has a duty to respect scientific integrity above profit. Unfortunately such aspirations in today’s media seem almost as delusional as the subject matter of Dr. Alexander’s book.

The possibility of fraud

It was an article written by Sam Harris “This must be heaven” that first drew my attention to Dr. Eben Alexander. Upon reading his analysis of the surgeon’s claims as well as having read the original article in Newsweek made me incredulous of the idea that a State licenced medical practitioner with several years on the job could have wrote a piece so simplistic and unscientific. This suggested to me that there could be a darker motive behind Dr Alexander’s claims. Anyone who is active in scepticism and free thought are all too aware that some of the ideas that believers try to defend are true testimony to the view that almost any notion that appeals to our desires can be wrapped up as truth by our all too fallible cognitive processes. However when it is a medic and the topic at hand is part and parcel of what should amount to professional knowledge then one should immediately start to ask questions. Such suspicion is all the more warranted given the high levels of sociopaths and narcissistic individuals that are attracted to guru/mystic and life coach positions as they have the potential for huge financial returns as well as giving celebrity status to the people involved. Is it really possible that a neurosurgeon was of the belief that his brain function was completely redundant while he was in a coma? Could such a person of significant professional standing really believe the over the top clichéd depiction of heaven in which he described in the Newsweek article?

“It took me months to come to terms with what happened to me. Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma, but—more importantly—the things that happened during that time. Toward the beginning of my adventure, I was in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky.Higher than the clouds—immeasurably higher—flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them. Birds? Angels? These words registered later, when I was writing down my recollections. But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms”.

It is not impossible that a medical doctor or other scientific professional could harbour such far-fetched abjectly unscientific positions. In the course of my own career I have met with views from both doctors and scientists whom I have the utmost professional respect for, which quite frankly would make one wonder how such divergent personas could even exist. Take for example the case of Ayman al-Zawahiri, now leader of Al Qaeda, following the death of Osama bin laden. He graduated with a masters degree in surgery and after working as an army doctor subsequently established his own clinic in the town of Maadi. Needless to say the concept of Islamic Jihad will not be appearing as an article in a prestigious scientific publication anytime soon. While a neurosurgeon profiting from claims that are patently unscientific but dressed up in the language of science should rightly be treated with suspicion, this does not amount to absolute proof of deliberate deception.

The Esquire Article

 

The New York Times best-selling author was to court much greater controversy earlier this year when Luke Dittrich of the online publication Esquire wrote a less than flattering account of Dr. Alexander’s troubled past.

“But there is another point of view. And from this point of view, Dr. Eben Alexander looks less like a messenger from heaven and more like a true son of America, a country where men have always found ways to escape the rubble of their old lives through audacious acts of reinvention.

By the end of our interview, there’s a note of unease in Alexander’s voice. He pulls out his iPhone and puts on the voice recorder. He tells me he is concerned that some of the stories I’ve brought up could be taken the wrong way by readers”.

The article goes onto state that Eben Alexander was subject to five malpractice lawsuits within a career just spanning ten years. He was accused of falsely editing medical reports and was ordered to undertake a course in professional ethics following a challenge by a tobacco farmer who had the wrong vertebrae fused and his medical report subsequently altered to hide Dr. Alexander’s surgical errors.  The article goes on to describe an account of a near fatal parachute accident involving Dr. Alexander and a guy named Chuck. Dittrich states that a person by the name of Chuck did exist but that he knew nothing of the event that Dr. Alexander described in his book. When Dr. Alexander was confronted about this discrepancy, he explains that the Chuck in his story was not the same Chuck in his former parachute club but was another member of the club who he gave a pseudonym Chuck for legal reasons that he claims were dictated by the publishers of the book. When Dittrich pushes him as to why the publishers would prohibit him from mentioning the real name of the person involved as there was no accident or fatality, the author gives no comment. Dittrich goes on to ask Dr. Alexander if he was still in contact with the false Chuck and is told that he is not and that there was no way of contacting him.  

Dittrich further goes on to contradict Dr. Alexander’s claim that be fell into a coma as a result of bacterial meningitis but was rather put into a medically induced coma followed by states of sedation in which he appeared to be delirious. This is what Dr. Potter, one of the ER doctors who treated Dr. Alexander wrote of his treatment.

“We couldn’t work with Eben at all, we couldn’t get vital signs, he just was not able to comply. So I had to make the decision to just place him in a chemically induced coma. Really for his own safety, until we could treat him. And so I did…. I put him to sleep, if you will, and put him on life support.”

After Alexander was taken from the ER to the ICU, Potter says, the doctors there administered anesthetics that kept him in the coma. The next day, she went to visit him.

“And of course he was still in an induced coma,” she says. “On ventilator support. They tried to let him wake up and see what he would do, but he was in exactly the same agitated state. Even if they tried to ease up, a little bit even, on the sedation. In fact, for days, every time they would try to wean his sedation—just thrashing, trying to scream, and grabbing at his tube.”

 


While Dr. Alexander’s central claim is that of complete cerebral cortex shutdown. Dr. Potter insists that while the patient was been weaned out of anaesthesia his state was conscious but delirious. Astonishingly Dr. Potter informs Dittrich that Dr. Alexander told her that he was dramatizing the event for his book. He was apparently taking “artistic licence”. No such artistic licence is apparent at any of Ebens discussions and his account is marketed as fact. He has on several occasions stated that current scientific consensus on this issue will be radically altered to support his stated position.

Medical Malpractice

We don’t have to take Dittrich on his word in relation to the fact that Dr. Alexander had the joint worst record for medical malpractice lawsuits in the State of Virginia. One has to look no further than online medical practice records which reveal his highly contentious professional history. Here is a link to his healthgrades.com review.

http://www.healthgrades.com/physician/dr-eben-alexander-2vqf2/background-check

My facebook encounter with Dr. Alexander.

Eben Alexander, MD Cyril Butler Pure scientific materialism is hopelessly simplistic — many neuroscientists actually get the profound mystery of the “Hard Problem of Consciousness” and what it tells us about the nature of reality, that spirit/soul is absolutely real. Some, like Sam Harris, cling to that kindergarten level thinking of pure materialism. I’m sure they have their reasons — I prefer to get closer to actual truth. Clearly millions of other souls get the far deeper mystery, too. One has free will that enables them to make their own choice — as do you.

The above text is the last remaining evidence of our confrontation that took place yesterday on facebook. The text is still there at the time of writing this but for how long more remains to be seen. Notice the distinct lack of input from myself as I have now been censored and blocked from his page. I can only restate my original reply to this Deepak Chopra-esqe piece of what the great Randi himself would no doubt term woo. Firstly Dr. Alexander just how exactly how does fabricating evidence simplify our understanding of human consciousness and its origins? Yes many neuroscientists and I would guess the population in general would agree that the science of human consciousness is in its infancy, but how does pretending that there is evidence that this is anything other than a poorly understood product of brain function that is either brain dependent or entirely a construct of the brain itself when there is absolutely no such data, help in finding the truth as you put it? You say the spirit/soul is absolutely real? Where is your evidence for this? If someone has religious faith that these are real then that is an entirely different matter but you are arguing from a position of evidence? Where is this evidence? You call the branch of science that gave bionic movement to amputees and quadriplegics as well as a whole other range of emerging technologies Kindergarten science. Yes genuine neuroscientists as well as skeptics such as Sam Harris have their reasons for challenging populist gurus and quacks and it is because they damage ideas that work. You undermine the very fabric of a modern economy when you undermine science. It is one thing for a non-scientific mind to engage in such feeble talk but amounts to a breach of trust when people who should know better engage in such behaviour. It is damaging to science and it is damaging to the medical profession when folk are not honest and upfront with evidence.

Why is it Kindergarten science to study the example of a patient with Alzheimer’s, the very example I put to you yesterday that was quickly deleted from your page? Mr X starts losing his keys more than usual. His wife of 40 years puts it down to the stresses of work as he is near retirement. Gradually she gets more alarmed as he starts to forget important dates and anniversaries etc. His concerned wife seeks a medical evaluation. A geriatrician asks him to count back from 100 in multiples of 8. He is slower than average but still can recall the days of the week, who the president is, the current year, as well as where he graduated. One day while watching TV his wife notices that he is missing. She raises the alarm only for a neighbour to call to the door with him telling his wife that she found him wandering in a confused and agitated state. The patient is subsequently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and put on a cholinesterase inhibitor treatment. Mr X is one of the lucky ones. He is one of up to 70% of patients according to US NIH who respond to this type of treatment. The clinician warns the couple that the beneficial effects of the treatment will be short lived. The most they can hope for is 12 months, but to expect  major regression from 6 months onwards. One morning Mr X is found to be rambling incoherently muttering names from 30 years previous. His wife looks to him and asks if he knows who she is. He gets confused and agitated without answering her question. In the coming weeks he loses all speech and all sense of direction and memory. His wife is destroyed with guilt for wanting her misery to come to an end. Later respite comes in the form of pneumonia and the patient ends his battle with life. Dr Alexander in your professional opinion where exactly does this “new understanding” of neuroscience of brain independent consciousness come into this in relation to 1) The progression of symptoms 2) The short term ability of cholinesterase inhibitors to temporarily halt symptoms?  Even if your story wasn’t entirely fabricated, why would you have such clear and descriptive visions of the afterlife without a functioning cerebral cortex when Mr X could not remember his wife’s name even with a partially functioning cortex? Are you of the belief that after death this consciousness will somehow re-emerge? Are you of the view that the god you describe of love and a universe of one just wanted to destroy the world around Mr X’s family but that all would be made good in its own time? How could you possibly have evidence for such nonsense even if you did believe it on faith?

You say millions of souls get the idea. Yes millions believe in the power of prayer i.e. that divine beings intervene in human affairs. Yes as an Atheist I am in a minority that believe such a notion is utter nonsense. However empirical evidence does not bow to populism. Millions believe in the authority of elders and belief as a result of culture and tradition but that is not science. I have to brace the surreal feeling that I have typing this as I am to a neurosurgeon. You talked about Kindergarten beliefs. The above paragraph would make good educational material for a ten year old. The fact that you are not embarrassed by these beliefs is a sheer testimony of the issues we face in terms of having a rational society and a progression of scientific endeavour.

Still on the theme of Kindergarten beliefs is your notion of free will. As a sceptic and not a neuroscientist I only know the basics of current understanding of decision making. I would expect professionals giving lectures on the subject to at least know significantly more than me. Dr. Alexander we can show beyond a shadow of a doubt that free will is an illusion. fMRI has shown that we can predict the decisions one will make several seconds before they make them. We have known this for at least a decade.  Is the German race the most intrinsically evil race of the 20th century for electing the most evil regime of that era? Why were you so eager to remove this example from your facebook page if you claim to be a man of science?

Dr. Eben Alexander  given all of the above can you understand why many might believe you are in the false hope industry and are cynically preying on vulnerable peoples hopes and desires for material other than spiritual gains?

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