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The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience Hardcover – Dec 30 2010

4 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton (Dec 30 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0525951881
  • ISBN-13: 978-0525951889
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.7 x 3.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 Kg
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #789,622 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


"Nelson (Neurology/Univ. of Kentucky) has spent decades exploring what underlies spiritual experiences, so there is more to this book than physiological probing. In particular, the author is sensitive to the intensity of a transcendent moment, how it 'deeply moves us or transports us and connects us in one way or another with something larger than ourselves.' As a neurologist, however, he seeks an explanation based on well-established brain mechanisms. Nelson is humble and balanced, wary of our perception of consciousness and infectiously fascinated by how the brain shapes it."

"This book is a bold, provocative and highly readable account of the author's journey into the world of religious experience and its possible biological basis."
-V.S. Ramachandran, author of Phantoms in the Brain and A Brief History of Human Consciousness

About the Author

Kevin Nelson is the author of fifteen books, including The Golden Game, The Greatest Stories Ever Told (About Baseball), and Baseball's Greatest Quotes. He has also written articles for a variety of local and national publications such as Men's Fitness, Ski, Sport, Women's Sports and Fitness, San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Jose Mercury News.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As stated in the aforementioned header, I and my spouse, who also read the book, found it interesting to see how much that research has revealed around the mystical experience that everyone feels is unique to them. Many people have these experiences, and Dr. Nelson, an eminent neurologist, explains some of the physiologic bases that are known so far to explain these phenomena. Some questions about this subject may never be answerable, and like any well written treatise leaves us asking more questions. An excellent read for anyone in the healing professions; as a family physician my profession deals with end of life phenomena, my spouse, a music therapist with an interest in Palliative Care, found the subject intriguing and applicable to her work.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Very intelligently written. An eye opener to Neurology at its best. Good recommended read.
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Amazon.com: HASH(0xa0ec57e0) out of 5 stars 23 reviews
27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa0de2e70) out of 5 stars Detailed Neuroscience of Mystical Experiences Feb. 20 2011
By Dr. Wigglesworth - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As someone who has great interest in NDEs and mystical experiences, I was not disappointed by this book. Doctor Nelson gives us a thorough account of neurological correlates of mystical experiences. This may be daunting for some people who have no background in neuroanatomy, but it is not technically overwhelming. Some of his ideas are quite speculative. The good thing about Dr. Nelson's ideas is that they are mostly testable. I agree with him that soon our understanding of the brain will expand and multiple new "paradigms" will come along that fundamentally shift our understanding of what is going on. Ultimately, the relationship between neuronal action potentials with their accompanying chemical fluctuations to conscious experience is incomprehensible. Dr. Nelson doesn't really touch on this mystery of "the hard problem of consciousness", which seems to me to be fundamental to any discussion of consciousness and mystical experience. It's a bugaboo of neuroscience because nothing at all is understood about how neurons can create conscious awareness, and it opens up the possibility that nobody wants to address, that consciousness may be some fundamental template of nature that evolution designed itself around instead of generated through complexity. If spiritual experience is associated with more primitive elements of the brain which are shared with other mammals, the question arises about when this sort of consciousness arose in the evolutionary tree, and of course, for what evolutionary benefit?

People who have NDEs claim to have tremendously expanded levels of awareness and the capability of having multiple thought streams simultaneously, as well as detailed reviews of every moment of their lives recounted and relived not just from their own perspective, but from the perspectives of the people who were affected by their actions. They claim to have downloads of tremendous knowledge "in the light" that come in instantaneous blocks of understanding. It would seem that standard waking consciousness is a toned down level of awareness from what we are actually capable of in these altered states.

One serious problem I had with the book is where it is suggested that Pam Reynolds saw the tools as she was moved into the operating room. Watch the documentary "The day I died" on YouTube. Dr. Spetzler clearly says he doesn't believe she could have seen the tools as she was brought into the room and Pam says she never saw any of these tools at any time before the NDE. I don't know why Dr. Nelson wrote this. He also completely skips the fact that Pam had 100db clickers packed and taped in her ears monitoring her brainstem response, and was still capable of hearing someone say that her femoral artery was too small. Dr. Nelson makes no attempt at explaining or even discussing the many accounts of accurate veridical perception during OBEs, or NDEs of the congenitally blind. Despite the clear relationship between lucid dreams, OBEs and NDEs we have to remember that many people, including the famed dream researcher Stephen Laberge who Dr. Nelson cites actually believe in some psi component to these experiences. These claims are not addressed at all in this book.

The latest phenomenon being explored is called the "Shared Death Experience" where family members of the dying have OBEs, go through tunnels, see the light and share in the life reviews of the dying despite not being near death. Raymond Moody's latest book called "Glimpses of Eternity" showcase many accounts of these experiences. I would love to see these people tested for having a history of REM intrusion. Something tells me that Richard Dawkins is not going to have a shared death experience with anyone. However, if the shared death experience phenomenon is as it is reported by Moody and others, could it also be activated by profound emotional response in a crisis with subsequent NDE-like elements in the living? I am highly skeptical of "dying brain" explanations of NDEs, particularly of the light and the tunnel. This is because we have accounts of people having classic NDEs involving the tunnel and the light who are literally driving calmly down the road in their vehicle, nowhere near death. The REM intrusion hypothesis makes more sense to fit the data. As the entry on NDE says on the howstuffworks website- "For every aspect of an NDE, there is at least one scientific explanation for it. And for every scientific explanation, there seem to be five NDE cases that defy it."

Overall, a good book worth reading.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa0cc93fc) out of 5 stars Mystics, Zen Masters & Neurologists Jan. 23 2011
By Jim Clark, Ph.D. - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In his classic study, Mystics & Zen Masters, Thomas Merton wrote that he was driven by one central concern: "to understand various ways in which men of different traditions have conceived the meaning and method of the 'way' which leads to the highest levels of religious or of metaphysical awareness." Kevin Nelson, a practicing neurologist and scientist whose recent studies of Near Death Experience (NDE) have attracted worldwide attention, shares Merton's passion for understanding what has traditionally been seen as irrelevant or outside the scientist's territory. Yet, as Nelson shows, the contemporary tools of neuroscience now make it possible to pick up the work of pioneers like early twentieth century psychologist William James, who understood that religious and spiritual experiences were important to empirically investigate. James's work was limited by the skull's invulnerability against the brass instruments of his day, but as Nelson lucidly demonstrates in this book, it is now possible to visually explore the questions raised by philosophers and theologians about the human need and capacity for religious experience. Unlike many contemporaries who use neuroscience to reduce spiritual experiences as the epiphenomena of basic brain processes, Nelson avoids this category error and proceeds to explore the "how" of these experiences, rather than the "why". He demonstrates his fundamental premise is irrefutable: The brain is the primary organ for all spiritual experiences such as NDE and contemplative rapture--experiences which can be ultimately mapped through the brain's complex circuitry. Indeed, Nelson provides the lay reader with a compelling and lucid account of those brain processes crucial to such experiences. Many of the findings generated by his own studies and his generous rendering of classic investigations and cutting-edge scientific work, will surprise the reader. For example, he argues that religious experiences are not generated from the higher, cortical regions of the brain but are centered in the human brainstem. Thus we have inherited the capacity for such "highly evolved" experiences from our earliest human ancestors, such as the beings who inscribed their burgeoning understanding and wonder on cave walls 32,000 years ago. Nelson has also drawn on the recent science of sleep, and maps the borderlands intersecting REM and awakened states of human consciousness, which can create both troubling psychopathology and profound mystical experiences. (The reader familiar with contemplative writers will be struck by the non-accidental connections between Nelson's terminology and the traditional religious language of sleeping and awakening.) Fortunately, Nelson eschews determinism, which would claim that Gregorian chant is simply the product of neuronal firing. Instead, the author invokes his personal hope that brain science can help us understand the complexities of religious experience so that readers might freely consider the ultimate 'ways' and 'doorways' that writers like Merton, and now Kevin Nelson, compellingly reveal and unlock.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa0cda168) out of 5 stars Not sure what I believe anymore! April 22 2011
By V. Chapin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I have had epilepsy for 35 years, which is controlled by medication. I have had just about every kind of out of body, sleep paralysis, hearing voices, seeing tunnels, seeing faces, sitting up and lying down at the same time, sensing presence of others, being pulled out of my body, buzzing, etc. that are described in just about every NDE book there is, including this one. I have not, however, had a Near Death Experience, have not experienced the joy, have not seen dead relatives or experienced a life review. I was curious to see what would be a neurologist's explanation. I have to say, I did realize that I am one of those REM inbetweeners, and that could explain some of my experiences. Maybe my damaged brain is more easily able to find the inbetween state. But, I can't believe it explains it all. I have read so many accounts of people who saw things that they could not have seen, blind people who saw things in their NDE, who have never seen in their lives before and could not even know what they are seeing. So, here I am, wondering. Is my brain really malfunctioning that much? My experiences have felt so real. I have based so much of what I believe on my experiences, and that of my grandmother - who did have a classic NDE - told to me many years before I had ever heard of other accounts from other people. I understand his discussions of why we might have evolved that way, but don't understand why we all have similar experiences when push comes to shove. Why not some people fantasizing about the most incredible meal they've ever had? Why not some people fantasizing about making out with their favorite movie star? Why not floating in space or swimmign in crystal blue seas? But, instead, we all meet our dead relatives and experience love and joy. So, now I don't know any more. The book was well thought out, his arguments reasonable. I did see many of my experiences discussed and rationalized. So, it was excellent in that regard, although very disappointing. Just don't know what to believe about my own brain and my own experiences and where that leaves me with my spiritual beliefs!
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa0ef9444) out of 5 stars Explains very little Feb. 25 2013
By Thomas in CC - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Before completing this review, I have to admit that I did not read the entire book. I read about 2/3 of the book and decided to stop, because it didn't appear to be answering any questions I had. Having read a lot lately about NDEs, Out of Body Experiences, and after life studies, this book truly skirts what I have come to see are the real questions in this field. In many documented accounts, including that of Dr. Eben Alexander's book, some NDE patients have had complete stop of blood flow to the brain and rest of the body (i.e., in sustained heart attacks), the stopping of discernible brain activity all together, or have been on operating tables with their eyes taped shut with ear plugs under anethesia, and yet have had detailed visions of their surroundings. In cases where a patient had no avenue for material sensory input, or ability to process sensory information if it were even there in the first place, they have heard the doctor and nurses talking, saw who was in the room, saw what those people were doing, and have had complete memory of such in lucid detail. In no way does Nelson's theory of "in between REM" states of cosnciousness even come close to explaining those NDEs that I have just mentioned.

What was further upsetting to me in this book were the many references where Nelson states, "My own research has found..." and then there is no citation. At the beginning of the book Nelson brags about how he and a team of neuropsychologists gathered an immense amount of data in some study related to brain and spiritual experience; but there is no citation or reference to it. As many people who read these tyes of books know, not all "studies" are created equal. Hearing the results from a study and seeing the actual study can be two different things. In my mind it would have been helpful for Nelson to actually cite the studies he mentions where he was the investigator instead of just telling the reader that he conducted original research on a topic - and the study he conducted proved what he is saying now. At best, such writing is juvenile. At worst, it can be seen as deceptive.

There are other items in this book that I see as almost comical in some respects, but I'll keep from listing them here in this review. Suffice it to say that Nelson's theory in the book, which I found mildly interesting, still leaves the larger question about NDEs, OBEs, and other verifiable "spiritual" phenomena unanswered - at least with respect to its relationship with the brain/body.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa0e7c6c0) out of 5 stars Demystifies some of the mystic, but without denying the divinity March 22 2011
By Susan Schenck - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Have you ever wondered what happens in the brain during mystic, near death, or out-of-body experiences? Author Kevin Nelson, MD, is a world-renowned neurologist with more than three decades of experience examining the processes of spiritual sensation. His book goes into detail and de-mystifies much of the mystic. He explains that our spirituality arises from parts of the brain that evolved long before structures made the brain capable of language and reasoning, which is why people cannot put into words what they experience. One could argue that animals (also having these primitive brain structures) are also capable of mystical experiences.

The author says that atheists are irritated by his research to learn that spirituality is an integral part of being human and religious people are irked because it seems to downplay the significance of the mystic. But he concludes, "Do these cold, hard clinical facts suck the divine nectar from our spiritual lives? My answer is an empathic NO!" In other words, while such experiences as NDEs may not prove there is an afterlife, they certainly do not disprove it either. His work simply shows what is occurring in the brain at the time.

Interestingly, the author relates how the greatest hallucination we experience is the idea that we are a separate, unified "self," and this is something that any genuinely enlightened master will agree upon: "..the self is a synthetic process that pulls different components distributed throughout the brain into the illusion of a unified self." The book discusses a pathology in which a person is just sure that they don't exist, or that they are dead. Interestingly enlightened masters also claim that they do not exist (as a separate self).

I found the book to be full of surprises. For example, experiments found that the left brain and the right brain are like two separate entities, often in conflict. In one man, his right brain loved smoking pot. But his left brain hated it! Although there are many universal features in near death experiences, there are cultural differences. For example, the Japanese do not go through tunnels. An Indian will be sent back into life if his name doesn't appear on a roster of the dead. Mystical experiences from drugs are also discussed, and are considered as valid as any if the criteria is met that it changes the person's life. Fasting, meditation, and even a high altitude with oxygen deprivation can lead to mystical experiences.

A very interesting book for both the skeptic and the spiritual seeker! It is an easy read for the layman and is full of interesting case studies.