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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45 of 49 people found the following review helpful
Can advanced neuroscience validate or disprove profound spiritual experiences?Jan. 6 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
With major advancements in neurological science and our ability to understand the functioning of the human brain to minutest of details, have we reached a point where science can completely explain what for centuries have been deemed our most meaningful, spiritual experiences?
In The Spiritual Doorway In The Brain, Kevin Nelson, M.D. tackles this difficult question in an exploration that will suit medical professionals, mystics, and laypersons alike. Scientific understanding of the chemical exchanges and electrical impulses in the brain have provided a clear explanation of exactly what happens to us biologically when experiencing what could be deemed spiritual, religious, or mystical events. Basing his theories on extensive studies of patients who have described having both near-death and mystical experiences, Nelson explains the various brain functions that result in common symptoms like tunnel vision, bright or intensive light, out-of-body experiences, feelings of paralysis or being dead, one's life flashing before his eyes, blissfulness, and the meeting of religious figures or deceased friends and relatives. These symptoms can all be explained through chemical reaction or blood flow and oxygenation of the brain and heart.
Many of these same symptoms can be traced to the REM state of consciousness, the same state of consciousness that brings on dreams. In fact, Nelson points out the startling similarities between near-death or religious experiences and lucid dreams. He also scientifically explains that the brain chemistries of certain individuals are more susceptible to near-death or other spiritual experiences. The examples and experiments cited provide a compelling argument that what may have been deemed an experience of the divine may actually be normal brain functionality.
On the other hand, science offers little explanation for one of the primary symptoms of near-death and mystical experiences. The feeling of "oneness" with the universe or of losing a sense of self and becoming singular with cosmic consciousness typically becomes the life-changing experience for those who claim to have witnessed the divine. How does science explain the renewed sense of purpose and meaning that those who have come close to death or experienced spiritual transcendence claim to feel? Nelson offers his hypotheses but states that science has not advanced far enough to explain these phenomena as of yet. He is sure that these explanations are on the horizon.
The conclusion of the book is explained by the title itself. Although neuroscience has been able to explain exactly how the human brain functions as it relates to mystical, religious, or near-death experiences, science cannot explain exactly why humans (and possibly other mammals, according to Nelson) have spiritual experiences. Science and faith can co-exist in harmony as long as one remembers that the how and why of any situation are two independent concepts. Neuroscience's explanation of brain functionality does little to diminish faith in God or spiritual experience. This objective, well-researched book is a revolutionary balance between the mystical and scientific realms and can benefit those who study both ends of the spectrum.
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Detailed Neuroscience of Mystical ExperiencesFeb. 20 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Mystics, Zen Masters & NeurologistsJan. 23 2011
Jim Clark, Ph.D.
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Not sure what I believe anymore!April 22 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
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!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Instinctive consciousness from "before" our very beginningApril 29 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
A sleep paralysis experience when I was 21 and just married terrified me. There I lay trapped in my body unable to get help from my sleeping husband. I thought I was dying. Then there was the out of body experience when I was 27. A car crash so severe that it separated my "I" from my body. I floated up above it looking down at the screaming woman being thrashed about below me. Who was she I wondered? Whiteness and a serene peacefulness surrounded me I knew I had entered heavenly dimensions. Slowly, as I opened my eyes I realized that the whiteness had turned into snow and, no, that I was not in heaven. I was more than disappointed. The nightmare of pain and the struggle with years of paralysis was just beginning. But I had it made, nonetheless. No more fear of dying. I'd been there, done that. I could get on with my life. I had aced death. Knew what that was all about. Gone through it once--could do it again. No problem!
During the course of my life I had typical hallucinatory experiences--for example the old man dragging chains who tried to take my baby away while I nursed him. That experience and others like it have been part of my life from time to time. Now Dr. Nelson comes along and explains the biological origins of my experiences--I'm impressed. I can find very little wiggle room to get a wedge into his thesis. I agree with his conclusions that all these experiences can be explained biologically and I like the fact that he has pin-pointed the brain stem as housing the archaic origins of these experiences.
These near death, out of the body experiences--these mystical meetings with God, are almost identical for everyone who experiences them. That means that if "x" happens to you, you are genetically pre-programmed to respond to it with a particular set of "y" images. Such instinctual images, now part of our brain stems we are told, appear to me to be part of a greater pre-biotic cosmic experience. Could these spiritual experiences be embedded in an instinctive consciousness from "before" our very beginnings? Seems to me that from "before language" as Dr. Nelson would have it, is hardly "before" enough. But, alas, we are face to face again with the hard problem or mystery, if you like, of consciousness.
Laurie McRobert, Author Appearances: Genetic Mythology and Cosmic Instincts