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A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience

by Kevin Nelson

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-525-95188-9
Publisher: Dutton

Examination of the neurological foundations of out-of-body and near-death experiences, from an expert on the subject.

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 builds the explanation slowly, presenting current thinking behind consciousness and self (“mysterious and elusive, hotly debated and now awesomely arcane”); introducing appropriate anecdotal material to illustrate a variety of spiritual encounters and milieus; and taking lay readers into the brain’s architecture. The author is especially interested in the borderland created when “[p]art of the dreaming brain erupts in a brain already awake,” blending REM dream states with waking consciousness and provoking hallmarks of the near-death or spiritual experiences, such as the tunnel, the blinding light, life review and bliss. Each of these experiences is known to have a physiological basis, and they conspicuously overlap in that fuzzy space where the REM features of visual activation, paralysis and the dream narrative, among others, intrude into the waking state. Of course, this does not touch upon other varieties of spiritual experience—especially, Nelson notes, mystical oneness—but it draws attention to the correspondences between common features of spiritual experiences and the mind. And not just the mind—“through its nerves the heart can cause REM consciousness in waking times.” Blood supply is the major player in near-death experiences, writes the author, but also, “spiritual experiences should be judged by the profundity of their effect on us—not by what causes them.”

Nelson is humble and balanced, wary of our perception of consciousness and infectiously fascinated by how the brain shapes it.