Lena's Reviews > Brain & Belief: An Exploration of the Human Soul

Brain & Belief by John J. McGraw
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Sep 16, 08

bookshelves: non-fiction, skepticism, how-the-brain-works

Of the various books I have read discussing the problem of religion in modern society, Brain and Belief is likely to be the most accessible to those who find themselves moving away from a previously cherished belief system. The author's confessed experience as a former believer himself lends his arguments a level of compassion and understanding for the spiritual experience that those who have never felt the stirrings of religion seem to lack.

McGraw's book is divided into three main sections. In the first, the author provides a wide-angle overview of the concept of soul. He traces the history of the soul from its origins in animism/shamanism through ancient Greece and into Christianity. I have little background in religious history, so this section gave me a much better understanding of the origins and development of the kind of dualistic thinking required to sustain belief in the idea of a soul.

In the second section, McGraw uses findings from modern neuroscience to chip away at the belief that a soul can exist separate from the physical matter of the brain. An extensive section on brain mechanics and a discussion of how diseases such as Alzheimer’s can rob a person of any familiar sense of self serves to effectively undermine the idea that there is a separate soul which remains immune to the onslaughts of the physical plane.

McGraw spends a lot of time in this section detailing the effects of numerous hallucinogenic drugs on the brain. His discussion of the use of psychotropic plants in religion was particularly fascinating to me. I had no idea that there are those who believe the origins of Hinduism grew from the roots of a rare psychedelic mushroom (though, now that I think about it, that does seem to make an awful lot of sense.) His survey of psychotropic plant use from shamanism to Delphi makes clear that hallucinogens have played a major part in the development of human religious ideas.

What I found most effective about this section was that it speaks directly to what other critics of religion have referred to as “the argument for personal experience.” Since I participated in a tradition where transcendent moments of euphoria and bliss were cited as proof of the existence of a spiritual plane, reading a deconstruction of how these states are created in the brain was particularly enlightening. McGraw makes an effective argument that—as powerful as these states may be—they can be entirely explained by our own neurochemistry and cannot be reliably used to argue for the existence of alternate dimensions outside of our own heads.

In the third section of the book, McGraw discusses the issues that need to be faced in the process of moving away from false but comforting ideas of religion towards a more mature understanding of the world and our very limited place in it. McGraw excels here in his discussion of the cognitive biases that make this process difficult; in contrast to others who condescend to religious adherents as simply stupid, McGraw carefully explains how genuinely difficult our brains have made it to change long-held beliefs. His discussion of studies done on how doomsday cults react to the repeated failure of doomsday to arrive will be particularly interesting to students of cultic issues.

Though I disagree with his heavy reliance on the ideas of Freud to explain why we are so prone to believing in an all-powerful god, I think McGraw is correct that no real progress can be made until human beings are willing to let go of the self-important idea that we will live forever and face the reality of our own imminent death. As unpalatable as this idea may be for some, McGraw is kind enough not to leave the reader empty-handed. A brief discussion of the philosophies taught by Buddha, Epicurus and the Stoics provides several alternative ways of relating to the challenges of life that do not require the fierce denial of our material reality.
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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Lena So glad you found it useful. He's packed a lot of information in this book - but then, I guess that's what having multiple degrees from various disciplines can do for you.


Julie (jjmachshev) Fab review...now I MUST read it!!
J


Meen I think this really is one of the best books for "questioners" (however one interprets that) that I've ever read. I may have said this in my review, but it's worth repeating: I wish I had had this book when I first got sober rather than having to jump through all the "spiritual disease" hoops.


message 4: by Lena (last edited Sep 14, 2008 07:03PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lena I agree, Mindy, this is a great book for questioners. And I can see the value for those dealing with addiction issues - his detailed explanation of the mechanics of drugs and alcohol was really interesting. I was particularly intrigued by his comment that some religions ban alcohol precisely because its powerful impact makes our material natures so obvious.

I should thank you for turning me onto it as well--I found John's profile through your own. It's much appreciated!


Meen Wait, I thought I found this one from you!

Yeah, I know from personal experience that the mroe fundamentalist denominations of Christianity are hysterically anti-alcohol and at the same time, they produce the most alcoholics! *snort*


message 6: by Lena (last edited Sep 15, 2008 02:38AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lena This one's been sitting on my to-read pile for a while... I think I'll have to move it up higher on the list.

Great review.

(Note from Lena: I didn't write this comment that is showing up under my name - it's very strange!)


Meen Freaky!!!! (Maybe it's Stephen King f'ing with you!)

:)


Lena It was pretty freaky...especially since I discovered it during a 3 am insomnia session.

Turns out the comment was written by a friend I had forwarded the review to - somehow, it logged him in as me. Have to alert the crew about that.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Sounds interesting. I noticed in his review of Phantoms in the Brain that the author studied with one of my favorite cognitive neuroscientists, V.S. Ramachandran. This book sounds exactly like the kind of stuff I'm interested in.


message 10: by Stephen (new)

Stephen I thought this was a good review. See, MFSO, I can like a review even if it is a heathen book. hehehehehe


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Lena wrote: What I found most effective about this section was that it speaks directly to what other critics of religion have referred to as “the argument for personal experience.” Since I participated in a tradition where transcendent moments of euphoria and bliss were cited as proof of the existence of a spiritual plane, reading a deconstruction of how these states are created in the brain was particularly enlightening. McGraw makes an effective argument that—as powerful as these states may be—they can be entirely explained by our own neurochemistry and cannot be reliably used to argue for the existence of alternate dimensions outside of our own heads.

Here's very interesting talk given by the psychologist Andy Thomson that goes into these ideas and much more:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iMmvu...

By the way, though I haven't read the book, your review was wonderful and made me put the book on my to-read shelf.


message 12: by Lena (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lena Glad to hear it, MFSO. That looks like a fascinating talk - hope to get to it this weekend. Thanks for the link.


message 13: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Oct 03, 2009 12:21PM) (new) - added it

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Just watched a very excellent documentary on these subjects which features a favorite philosopher of mine (Daniel Dennett) throughout in addition to a lot of other interesting people and footage:

http://nfb.ca/film/mystical_brain/

Mystical Brain
Directed by Isabelle Raynauld, 2006, 52 min 15 s

"Mystical Brain reveals the exploratory work of a team from the University of Montreal who seek to understand the states of grace experienced by mystics and those who meditate. Filmmaker Isabelle Raynauld offers up scientific research, which proposes that mystical ecstasy is a transformative experience and could to contribute to people's psychic and physical health, treat depression and speed up the healing process when combined with conventional medicine."


message 14: by Lena (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lena VERY interesting. I will definitely check that out - thanks!


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