Gregg Sapp's Reviews > The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience

The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain by Kevin   Nelson
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Read 2 times. Last read October 14, 2021 to October 28, 2021.

It’s hard to argue with somebody who has had a genuine Near Death Experience (NDE) when they speak about the afterlife. After all, they have firsthand knowledge that very few can claim, or would want. In “The Spiritual Doorway to the Brain,” neurologist Kevin Nelson takes these accounts from people who have been brought back from the brink of death as accurate and truthful. Then, setting aside the subject’s interpretations of what happened, he examines what brain functions might account for these peculiar experiences.

For example, many report that during the experience of dying they see a bright light at the end of a long tunnel. Is this a beacon leading a soul to heaven? On that matter, Nelson has no theological opinion. But he does point out that when not enough blood is pumped to the brain, peripheral vision fails, creating “tunnel vision.” No woo-woo stuff is necessary to explain it.

Similarly, many NDE-ers have out of body experiences, often where they float above and gaze down upon their corporeal bodies. Is that proof that the soul is separate from the body? Well, not so fast. Scientists have demonstrated that stimulating the temporoparietal lobe of the brain disrupts a person’s conscious sense of their physical body and “Using our vision or visual memory, consciousness temporally projects itself onto a visual map, what we see around us, when the sensation map of the rest of our body is obscured.” Indeed, since out of body experiences can be artificially stimulated, it is hard to argue that it represents the liberation of a person’s immortal soul.

Nelson provides a broad review of how the brain organizes consciousness and sensation, common characteristics of NDEs, and how the latter possibly derives from the former. According to his analysis, NDEs emerge from the most primitive parts of our brains, the autonomic functions associated with the “fight or flight” instinct. He likewise sees a connection between REM consciousness – the dream state – and NDEs. “The borderland of dreams and death” is a strange territory, indeed:

“Our NDE study subjects clearly had a different arousal brain from most people’s. This difference is likely to close the REM switch itself. It is not only one part of REM consciousness that mixes with waking consciousness in these people – all parts do (paralysis and all kinds of hallucinations), and all the parts neurologically converge at the REM switch.”

Thus, NDEs occur when an “REM intrusion” triggers aspects of the phenomenon, such as visions of loved ones. NDEs are neurologically related to dreaming.

Nelson also discusses how studying the brain during mystical experiences, such as those achieved during intense meditation, can lend further insight into the mind’s functions in altered states of consciousness. He speculates that there may be a locus in the brain for spiritual experience and, if so, we might be able to learn to stimulate it therapeutically.

“The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain” presents fascinating science and compelling theory for lay readers. It probably won’t convince true believers that NDEs are anything less than glimpses of heaven, nor should it necessarily. Even if NDEs are nothing more than neurological fireworks, they sound pretty damn cool. Still, it is not an experience that I especially look forward to having.


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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
October 14, 2021 – Started Reading
October 28, 2021 – Shelved
October 28, 2021 – Finished Reading

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