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The Neuropsychology of Mysticism,
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This review is from: Mystical Mind (Theology and the Sciences) (Theology & the Sciences) (Paperback)
The Mystical Mind may be viewed as a modern version of William James' Varieties of Religious Experience. Andrew Newberg (who completed this volume after the death of co-author Eugene Aquili) has a unique background to warrant such a lofty comparison. He is a physician and a scholar with expertise in research methods, neuropsychology, comparative religions, and philosophy. Though the approach of neuropsychology dominates this work, Newberg moves seamlessly to other models as the focus and purpose of analysis requires. He utilizes this broad range of conceptual tools to examine the continuum of mystical phenomenon, from the creation of myth to the sense of peace related to the performance of rituals to the profound mystical state of Absolute Unitary Being (AUB).
The book is divided into three sections. The first provides an overview of the central nervous system and cognitive functions. In the second section, a neuropsychological model for understanding the continuum of religious and mystical experiences is presented. Finally, the third section suggests how a theology based on neurology (neurotheology) can serve as both a meta-theology (i.e. a basis of understanding the entire range of world religions and theologies) and a mega-theology (i.e. a basis for developing a universal theology).
The author presents compelling evidence that everything that we know or experience is dependent upon and mediated by the brain. In particular, he relies on the study of patients with strokes and brain tumors, who loose function in the areas predicted by neuropsychology. It is also validated by the experiences that are generated through electrical stimulation of specific areas of the brain and by imaging data of patients and monks in deep meditation.
Because of this intimate connection between the brain and the mind Newberg adopts the term brain/mind. This term reflects the reality that the brain and the mind must be viewed as a single, inseparable totality and that a focus on one or the other reflects the manner of observation rather than a difference in that which is being observed. This integrated concept of brain/mind is also central to the metaphysics he takes up in the final section.
In the second section of the book, Newberg applies the neuropsychological model he has developed to the religious phenomenon of myth, ritual, liturgy, near-death experiences, and mystical experiences. In the interest of brevity, I will restrict this review to his discussion of mystical experiences. When one examines descriptions of the most profound mystical experiences (AUB) across time and cultures, one is struck with their general similarity and one significant difference. Mystics universally indicate that these experiences are beyond words, space, time, all dualities (including self-other), and are characterized by a profound sense of absolute unity and oneness. It is viewed as more vivid and "real" than our ordinary consciousness and has the power to transform lives. However, some mystics attach this experience to a neutral affective state (e.g. void consciousness of Buddhism) while others attach it to a state of ultimate bliss and ecstatic rapture (e.g. unio mystica of Christian mysticism). Newberg's neuropsychological analysis of these experiences explains both these similarities and their differences.
AUB may be reached through both the active (i.e. beginning with the sympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system that mediates arousal) and passive (i.e. beginning with the parasympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system that mediates homeostasis and quiescence). I will focus on parasympathetic side and substantially simplify the neuropsychological processes. In this form of meditation, one begins with the intent to clear one's mind of thought and to withdrawal from sensory stimulation. As the meditation deepens, the subjective sensation of a relaxation grows to profound quiescence. As elements of the parasympathetic nervous system become fully aroused they "spill over" into and activate the sympathetic nervous system. When both the sympathetic and parasympathetic portions of the autonomic nervous system are maximally aroused, one experiences AUB. If this experience is accompanied by the arousal of the limbic system, the experience is accompanied by rapturous ecstasy (unio mystica), if not, the experience is one of void consciousness.
This simplification does not do justice to the neurological detail and complexity of Newberg's model. But it does give the reader a sense of how he relates profound mystical states to neurological structures and activity. Though he acknowledges that this model is a work in progress, and far from perfect, it is validated by an impressive body of scientific evidence.
The final section of this book focuses on philosophy, neurotheology, and metaphysics. Newberg suggests that neuropsychology offers a scientific model (i.e. metatheology) for examining the religions and theologies of the world as well as a basis (i.e. megatheology) for creating a new theology based in science. But perhaps the most fascinating and controversial portion of this work lies in its metaphysical speculation.
In building any metaphysical system, it is necessary to establish a starting point and it is generally assumed that this may begin by focusing on the fundamental reality of experience (i.e. idealism) or on observation (i.e. empiricism) and both result in intractable problems. If one begins with experience one is left unable to acknowledge the reality of other sentient beings and if one begins with observation (and the underlying assumption of dualism) then one, paradoxically, must deny the reality of one's own subjective experience. What Newberg suggests, is that the starting point of metaphysics be the experience of AUB, an experience that is neither subjective nor objective, but the source of both subjectivity and objectivity. This resolution of opposites is analogous to what happens in myth, where opposites are unified and the binary operator in the brain is overpowered by the holistic operator. Again, this presentation is overly simplistic and the reader is urged to study Newberg's fascinating depiction of this process.
In my opening paragraph I compared The Mystical Mind to William James' Varieties of Religious Experience. That was the highest complement I could offer Andrew Newberg and this amazing book. I hope this review has given readers a glimpse into the Mystical Mind and encourages them to delve into this extraordinary work.
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Initial post: Apr 12, 2009 10:40:53 AM PDT
Just Me says:
Creb, thank you for such a thorough and well-organized review. I appreciate your comparison to James' work...that is indeed a high compliment. Going to buy the book as soon as I'm done typing this.
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