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Detailed Neuroscience of Mystical Experiences
on February 20, 2011
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.