I've finished reading Kevin Nelson's intriguing book, "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience." His focus is on near-death experiences. (I've previously blogged about the book here, here, and here.)
The bottom line is that Nelson cites lots of research, which he combines with his extensive knowledge of how the brain works, to come up with a compelling explanation for the seemingly spiritual nature of what often happens to people on the edge of death.
It's all physical. Natural. Brain-based. As is meditation. As is everything, so long as we are alive in a human body. Repeat: as is everything.
I realize that this stark statement will rub many people the wrong way, since it goes against the grain of the almost universal sensation (which appears early on in childhood, and continues into adult life) that our mental sense of "I" somehow is distinct from the material goings-on inside the brain.
Young children believe that when a mouse dies, it is still alive somewhere even though its body is dead. This shows that supernaturalism, the foundation of religiosity, basically is hard-wired into the human brain -- which goes a long way toward explaining why most people believe in God or some other immaterial ultimate reality.
Nelson's book helped me understand more clearly than before how our conscious awareness is just the tip of a neurological iceberg that we're clueless about.
Necessarily, because if our distant ancestors were privy to every complex detail of how their brains were processing the sight of a saber-toothed tiger stalking them, they wouldn't be able to act with sufficient speed and alacrity to escape the danger.
Neurological research now is able to reveal how hitherto mysterious brain processes are the likely cause of "spiritual" phenomena like out-of-body sensations and feelings of becoming one with the universe. Nelson says this recognition doesn't negate the meaning given to such experiences by those who have them.
But it brings spirituality down to earth, so to speak.
We have placed fragmented consciousness at the heart of many of our spiritual experiences and stripped away the illusion of the seamlessly integrated self. Odd as it may seem, we have shown that primal brainstem reactions seem to be at the root of experiences that we think of as spiritual and that make us most human. This concept of "knee-jerk spirituality" deals a strong blow to the idea that free will is necessary to connect with whatever we feel is sacred.
At the neurologist's command, a flicker of electrical current to the brain makes it seem that our consciousness has been lifted from our body and is floating freely in space. The brain pathways used during "natural" spiritual experiences are the same pathways used by spiritual drugs, indistinguishable from otherwise genuine religious conversions, transforming lives long after the drug is flushed clear from the body.
Clinical neurology tells us that these are the same pathways distorted by some diseases of the brain that produce disorders fitting criteria for religious experience. Are spontaneous and authentic spiritual experiences nothing more than "experiments of nature" telling us how the brain works?
We have strong indications that much of our spirituality arises from arousal, limbic, and reward systems that evolved long before structures made the brain capable of language and reasoning. Neurologically, mystical feelings may not be so much beyond language as before language.
Given that we share many of the structures and systems in our brains with other creatures, we may not be the only primate with spiritual feelings. Great apes mourned their dead, and evidence suggests that Neanderthals believed in an afterlife. In fact, I strongly suspect that mystical feelings could exist in many other mammals that are endowed with a limbic system that is very much like our own. And why can't dogs have out-of-body experiences?
No reason, so far as I can tell from watching our dog dream on her pad next to the television set, her paws scrabbling as if she's in hot pursuit of that squirrel which always manages to elude her.
I can easily picture her dreaming of leaving her canine form and soaring up to the tree branch where the squirrel chatters away at our Serena.
Who, you have to admit, looks divine. So, yes, I'm ready to accept that other mammals share our so-called "spiritual" experiences.