Recently I picked up Kevin Nelson's book, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience, after reading it quite a few years ago. I first heard of Nelson, a leading researcher in near-death experiences, via a New Scientist article that I blogged about in 2010.
Not surprisingly, in his book Nelson concludes that spiritual experiences are decidedly physical. In his Epilogue, he writes:
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 the 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 that "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.
...We are all of this world, and my experience optimistically compels me to believe that understanding the brain as a spiritual organ strengthens our quest for meaning and complements a mature spirituality. My deepest hope is that this quest will ultimately bring us to a new birth of wisdom.
In his chapter, "The Fragmented Self," Nelson makes an interesting point. An obvious one, really, but something that gets ignored by those who claim that they went beyond their self into a sense of spiritual or mystical oneness.
If someone truly has no self, they have no way of remembering that they had an experience where they lacked a self. In other words, it takes a self to know that you don't have a self. Nelson writes:
The self, like consciousness, can fragment. And when we look closely, it may be that a little piece of the self remains even in the most powerful experiences of self-transcendence. After we delve into the way the brain constructs the self, we see that the complete loss of self, even in the most powerful of mystical experiences, is a dubious proposition.
...It is strange, even paradoxical, that the loss of self becomes one of the most powerful experiences that we can own, usually becoming deeply embedded in our lifelong self-identity.
There is no doubt afterward that the "me" of the experience owns the feelings, sensations, knowledge, and aftermath of the types of spiritual experience that involve loss of self! So powerful is this ownership that it often becomes integrated into our enduring religious beliefs and deepest aspirations.