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The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience
Kevin Nelson, M. D.
Nonfiction 326 pages
Dutton. 2011

Concentrating on near death experiences (NDEs), and to a lesser extent, other spiritual experiences, Kevin Nelson asks how these experiences arise in the brain. He identifies the brain portions and conditions typically involved in NDEs and related experiences. For example, one cause of NDEs can be loss of blood flow to the brain. When blood is cut off to both the brain and the eyes, tunnel vision may result. This may explain why people who have had NDEs report traveling down a tunnel. The bright light they report at the tunnel’s end may be light observed through partially closed eyelids. When blood is cut off to the temporoparietal area, patients may experience an unobserved presence or a sense of being outside their bodies.

Fright is another factor that can trigger a NDE. Nelson cites the NDE experienced by the Russian author, Dostoevsky, when he faced a mock execution in front of a firing squad.

Near death experiences arise, Nelson believes, in a unique state of consciousness that is neither wakefulness nor sleep. This is the state that some people experience just prior to falling asleep, upon awakening, or occasionally while awake. Those who have had NDEs are more likely to have experienced dreaming while awake than are those who came close to death without experiencing the unique consciousness associated with NDEs.

Normally, we are either awake or asleep. Several microscopic components in the brain’s locus coeruleus act as a switch toggling us between wakefulness and dreaming. Pain, low blood pressure, or lack of oxygen can cause a portion of the switch called the vlPAG to flip us into a dreaming state or rapid eye movement (REM) consciousness.

When the vlPAG suddenly flips their consciousness, people are likely to report having out of body experiences and a sense of well being. While being bitten by a lion, explorer, David Livingston experienced, “… a sense of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain or feeling of terror …” Although such experiences occur when the body is in crisis, they can occur at other times as well. Nelson quotes a woman who was “lying anxiously in bed, halfway between being awake and asleep,” who had a sudden out of body experience.

Two portions of the brain, the temporoparital, and the dorso-lateral prefrontal, regions use little energy during REM sleep. They can be said to be turned off. However, during lucid dreaming,  the dorso-lateral prefrontal region remains turned on. People experiencing lucid dreams are aware that they are dreaming. For hundreds of years, some practitioners of Buddhism in Tibet have trained themselves to experience lucid dreams. Trained lucid dreamers have reported experiencing emotions ranging from fear to ecstasy. Nelson quotes a lucid dreamer’s report of a joyous out of body experience. Afterward, “The euphoria lasted several days, the memory, forever.”

There is a strong similarity between the experiences reported by those who have had vivid lucid dreams and those who have had near death experiences. If the vlPAG suddenly flips consciousness into REM while the dorso-lateral pre-frontal region remains turned on, then one can be dreaming while awake, and perhaps having a spiritual experience or NDE.

Such experiences can be life-changing, but do they prove life after death or the existence of God? There is no reason to think so. However, if the brain is the locus of human experience, that doesn’t refute the possibility of an afterlife or of God’s existence. Countless souls have staked their belief in the divine on their spiritual experiences, regardless of whether or not those experiences arise in the brain.

Those who have had spiritual experiences as well as 42 percent of those who have had NDEs report having had a sense of unity, peace and joy. However, Nelson is unconvinced that spiritual experiences are necessarily accompanied by REM sleep intrusions into wakeful consciousness. He feels that such experiences arise in the brainstem and specifically involve serotonin receptors which are numerous in that region. He cites the experiences of John Lilly who experimented with sensory deprivation chambers and later with LSD in conjunction with sensory deprivation.

The use of powerful hallucinogens does not guarantee spiritual experience. I’ve known those for whom it brought paranoia rather than bliss. Nelson quotes a man named Frank for whom psychoactive substances brought about a religious delusion. Frank was able to shake his delusion but experienced depression in the process. Clearly psychoactive drugs aren’t toys.

Hospital patients can choose either to be, or not to be, resuscitated. There may come a time when those nearing death can choose whether, or not, to be raptured. When science allows us such choices, it risks offending the religious. Never-the-less, Nelson is hopeful that a new wisdom will arise from considering the brain as a spiritual organ.