Obrigada, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain

. . . or more specifically, Kevin Nelson, M.D., for writing a book that’s kept me not just awake but *engaged* on my commute into the Upper East Side each morning.

I found the book by searching for “neurology and spirituality” on the Brooklyn Public Library’s online catalog.  Honestly, I didn’t manage to unearth much – except for this little gem right here.

About half of the book deals with near death experiences, Dr. Nelson’s area of expertise, but what really interests me are his descriptions of the “architecture” of spiritual experience in general.  Nelson begins with a brief history of the study of the brain in relationship to spirituality.  Whereas Hippocrates (the Greek father of modern medicine) believed the cerebral cortex to be the doorway to the spirit, Descartes believed it to be the pineal.  The author sides with the Taoist tradition in their belief that the brainstem is the “Mouth of God” (Nelson later relates this assertion to his observation that “two different minds from the two discrete hemispheres of the brain, which have very different attributes, must lead to different expressions of the sacred”).

The more I read, the more notes I take, some simply for my own review at a later date, still others to share with students in my yoga classes.

Did you know . . .

  • That the default brain state is belief.  It takes more brain activity to work out if a statement is false than it does to decide it’s true (Harris, Sheth, Cohen, UCLA)
  • The pineal gland, now situated at the center of our brains and responsible for melatonin production, was once a cluster of photo-sensitive cells at the tops of our heads.  It was a kind of third-eye, when our evolutionary ancestors were once birds and reptiles.  Now *there’s* a biological basis for the sahasrara chakra (or the ajna, depending on how you see it)!
  • Charles Lieber (Harvard) is producing a kind of nanotechnology that allows matter to interact with the brain’s energy (the wires used are only a few nanometers wide.  To put that into perspective, a strand of hair is 100,000 nanometers wide!).  This allows Lieber’s team to detect signals from individual nerves on a circuit board that creates a grid of neural reflexes.  This is close to mimicking the natural synapses that connect nerves – a much more accurate reading of brain activity than an MRI, which can only observe blood flow (and cannot observe inhibition of flow).
  • Our right and left hemispheres are really two separate consciousnesses.  I’ve always suspected this a bit, being sensitive to dichotomies in my own personality, and observing the bigger yin/yang, sun/moon, ebb/flow, Jekyll/Hyde binary relationships in life.  But the experiments on a split-brain patient named Paul (his corpus callosum had been severed) at Cornell Medical Center illustrate these internal opposites beautifully.  “When asked to rate what he ‘liked or disliked,’ his hemispheres were in accord.  Both liked TV, sex, school, church, and the Fonz.  Only “dope” was discordant: the right brain liked it while the left disliked it “very much.”  As researchers proved, other differences emerged.  Paul’s right hemisphere wanted him to become a race car driver; his left, a draftsman.”  (And the TED video by Jill Bolte takes it to another level!)

I’m nowhere near completing the book, but so far it’s been educational, entertaining and enlightening all at the same time.  I haven’t been so stoked on a book since Hanson’s “Buddha’s Brain.”  Big thanks to the Brooklyn Public Library system, too – I get to read all this goodness for free!

Reppin’ BPL

If you’re interested in reading more from the author, Dr. Nelson writes regularly for Psychology Today.  Though I would not agree that “spiritual experience happens in the brain” (I would say our *perception* of that experience happens in the brain.  *Where* it is occurring may be more of a question for quantum physicists), the research he presents is fascinating, and his delivery makes for truly enjoyable reading.

From V.S. Ramachandran: “Bold, provocative, and highly readable . . . ”

From Oliver Sacks: “A landmark in our understanding of human nature.”

And yes, he’s been featured in Oprah’s magazine!

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