This book is a godsend (no pun intended) for anyone with an interest in both neurology and spirituality. Dr. Nelson, a neurologist, describes how one particular patient’s account of a life-changing vision at death’s door inspired him to begin researching near-death experiences.
It turns out that these experiences are ridiculously common in medical settings. One study showed that 1/4 of patients who suffer cardiac arrest and live to tell about it have some sort of “divine,” “afterlife,” or “out-of-body” experience during their crisis. Dr. Nelson relates to the reader dozens of accounts of such experience, ranging from the traditional (one of Nelson’s own patients had his life changed by the sight of Jesus and the Devil arguing over his soul) to the downright bizarre (one atheist met the Egyptian gods, while another woman was greeted at the pearly gates by Elvis).
In addition to this wealth of case studies, Nelson puts his neurologists’ specialty to good use–he describes several wiring systems in the brain which he believes could cause aspects of near-death experiences in response to adrenaline and low blood pressure in a time of crisis. He puts together evidence from far-flung fields and their implications for our understanding of life, death, and the divine. I had no idea, prior to reading this, that nerves in the heart related to blood pressure can cause REM sleep disturbances, or that there’s such a thing as Cotard’s syndrome, in which a person believes, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that they are dead.
Though some may be frustrated by Nelson’s insistence upon finding an explanation for our most powerful spiritual experiences in evolutionary biology, he shows a profound respect for the power of these experiences–he states at several points that finding a neurological basis for such experiences will not make them any less “real,” and his interest seems to be in learning how to make use of these life-changing experiences rather than in debunking them. As a neurologist, he has no choice but to have a unique perspective–while many people see their own near-death experience as proof of a particular religion, doctors are witness to both the power and variety of these experiences.
I don’t wholly buy Nelson’s attempt to explain every single aspect of mystical near-death experiences through known mechanisms in the brain. As scientists who aren’t working off a great deal of hard data are wont to do–Carl Sagan himself once attempted to explain near-death experiences as memories of exiting the birth canal–Nelson indulges in a lot of speculation that is not yet backed by experimental evidence. But by pulling information on everything from rare autoimmune disorders, psychedelic drug research, and military fighter jet training, he offers some very convincing leads for where in the brain we might look for the mystical as our tools for studying it improve.
In his epilogue, Nelson poses a fantastic question–if, in some future, we untangled the mystery of the profound mystical experiences which are today a once-in-a-lifetime event for a lucky few–could we produce a drug that would produce these reliably? And if so, how would we use it? What would it do to our daily lives, and to our societies, if the indescribable “oneness” which for many has wrought positive life-changes beyond the reach of any medicine or therapy, were available on demand? Who would regulate it? And how would doctors like Nelson himself have a responsibility to use–or not use–such a drug on terminally ill patients?
Now there is a question for science fiction.