Book Review: The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain, by Kevin Nelson, M.D.

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.

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4 Responses to Book Review: The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain, by Kevin Nelson, M.D.

  1. Page 28 says:

    Don’t we already quite well know drugs that can induce such experiences hah? Of course they can indeed create “bad trips,” but the experiences certainly occur. I think those futuristic-styled questions you ask have actually already been answered in their own little ways.

    An odd thought though, if there really is any transcendent or metaphysical side to our reality, I wonder that it could well be linked or induced by physical means. But, like many, I but wonder. I’m glad the writer takes the stance he does on experience though. For instance, regardless of how true it may be that I don’t really have “free will,” I don’t really care and I like to think that I do. It’s functionally important at least. 🙂

    • kagmi says:

      That is a good point. We certainly know that some drugs can cause experiences perceived by their users as divine. Nelson even cites multiple studies done in the years before the government crackdown on hallucinogenic research, in which subjects overall reported “positive and lasting life-changing effects” as a result of taking certain hallucinogens.

      The funny thing about hallucinogens, which I didn’t exactly get to mention here, is that nobody has any bloody idea how they actually work. So in a way they don’t help answer our question much.

      For a long time it was thought that hallucinogens produced hallucinations by acting on the brain’s serotonin-2 receptors, and a lot of research was consistent with this theory. But then along came some research which blatantly contradicted it, so out went that theory. Dr. Nelson tries attributing the spiritual effects of hallucinogens to the serotonin-2 receptors, which is quite possible–the spiritual effects and the sensory hallucinations produced by these drugs might work by two separate mechanisms. But if they work by the same mechanism, then it’s not the serotonin-2 receptor…and we have no bloody idea what it is. Which seems like a pretty crazy thing not to know in light of the fact that knowing it would tell us loads about how both our sensory perceptions and life-altering emotional experiences work.

      This is to me one of the most intriguing areas of research in psychopharmacology. When they do eventually figure out how and why hallucinatory drugs have the effects they do…it’s going to be a whole new era, for society in general probably.

      Reading this book was kind of funny for me because it reminded me of the technical limitations we still face. We can do things today in brain science that are light years beyond where we were decades ago. But there’s still a TON we can’t actually access to study, because of the limitations of our technology. We can de-activate some parts of the brain on command, but there are many parts of the brain where using that technique is too dangerous. We can measure brain activity with previously undreamt of accuracy using fMRI machines, but even that technology is pretty useless for studying any brain state that lasts less than five minutes.

      It’s humbling, how far we still have left to go technologically before we can get the data we need to answer certain questions.

      • Page 28 says:

        Off of your last comment, I am reminded that we still have not discovered the specific physical manifestation of memory, which I feel should immediately frustrate anyone who studies the brain at least as much as it does myself in passing. But indeed some good research into hallucinations would be useful as well. Just good luck convincing and bypassing all of the ethical questions.

  2. Plenty of food for thought there…and so there are new depths to “Virtual Reality” then!

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