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Publications Book Reviews
A Neuroscientists’s Case for the Existence of the Soul
Reviewed by Diane Hennacy Powell, MD on Dec. 1, 2007
Do we have religious/spiritual/mystical experiences (RSMEs) only because our brains are hardwired for them? Or does the brain activity measured during RSMEs provide evidence that people really are in contact with Divine Consciousness? Is consciousness generated by our brains, or do near-death experiences prove that our consciousness can survive beyond our brains? Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and journalist Denyse O’Leary teamed up to explore such questions in their book, The Spiritual Brain.
Most neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists ascribe RSMEs to the brain’s chemical and electrical activity. Their underlying assumption is that the identification of biological correlates for RSMEs is proof that they are illusions, and sensationalized claims have been made of discovering a “God gene,” a “God module,” a “God spot,” and even a “God helmet” that electromagnetically induces RSMEs. Beauregard and O’Leary maintain that these conclusions are products of faulty and reductionistic reasoning: “The fact that mystical experiences and states may have identifiable neural correlates (which are the only aspect that neuroscience can actually study) has typically been interpreted by journalists as suggesting that the experiences are somehow a delusion. In itself, that is a confused idea, equivalent to assuming that if hitting a home run has identifiable neural correlates, the home run is a delusion.”
The Spiritual Brain is rich with observations from scientists, theologians, philosophers, and others that reveal a variety of attitudes and beliefs about science and religion. For example, neuroscientist Zvani Rossetti, who opposed allowing the Dalai Lama to speak at the 2005 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, asserts, “Neuroscience more than other disciplines is the science at the interface between modern philosophy and science. No opportunity should be given to anybody to use neuroscience for supporting transcendent views of the world.” Beauregard begs to differ, perhaps because of his own transcendental experience. He is among the scientists trying to understand, rather than discount, these experiences. Beauregard obtained permission from reclusive Carmelite nuns to study their brains during RSMEs. The 14 nuns who participated in his research had collectively spent 210,000 hours in silent prayer, which made them masters at feeling a sense of communion with the Divine. Beauregard used fMRI (which uses powerful magnetic fields to measure the brain’s blood flow) and QEEG (which measures electrical activity by using scalp electrodes) in his study. Both methods showed brain activity in the nuns during RSMEs that involved different regions in a variety of functions, “such as self-consciousness, emotion, body representation, visual and motor imagery, and spiritual perception.” While Beauregard plainly states that “the results of the studies . . . dispose of the notion that there is a God spot in the temporal lobes of the brain that can somehow ‘explain’ RSMEs,” he also concedes that science will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of a God or higher consciousness “from one side only. What we can do is determine the patterns that are consistent with certain types of experiences.”
The book’s main objective is to show that science has been misdirected, especially in its materialist view of the mind and brain as bluntly expressed by artificial intelligence guru Marvin Minsky: “The human mind is a computer made out of meat.” Minsky’s view is incompatible with our sense of free will, our sense of self, and the power of our minds to rewire our brains through psychotherapy and contemplative practices. It also will never lead to resolving the question of how something material—that is, our brains—could generate something as immaterial as consciousness. To support their case for a nonmaterial mind, Beauregard and O’Leary briefly discuss research on near-death experiences, the placebo effect, psychic abilities, the efficacy of prayer, and the connection between spirituality and health. Evidence that the materialist model needs to change is definitely available, but it appears to be insufficient to change the minds of many scientists. As artificial intelligence pioneer Alan Turing explains: “These disturbing phenomena seem to deny all our usual scientific ideas. How we should like to discredit them! Unfortunately, the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming. It is very difficult to rearrange one’s ideas so as to fit these new facts in.”
If you would like a better understanding of the ideas that need rearranging and why, The Spiritual Brain is a good place to begin.