The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience


"Bold, provocative, and highly readable."
-V. S. Ramachandran, M.D., author of Phantoms in the Brain

What are near-death experiences, out-of-body sensations, and spiritual ecstasy? And what do they have in common? Perhaps no one is more qualified to answer these questions than renowned neurobiologist Dr. Kevin Nelson. Drawing on his more than three decades of groundbreaking research into the "borderlands of consciousness," Dr. Nelson offers an ...

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The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience

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"Bold, provocative, and highly readable."
-V. S. Ramachandran, M.D., author of Phantoms in the Brain

What are near-death experiences, out-of-body sensations, and spiritual ecstasy? And what do they have in common? Perhaps no one is more qualified to answer these questions than renowned neurobiologist Dr. Kevin Nelson. Drawing on his more than three decades of groundbreaking research into the "borderlands of consciousness," Dr. Nelson offers an unprecedented journey into the site of spiritual experience: the brain. Filled with amazing firsthand accounts as varied as a patient seeing the devil battling with his guardian angel to a man watching the universe synchronize around a pinball machine, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain is an eloquent examination of our brains' spiritual "hardwiring" that will enthrall believers and skeptics alike.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Inspired by his 30 years as a doctor collecting stories of near-death experiences as well as his personal experience, the author examines the stories of people who have reported out-of-body experiences. Those experiences are described in a variety of ways: as a sense of flying a jet aircraft, or walking on the beach, or watching the universe synchronize with a ball bouncing in a pinball machine. Nelson spends a great deal of the book examining dynamics of the brain and how memory functions; he includes chapters on sleep and taking drugs. He presents the brain as a “spiritual organ” full of wisdom. “The borderlands of spiritual experience affect a very special expression of consciousness, the sense of our individual self—the first person perspective of the ‘me’ which is, except in rare cases, where most of us live,” he writes. This book presents a number of diverse occurrences but will not touch the nerve of the spiritual reader. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews

Examination of the neurological foundations of out-of-body and near-death experiences, from an expert on the subject.

Nelson (Neurology/Univ. of Kentucky) has spent decades exploring what underlies spiritual experiences, so there is more to this book than physiological probing. In particular, the author is sensitive to the intensity of a transcendent moment, how it "deeply moves us or transports us and connects us in one way or another with something larger than ourselves." As a neurologist, however, he seeks an explanation based on well-established brain mechanisms. Nelson builds the explanation slowly, presenting current thinking behind consciousness and self ("mysterious and elusive, hotly debated and now awesomely arcane"); introducing appropriate anecdotal material to illustrate a variety of spiritual encounters and milieus; and taking lay readers into the brain's architecture. The author is especially interested in the borderland created when "[p]art of the dreaming brain erupts in a brain already awake," blending REM dream states with waking consciousness and provoking hallmarks of the near-death or spiritual experiences, such as the tunnel, the blinding light, life review and bliss. Each of these experiences is known to have a physiological basis, and they conspicuously overlap in that fuzzy space where the REM features of visual activation, paralysis and the dream narrative, among others, intrude into the waking state. Of course, this does not touch upon other varieties of spiritual experience—especially, Nelson notes, mystical oneness—but it draws attention to the correspondences between common features of spiritual experiences and the mind. And not just the mind—"through its nerves the heart can cause REM consciousness in waking times." Blood supply is the major player in near-death experiences, writes the author, but also, "spiritual experiences should be judged by the profundity of their effect on us—not by what causes them."

Nelson is humble and balanced, wary of our perception of consciousness and infectiously fascinated by how the brain shapes it.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452297586
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/28/2012
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 661,408
  • Product dimensions: 5.51 (w) x 8.06 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Kevin Nelson is the author of fifteen books, including The Golden Game, The Greatest Stories Ever Told (About Baseball), and Baseball's Greatest Quotes. He has also written articles for a variety of local and national publications such as Men's Fitness, Ski, Sport, Women's Sports and Fitness, San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Jose Mercury News.

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Read an Excerpt


At the foot of the bed

“Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour . . .” —I Peter 5:8

This book began nearly thirty years ago, when I was training as a neurologist at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. Neurology interns do a year of internal medicine, and I had a Hispanic patient named Joe Hernandez, who was under my care for his diabetes and heart disease. Joe was a weathered man, a laborer who’d spent much of his life outside in the Southwest desert. We quickly formed a bond, although our backgrounds were completely different.

I had been raised in a modest but comfortable home in the small town of Grand Haven, a conservative Dutch Protestant community on the shore of Lake Michigan, nearly two hundred miles north of Chicago.

Even as an adolescent, I was fascinated by the study of the brain and knew that I wanted to be a neurologist—not a family doc, cardiologist, or any other medical specialty. At Michigan State, I gravitated toward the emerging field of behavioral neurology, which studies how the brain coordinates the amalgam of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and memories we call the self. It investigated what happens when you stimulate or disable specific parts of the brain: why, for example, a stroke victim who suffered a lesion on the right side of his brain completely ignored the left side of his body; or why, as Oliver Sacks famously noted, a man could mistake his wife for a hat.

That was the kind of work I wanted to do. My undergraduate thesis involved chemically stimulating a tiny region of a female rat’s brain and then recording whether she would let a male rat mount her. Like the behavioral neurologists, I wanted to understand how specific behaviors stem from precise locations in the brain.

Through localizing brain function, the behavioral neurologists had shown that who we think we are is a complicated and rather fragile synthetic process orchestrated by our brains. When something interferes with that process, our reality and sense of self quickly and dramatically fragment. While most of us view our “self” as concrete and coherent, akin to, say, Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa, to a neurologist the self is more like Picasso’s cubist portrait of Dora Maar, his lover and muse: a fragmented amalgam of fractured planes. Or, if you prefer Impressionism, our view of the self is a little like a water lily by Monet: at a glance it looks coherent, but up close you realize its harmonious appearance is an illusion, that the object you saw at a distance is actually a bundle of discrete and unconnected parts.

It was this fragmentary nature of the self that I wanted to study, which is how I found myself as a neurology intern at the University of New Mexico Hospital, caring for Joe.

Not long after entering my care, Joe had a massive heart attack and spent more than a week in the ICU. Frankly, I didn’t think he was going to make it, and I was much relieved when he pulled through.

I attributed his recovery to his tenacious spirit and sound medical care. But Joe had a very different explanation for why he was still alive, as I learned soon after his discharge when he came to see me for a follow- up examination.

“Doc, I have a gift for you!” he exclaimed right off and handed over a photo of an incredibly realistic oil painting, a self-portrait. Joe was in the ICU. Bright lights blazed. A battery of medical instruments stood to one side of his bed. Intravenous bottles hung above him; tubes fed into both his arms. Although it was clear that he hovered between life and death, Joe had depicted himself as awake and alert.

At the foot of his bed stood Satan, a devil with horns in a red robe.

“He had come to claim my soul,” Joe explained. “But look, here is my guardian angel.” An angel with a halo and wings outstretched stood between Satan and Joe.

“The devil, he was stronger,” said Joe. “He was about to take my soul. And then my savior Jesus appeared and the devil vanished. I was greatly relieved, for then I knew my health and soul were safe, and I would be allowed to remain on earth a little while longer. Jesus came to save me. Doctor, it is a miracle!”

“Perhaps it was a dream,” I suggested as gently as I could. I judged Joe’s near-death experience to be a quaint blend of cultural myth and illusion. My training in neurology told me that he had been hallucinating. Joe, however, was adamant: his experience had been absolutely real.

I often thought about Joe’s painting in the following months. What struck me was the vividness and intensity of the experience it portrayed—characteristics that sharply distinguished it from common illusions or dreams. Even at the beginning of my career, I knew that patients, in retrospect, typically recognize hallucinations for what they are: hallucinations. But Joe was firmly convinced that a battle for his soul had really occurred in the ICU.

I knew that the brain that fuses Monet’s strokes of color to perceive a water lily was also responsible for the hyperrealistic image Joe saw when he was close to death. As a fledgling neurologist, it was natural for me to take the same tack as Picasso and deconstruct the brain processes battling for Joe’s soul. What was the locus of brain activity responsible for what had clearly been for Joe a deeply important religious experience?

In the late 1970s, neurology had little or nothing to say on these points. Why was that? I wondered. I filed away these questions and practiced conventional neurology, focusing on diseases of muscles and nerves. But I came to realize over the years that the power of Joe’s experience had made an indelible impression on me, and the questions it raised about the nature of brain activity near death persisted. I kept my ears tuned for other experiences like Joe’s, and, to my amazement, I found these or similar experiences were common among neuroscientists and respected physicians in other fields, who were often left shaken by them, guarding them closely and divulging them somewhat reluctantly, as if they were kooky anomalies, shameful secrets that ran afoul of science. I began to collect these stories into what I thought in a vague way might one day become a book. And I continued to puzzle over why, aside from an occasional sporadic report, neuroscience dismissed near-death and what I had come to see as other related experiences: out-of-body events (which occur in one in twenty people), visions of dead relatives or spiritual teachers, and a pervasive sense of bliss that often has to do with feeling union with God or the universe: a feeling that has been called “oneness.”

The way spirituality manifested itself in the brain was largely ignored—even derided—by my peers. There were reasons for this, of course, but the roots of neurology’s derisive attitude toward the spiritual came about relatively recently, when neurology and psychiatry split into separate disciplines in the early twentieth century (people often forget that Freud began his medical training as a neurologist). Psychiatry took purview on subjective experience and mind, while neurology and neurologists focused exclusively on the physical brain.

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Table of Contents

Prologue at the Foot of the Bed 1

Part 1 The Architecture 13

1 What is a Spiritual Experience?: From Fear, to Pinball, to Fields of Daisies 15

2 The Three States of Consciousness: And Where Spiritual Arousal Happens 37

3 The Fragmented SelfHow We Become Our Own False Witness 59

Part 2 At the Doorway 91

4 The Varieties of Near-Death Experience: Telling Stories 93

5 The Brain at Death's Portal: Light and Blood 119

6 The Ancient Metronome: The Tempo from Fear to Spiritual Bliss 151

7 The Borderland of Dreams and Death: What May Come? 185

Part 3 The Other Side 219

8 The Beauty and Terror of Oneness: Deep Within the Mystic's Brain 221

Epilogue: A New Birth of Wisdom 257

Notes 263

Refernces and Resources 275

Acknowledgments 307

Index 311

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  • Posted January 6, 2011

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    Can advanced neuroscience validate or disprove profound spiritual experience?

    With major advancements in neurological science and our ability to understand the functioning of the human brain to minutest of details, have we reached a point where science can completely explain what for centuries have been deemed our most meaningful, spiritual experiences?

    In The Spiritual Doorway In The Brain, Kevin Nelson, M.D. tackles this difficult question in an exploration that will suit medical professionals, mystics, and laypersons alike. Scientific understanding of the chemical exchanges and electrical impulses in the brain have provided a clear explanation of exactly what happens to us biologically when experiencing what could be deemed spiritual, religious, or mystical events. Basing his theories on extensive studies of patients who have described having both near-death and mystical experiences, Nelson explains the various brain functions that result in common symptoms like tunnel vision, bright or intensive light, out-of-body experiences, feelings of paralysis or being dead, one's life flashing before his eyes, blissfulness, and the meeting of religious figures or deceased friends and relatives. These symptoms can all be explained through chemical reaction or blood flow and oxygenation of the brain and heart.

    Many of these same symptoms can be traced to the REM state of consciousness, the same state of consciousness that brings on dreams. In fact, Nelson points out the startling similarities between near-death or religious experiences and lucid dreams. He also scientifically explains that the brain chemistries of certain individuals are more susceptible to near-death or other spiritual experiences. The examples and experiments cited provide a compelling argument that what may have been deemed an experience of the divine may actually be normal brain functionality.

    On the other hand, science offers little explanation for one of the primary symptoms of near-death and mystical experiences. The feeling of "oneness" with the universe or of losing a sense of self and becoming singular with cosmic consciousness typically becomes the life-changing experience for those who claim to have witnessed the divine. How does science explain the renewed sense of purpose and meaning that those who have come close to death or experienced spiritual transcendence claim to feel? Nelson offers his hypotheses but states that science has not advanced far enough to explain these phenomena as of yet. He is sure that these explanations are on the horizon.

    The conclusion of the book is explained by the title itself. Although neuroscience has been able to explain exactly how the human brain functions as it relates to mystical, religious, or near-death experiences, science cannot explain exactly why humans (and possibly other mammals, according to Nelson) have spiritual experiences. Science and faith can co-exist in harmony as long as one remembers that the how and why of any situation are two independent concepts. Neuroscience's explanation of brain functionality does little to diminish faith in God or spiritual experience. This objective, well-researched book is a revolutionary balance between the mystical and scientific realms and can benefit those who study both ends of the spectrum.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 27, 2011

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    Great Read!

    Just finished this book after spending a week or two reading it. Kevin Nelson has a great way of explaining complex neurological processes in simple terms that even a laymen, like myself, can understand. I have found myself, a 20 year old college student, surrounded by friends who claim the supernatural, and I am glad this was the first book on the subject I picked up to read. I'm glad to know that scientists have been and are studying spiritual experiences and I hope to be part of that journey in the coming years.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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