The God Impulse: Is Religion Hardwired into the Brain?
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Why do people have near-death experiences? Are there physical explanations for those out-of-body sensations and tunnels of light? And what about moments of spiritual ecstasy? If Buddha had been in an MRI machine and not under the Bodhi tree when he attained enlightenment, what would we have seen on the monitor? In THE GOD IMPULSE, Kevin Nelson, a neurologist with three decades' experience examining the biology behind human spirituality, deconstructs the spiritual self, uncovering its origin in the most primitive areas of our brain.
Through his revolutionary studies on near-death experience, Nelson has discovered that spiritual experience is an incidental product of several different neurological processes acting independently. When we feel close to God or sense the presence of departed relatives, we may believe that we are standing at the border of this world and the next as individual, autonomous, rational creatures-touching God. The reality is far different: our brain function resembles a Cubist painting by Picasso or Braque, and the experiences we regard as the height of our humanity are in fact produced by primal reflexes.
THE GOD IMPULSE takes us on a journey into what Nelson calls the borderlands of consciousness. The book offers the first comprehensive, empirically-tested, peer-reviewed examination of the reasons we are capable of near-death experience, out-of-body experience, and the mystical states produced by hallucinogenic drugs.
go. The left leg was no better. I had little sensation of the legs moving and could not feel where they were in space. This gave me the strange sense that I was disconnected from the waist down. I could see the legs, but they felt as if they were strung to some other puppet master. Our muscles must contract and relax in a tightly coordinated way to smoothly move our limbs, whether we’re walking across the room or racing downhill on skis. After my operation, nerves normally conveying my leg
consciousness is directly connected to visceral responses during fight-or-flight. As Homo erectus’s blood pressure failed and he lay limp in the big cat’s jaws, he personally could have been well served by escaping into REM consciousness as he died. When David Livingstone, the famous Scottish missionary and explorer, found himself in a lion’s jaws, the shock, he wrote, “caused a sense of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain or feeling of terror, though [I was] quite conscious of all
scientific studies to detect and quantify mystical experiences. How could an experience that is by its very nature “beyond words” be reliably explored with questions? Although personal religion and spirituality form a complex and dynamic process, that process can be studied with psychological methods. The MRI allows us to accurately measure subjective experience—what individual brains are doing or not doing as subjects experience fear, pleasure, and joy. And along with many other areas of MRI
John Hughlings Jackson studied complex epileptic spells and alterations of consciousness, which he called “dreamy states.” Jean-Martin Charcot’s renowned descriptions of neurological disease, culled from subjects in a huge asylum in Paris, lured a young Sigmund Freud from Vienna. It was Charcot’s cases of “hysteria” that eventually led Freud to study the psychological mind and found the field of psychiatry, which is tightly linked to neurology (in the United States today, psychiatrists and
REM consciousness. That could not only account for out-of-body experiences, but also for the mystical during near-death experiences. Perhaps the connection between mystical experiences and REM consciousness is more direct than I first thought. The self is contained within consciousness. From the neurologist’s perspective, it is difficult to imagine—no matter how powerful the sense of a complete loss of self in mystical union is—that no vestige of the self remains while consciousness is present