Travel in the Spiritual Worlds
A Noted Neurologist's Attempt to "reverse-engineer" NDEs and Out-of-body experience
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A Critique of a Noted Neurologist's Effort to "Reverse Engineer" the Near-Death Experience

Based on a Book by Kevin Nelson M.D. titled The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain (Dutton Publishers)

In the field of medical scientific inquiry, we see neurologists such as Kevin Nelson M.D. who in good faith try to apply the latest neurological evidence and methods to explain Near-death experience (NDE) and other mystical or religious experiences. Dr. Nelson's 2011 book, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain, is a comprehensive work that purports to provide "empirically tested and peer-reviewed explanations of the biology behind these experiences". One must complement researchers such as Dr. Nelson who wish to tackle these difficult issues when others in his field often dismiss such research as lacking merit and unworthy of research funding. In addition, Dr. Nelson is willing to examine a range of writings spanning books by the philosopher William James to the accounts of Hollywood celebrities describing their NDEs.

It is rare for a medical doctor to consider such a wide range of sources both medical and popular in the search for truth.

The process of neurologists selecting brain components and the interactions between them to explain Near-death Experience is a difficult and some might say highly error prone effort at reverse engineering the Near-death Experience (NDE). We can see this because the knowledge neurologists have about the nervous system as it nears death would be highly unlikely to predict most or any of the nine elements of the NDE listed below. Since prediction is unlikely, the only option is to take the NDE and work backwards to the structure of the brain and nervous system. One of the two central goals of science is prediction and working backwards goes against the grain of the scientific enterprise. If neuro-science were able to explain one or more mysterious NDE-related phenomenon in advance of their happening using the theories detailed in the book, it might help establish some credibility for Dr. Nelson's claims about NDEs and their origins.

Working backwards from a multi-stage set of experiences some of which have multiple sub-stages produces a large number of difficult to test hypothesis, and what appear to be a variety of guesses. Square pegs must be made to fit in round holes. The process sometimes comes to look less like scientific inquiry and more like religious apologetics where Biblical scholars try to make a wide variety of contradictory and unrelated biblical statements into a coherent theology.

Let us begin our exploration by first addressing the implied notion in Dr. Nelson's book that he is sympathetic and respectful of NDEs and other religious experiences.

In the Cartesian world view of Western philosophy upon which science is based, the spiritual realm is opposed to and distinct from the material or biological realm. If a phenomenon is material in origin, though it may appear to be spiritual, this is but an illusion, or a trick of the mind. This book presents a reductionist model even though the language of spirituality is sometimes respected and finessed during the process of scientific investigation.

Dr. Nelson is basically a reductionist thinker and researcher as are almost all scientists no matter how much respect is given to inner experience. In spite of the goal of respect, materialist's efforts to be sensitive to spiritual experiences are destined to failure since they are convinced prior to any investigation that such experience is one hundred percent a product of the physical brain and nervous system.

This approach completely denies the existence of a spiritual world, and sees human consciousness as a biological function. It is difficult to respect an experience that you consider illusory, and efforts to appear respectful are often not sincere or are quite limited. This halting respect (or disrespect) is transferred to people who have religious experience because they are living in a world filled with illusions and can be considered immature or pathological.

Children, psychotics, the maladapted, religious believers, primitives, romantics, and other weak and uneducated people accept and rely on illusions for meaning but modern, educated Western people see both the universe and the mind as they truly are - machines to be taken apart piece by piece and understood. Freud's seminal work The Future of an Illusion expresses perfectly the scientist's disrespectful attitude towards religion.

Those, such as the author of this essay, who believe this mechanistic world view to be valuable only as a construct, a paradigm, or set of useful assumptions in science but ultimately false in denying an underlying spiritual reality are therefore motivated to critique such reductionist theories. There is essentially zero evidence that consciousness originates in the brain. Claiming that it does is like believing that the water that comes from a sink faucet originates in the faucet itself because the faucet can either stop the flow entirely or change its quantity from a drip to a spray to a continuous flow.

Scientists are experts at doubting the claims of religious people or those who claim deeper experience such as those who have NDEs. So let us turn the table on a representative neurologist and proceed with our critique.

Science's Use of Pre-scientific Reasoning

The primary question that arises is whether our neurologist's analysis is based on scientific reasoning. Let us first give an example of a pre-scientific and medieval attempt at knowledge that states that a portion of the anatomy (in this case the heart as a biological organ) is the origin of a certain flavor of emotional experience (love). Claiming love comes from the heart is difficult to distinguish from saying that fear and aggression come from the limbic system. Let us examine an example of such a pre-scientific claim.

The human heart is the source of love and vitality being as it is at the center of the human body. A vibrant and radiant heart is the basis of all warmth of human relationship, both between man and woman, and between parents and children. A hardened heart is the cause of alienation and coldness. The failure of the heart's emotional warmth and vitality can result in depression, feelings of meaninglessness and even suicide.

That love originates in the heart is clearly an unscientific or qualitative assertion.

Now lets us examine some claims by Dr. Nelson using the terminology of brain topography and see if we can distinguish whether there is a significant difference in their "scientific content" from the above pre-scientific statement.

  • Knowledge gained through the limbic system (a portion of the brain) is feeling knowledge
  • The limbic system is associated with (i.e., the source of) enhanced memory and strong emotions related to survival i.e., anxiety, terror, aggression
  • Out-of-body experience results from "Temporoparietal REM deactivation"
  • The last list item is a more complex attribution which says a class of experience occurs because a certain portion of the brain is "turned off".

    Over and over again, we see the claim that we understand some aspect of consciousness because we know its source in a set of ganglia in a region of the brain. Since the brain is like a computer, we only need to find the right chip or circuit that is the source of a certain behavior or perception and activate it. Such an approach may work to stimulate individual muscles or even localized sensations but it is a huge leap to generate dreams or NDEs. The complexity of NDEs is at least a few orders of magnitude above the complexity of a set of nerves that stimulate a muscle group.

    In the cases above, we have a scientific veneer put on pre-scientific statements that seems to add little or nothing to our knowledge. Is claiming "love comes from the heart" very different from claiming that NDEs come from an area of the brain that controls dreams? If knowing where dreams (or NDEs) were located in the brain told scientists something new about dreams, this location information might be of value. But it is difficult to determine how this new information adds to our knowledge or understanding of dreams just like knowing the supposed origin of love told us little about the nature of the emotion in the distant past.

    If we create a recipe for an NDE by creating a list of brain areas whose functions are combined much like a cook makes a multi-course meal to account for the properties of the NDE, do we know any more about the mechanism behind the NDE?

    Our recipe follows. MIX:

  • 1 part reward center stimulant
  • 2 parts brain stem arousal
  • 3 parts REM (imagery, narrative, and paralysis)
  • Add blood oxygen suppressant (add carbon dioxide, reduce oxygen)
  • Add ambient light to the retina
  • Add a pinch of vertigo
  • Add adrenaline to the bloodstream
  • By combining these ingredients in the proper order, you can "cook up" an NDE.

    The mixing and interaction of these items and their effect on various portions of the brain is believed to create a complex nine course meal consisting of the following NDE elements that repeat in the experiences of hundreds of individuals:

    "Hearing the news", "the noise", the dark tunnel", "being out of the body", "meeting others", "meeting a being of light", "the review", "the border", and "coming back" (An explanation of these elements can be found here) .

    Dr. Nelson uses the vague terminology of parts of the brain working "in tandem" to produce an NDE (p. 117) rather than the recipe metaphor but a recipe seems to be a better analogy since the mixture like the NDE varies over time as different ingredients are added.

    This explanatory approach using brain components and their dynamics is a patchwork of observations, assumptions, and guesses that has so many holes that a detached observer might have considerable reason to doubt the "science" of neurology. The process of selecting brain elements and combining their functions to create an NDE is a questionable effort at reverse engineering the NDE. But complex psychological phenomena such as OBEs that involve watching operating room procedures, meeting and communicating with others, and the detailed life reviews that systematically appear to examine and comment on literally decades of memories, all of which occur in a predetermined sequence are a unique challenge to reverse engineer.

    We are reminded how Freud claimed to understand the origin of dreams by asserting that his clients had unconscious (hidden) motivations that formed themselves into dream narratives. The meaning of these narratives were difficult to understand because a "censor" tried to scramble their meaning to avoid upsetting the ego. The ego could not accept being shown how its primary goals were sex and aggression and the censor acted as a protective component of the mind. Freud's claims were so difficult to test that many are still not sure after 100 years and millions of hours of psychoanalysis if there is any validity to them. Many of Dr. Nelson's claims have a similar quality when it comes to testing them which makes them questionable science. The only thing missing from Freud's theory to modernize it is identifying where the ego and the censor are located in the brain. Dr. Nelson already believes he knows where dreams reside. As he notes, another example of a similar pre-scientific claim was made by Descartes who believed that the center of the soul or identity in the body resided in the pineal gland. However Dr. Nelson does not seem to realize how similar his claims of the origin of certain psychological phenomena like dreams are to Descartes' claims about where the self resides in the brain.

    Neurologists might claim that they understand a mechanism in the brain and "how it works" but stimulating an area of the brain with a probe or measuring increased blood flow to an area and detecting a corresponding change in a subject's behavior or perception in itself says little about how a portion of the brain "works". As Dr. Nelson writes in a quote, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" (p. 116) but his evidence for understanding how the brain works during NDEs seldom meets that standard. Claims that REM sleep can account for all or most of the elements of an NDE are extraordinary but the evidence provided to support this claim is not.

    We seldom see researchers require extraordinary evidence in order to cast doubt on something such as NDE claims. The smallest piece of evidence taken from almost any haphazard experiment involving only a single subject is perfectly acceptable, and discussed, explored, and written up in publications (see Nature Magazine's 2002 article Neuropsychology: Stimulating illusory own-body perceptions). However these same researchers are all to ready to require extraordinary evidence for affirmative statements about anything that appears to have a supernatural component such as an NDE.

    Neurologists sometimes seem much like realtors who repeat that "location, location, location" is the most important thing to know about the functionality of the brain and nervous system.

    It Was Only a Dream

    Another ubiquitous pre-scientific and dismissive concept is that NDEs or religious experiences are "only a dream" or a hallucination. Let's look are some "scientific" statements by our research neurologist.

  • During the transition between waking and sleeping, many of our [NDE] subjects became momentary paralyzed and had visual and auditory hallucinations. (sleep paralysis combined with hallucinations explain NDEs) (p. 9)
  • "All the key features of the NDE could be traced to REM" (i.e., they are dreams) (p. 10)
  • Appearing dead [in an NDE] is REM Paralysis
  • While studying dreams closely might give us added insight into dreams (or Rapid Eye Movement/REM states), the claim here is that they give us insight into NDEs. The most uneducated among us have routinely said that all "non-ordinary experience" is a dream or a hallucination. Educated scientists repeating such claims using scientific terminology gives little added insight or knowledge. All materialists just know that the only "real" events are based on perceptions of the physical world and our thoughts about them. Another way of saying this is that everything else is a dream or a hallucination.

    Let's examine some of the above statements. First, people do not appear dead when sleeping which is when REM occurs. They only appear dead when having an NDE because they have no pulse or respiration and sometimes no measurable brain waves. The statement that in both REM sleep and NDEs "people appear dead" is incomprehensible. The only thing they have in common is that the subjects are in some way conscious and do not (or cannot) intentionally move their bodies.

    Calling dreams REM consciousness adds little to the discussion and does not change the basic claim that NDEs are dreams. Noting that some dreaming people experience REM or sleep paralysis (also known as the "hag" in prescientific cultures) does little to explain NDEs since such experience is often not associated with hallucinations but with trouble breathing (something sitting on the dreamer's chest) and the inability to move while lying in bed when awakening from sleep. The most common definition of sleep paralysis features fear, labored breathing, and therefore increased heart-rate rather than no respiration and no heartbeat which characterizes an NDE. These two concepts are in many ways opposites.

    The author seems to be interested in the less important, more narrow definition of REM paralysis which simply means that mental actions in dreams do not affect the motor nerves. This means that the physical body remains still during dreams even though the person is mentally active in the dream. This definition adds little to the discussion of dreams and NDEs.

    However we also see another possible theory for the source the NDE's out-of-body experience. Here, feeling one is out of the body may be like feeling a "phantom limb" - it seems to be present but it is an illusion of a damaged or traumatized brain.

    So perhaps the NDE illusion arises from a completely different source than dreaming. Here we have an example of a possible "back-up" theory. The phantom limb is evidence of how the mind creates illusions based on a distorted brain-body "map". This theory is less likely than the dream theory for Dr. Nelson since it takes time to "redraw" the map and NDEs occur in a few moments (or minutes) time. But if the first theory were to prove inadequate to explain NDEs, we can propose a new one which is based on brain trauma during an NDE rather than the NDE being a variation on normal dreaming.

    False Equivalency

    Yet another issue with the book is its list of false equivalences.

    We see this in statements describing spiritual or NDE experience as "deep" and the flight-fight survival response as also deep. The questionable conclusion is that the fight-flight response is therefore strongly related to or equivalent to spiritual (or transcendent) experience. After all, they are both "deep". Similarly, survival experience is "deeply embedded" and part of our "existential core" just as spiritual experience is said to be. The unproven conclusion is that they must therefore both be very similar or even have the same source, and arise from the same area of the brain - the primitive brain stem which is common to all mammals and even many lower order species.

    Dr. Nelson goes to considerable lengths in an attempt to show how the fear and aggression of the amygdala on one hand and joy, wonder and bliss of the NDE or spiritual experience are not incompatible. This is indeed a hard sell since the two are pretty close to perfect opposites just as hatred and love are obvious opposites.

    In a conditional statement that suggests a certain humility, we see Dr. Nelson's uncertainty about the "rewards system" and its relationship to spiritual experience:

    If we accept that the brain participates in spiritual experience, then the orbital prefrontal must be responsible for giving us a glimpse of the rewards that will be ours when we go to heaven or attain enlightenment. (p. 180)

    Translating, we can reduce our experience of heaven to an overflow of nerve impulses from our "rewards center". But we do NOT see this same humility when conditional (i.e., uncertain) statements are made and then we see the writer go on to make claims that assume these hypothetical and unproven statements are true.

    There also seems to be a considerable theological naivety in associating diverse experiences such as nirvana, heaven, orgasm, the smell of roasting meat, and the cocaine addict's high. These are seen as examples of psychological "rewards" that are likely to have the same neurological source in the brain. This is an unfortunate feature of many reductionistic theories. There exists the need to take what are clearly diverse experiences with very different qualities and lump them together as one thing so that a single simplistic explanation can be found concerning their origin.

    The "amazing moments of our lives" are part of the survival system and since NDE experience is amazing, the questionable conclusion is that both must arise from the part of the brain that is focused on survival (and the fight-flight response).

    NDEs have a "narrative quality" and dreams have a narrative quality. So NDEs must be the same as dreams. This is true in spite of the fact than the vast majority of people who have experienced both say NDEs were a unique experience and not in the least like a dream. But scientists know more than the subjects that provide them with data points and experience narratives.

    These false equivalences and associations between disparate experiences occur throughout the text and seem to go unnoticed by the author who seems intent on making a variety of specious and difficult to prove assertions. If two phenomenon (NDEs and dreams) have one thing in common but multiple things different, they are probably not strongly related and certainly should not be identified with each other.

    Survival is Everything

    We see a standard claim repeated from Evolutionary Biology that most or all brain functions must increase the probably of survival in dangerous situations. Dreams must therefore satisfy this requirement. The claim is that dreams allow people to prepare for fighting or escape by allowing them to act out the fight or flight scenario in advance while dreaming.

    However such "practice" dreams are rare and occur in less than an estimated five percent of dreams and perhaps as few as one percent of dreams. To say dreams are central to survival is simply not credible given these estimates. Even if twenty percent of dreams were shown to be related to survival skills, the statement that dreams are adaptive would not hold up to scrutiny. Such weak arguments do not inspire confidence in the other arguments advanced by Dr. Nelson throughout the book.

    Seeing the Brain as Hardware

    We often see the brain compared to an electronic device or computer when discussing neurological theories and terminology. So let us accommodate and extend the analogy.

    The transpersonal psychologist Dr. Stanislav Grof gives a common critique of neurological reductionism using a television (i.e., an electronic device) as an example:

    A good television repair man can look at a particular distortion of a picture or sound of a television set and tell us exactly what is wrong with it and which parts must be replaced to make the set work properly again. No one would see this as proof that the set itself is responsible for the programs we can see when we turn it on. Yet this is precisely the kind of argument that mechanistic science offers as "proof" that consciousness is produced by the brain. (The Holotropic Mind, Stanislav Grof, HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, 1992, p. 5)
    This simple example calls into question the almost axiomatic claim by neurologists that changing a subject's perception or behavior by stimulating a portion of the brain means that that part of the brain must be the "source" of that behavior or perception.

    The television receives its programming as broadcast signals and the computer is attached to a wireless network but both sources would be initially invisible to a researcher from another planet trying to understand their functioning. Neurologists may be much like these budding TV repair persons probing the circuitry wondering how such small boxes (the TV or the human brain) are able to produce so much sophisticated programming. Dr. Nelson sometimes appears like this naive, extraterrestrial researcher as he uses almost poetic verse describing the brain as a "glorious organ", and writing about the "brain's majesty" and how the "brain dazzles us with its capacity and power" (p. 151). He appears to have difficulty believing his own theoretical claim that consciousness originates in the brain, and that such a compact mass of nervous system tissue is capable of so much sophisticated behavior.

    Conclusions Based on Small or Single Samples

    Dr. Nelson unlike many scientists seems to trust small samples in an effort to prove his theories.

    For example, he associates the experience of "oneness" with the fight or flight response and the adrenaline rush. Based on what appears to be a single example, he seems to conclude that mystical oneness arises from a state of fear. On page 223, a man named Reed experienced a sense of helplessness and terror after a "sense of the infinite universe overwhelmed him". Before this happened, Reed said his intense climb had triggered a surge of adrenaline (not triggered by fear or aggression but only exercise).

    Strangely, the fear seemed to be a reaction to the "oneness" experience and came after or as a response to this experience and not before it. So how could it have caused the experience (the casual sequence is out of order)? Also implying that adrenaline precipitated the oneness experience seems unlikely since similar kinds of exercise (intense climbing) are performed by millions of people daily who do not have mystical experiences as a result.

    Finally, having read many dozens and perhaps hundreds of mystical experiences, the author can attest to the the fact that they almost never invoke feelings of fear in advance (or afterwards), and are therefore not associated with this emotion. Trying to associate mystical experience with fear is like associating dryness with water.

    Again on P. 137, we see Dr. Nelson refer to a 1957 study where a researcher named Dr. Penfield inserted a probe in a patient's brain and the patient responded with an experience where he felt like he was standing up (while lying down) and had associated experiences of fear, vertigo, and seizures.

    Dr. Nelson seems to feel that this was a very important discovery but the rest of the scientific community apparently did not agree. Dr. Nelson does not mention a single study performed to corroborate or replicate this phenomenon. If it was deemed important to the understanding of the brain by other researchers, it should have motivated other researchers to try and reproduce the results in a more controlled experiment.

    It is also possible that despite the efforts of some researchers, the effects could not be reproduced, and this sheds doubt on any conclusions that might be derived from this reported out-of-body-like experience. Note that the experience does not appear to be a full out-of-body experience since there was no visual or hearing component mentioned but only the "feeling" of standing up. Some scientists resist publishing studies that do NOT replicate the results they are trying to reproduce. Either situation does not support taking Dr. Nelson's conclusion that out-of-body experience can result from stimulating a particular area of the brain with much seriousness.

    Dr. Nelson then jumps forward 50 years to Olaf Blanke's unintended experiment which has been critiqued in the article Reductionist Arguments Explaining NDEs . The reduction of the NDE dark tunnel to low blood flow to the brain and "jet fighter tunnel vision" is similarly dealt with in this article.

    Failing to reference any interim studies (actually those studies mentioned are more like experimental notes than studies) makes any conclusions derived from these studies seem spurious and highly suspect. But note the sample size of each event: a total of two patients over a period spanning 50 years of research. How could a careful researcher draw general conclusions from such a small number of instances and from these two seemingly random discoveries?

    To repeat, the extreme claim that all OBEs are illusions of the brain and can likely be induced by stimulating the brain with probes requires extreme evidence and these two paltry examples fall far short of that standard.

    The Misplaced Faith of the Neurologist

    Mystics place faith in their experience but scientists put much faith in their tools and measuring devices. Since the universe itself is a ultimately a mechanism, neurologists are perhaps more inclined to put their faith in the mechanisms they use to gain knowledge about the brain such as the fMRI scanner. Science develops such complex tools to help understand the natural world but scientists often do not understand their theoretical basis, the assumptions built into them, and error-prone nature of these tools. This is particularly true of software-driven tools that analyze the masses of data (huge numerical matrices) neurologists produce using fMRI scanners to look into brain function.

    The testing and debugging of software is a less than scientific process that introduces a wild card into many of the experiments performed by neurologists using fMRI data. The assumptions built into the computer algorithms used in the analysis software introduce additional uncertainty into the conclusions drawn from the data.

    A July 2016 article "Computer says: oops" in The Economist describes two recent studies at a Swedish University which cast considerable doubt on the conclusions of an estimated 3,000 studies (which produced thousands of scientific papers) which used any of three common fMRI data analysis software packages.

    In fMRI studies, the brain is scanned when subjects are asked to perform a specific task so neurologists can see which portion of the brain becomes active during that task. Dr. Ecklund in these Swedish studies found that the control data used which represented readings of 499 people doing nothing in particular which was supposed to have a neutral result (no change in oxygen consumption) actually had 70% false positive readings. Scientists doing fMRI studies had believed that the scans would only register increased oxygen use and blood flow in a particular area of the brain when a person was doing an assigned task. Doing nothing in particular was not supposed to produce increased oxygen use in the brain but it did 70% of the time instead of the 5% false positive figure which was expected.

    The problem is thought to be the result of programmers making invalid statistical assumptions concerning how they aggregate measurements from the tiny areas of the brain (voxels or volumetric pixels) that were measured for blood flow. The software was essentially finding patterns were none existed. One or more of the three software data analysis packages examined were used by almost every scientist doing fMRI experimentation. This software was a black box in which neurologists placed their faith. So they could not understand how the analysis software actually worked but they had faith that the programmers did and that they had tested it thoroughly. But as the article noted, it is extremely difficult to get funding to test the validity and accuracy of the analysis tools used in neurology and in other fields such as astronomy and genetics.

    As the article noted, the results of the two studies "blow a hole in a lot of psychological and neuro-science work".

    But note other disturbing possibilities as to why these false positives might occur. It may be that the brain has unconscious processes where the mind works on problem solving outside the subject's awareness which would register on the fMRI scanner. There may also be maintenance activities in the brain which "run in the background" as they do on computers. Such activities could clean up temporary files (archive old memories), audit the integrity of memories (the file system), search the brain's "coding" for anomalies (false memories or diseased nerves) that can be quarantined or attacked by white blood cells if they present a danger to the brain's correct functioning.

    It may also be that the brain semi-randomly exercises little used portions of itself to keep the areas healthy or ready in case they need to be used in the future.

    All these possibilities mean that the believed correspondence between a subject performing a task and the apparent additional increase of the use of oxygen may be spurious and casually unrelated. Neurologists have the difficult task of understanding and suppressing or ignoring these brain "background activities" when running their fMRI scans if they seek to obtain meaningful results.

    What is New in Neurology in the Modern World (that did not exist in the prescientific age)

    It seems clear that neurology has something new and unique to contribute to the study of the brain. For example, mapping the brain can tell doctors the kind of disability likely to occur based on the kind of brain damage a given patient has had. Using MRI, PET, and CAT scanners, doctors have mapped nervous system activity, blood flow, and brain chemical contents based on different external stimuli and mental activities such as meditation.

    And neurological advances have certainly advanced efforts to combat many brain disorders and brain cancers.

    The ability to bypass the spinal cord completely by inserting a sensor chip in the brain and a controller chip below the spinal cord injury of an SCI patient to permit movement and even walking is on the horizon and already working in animal studies. This represents a stunning success in the study and reverse engineering of the brain and nervous system.

    In addition, the fields of electronics and computer science have given neurologists new metaphors to describe the function of parts of the brain. Dr. Nelson sprinkles terms and concepts like processor, parallel processing, feedback loop, and computer throughout his book in an attempt to draw analogies between the nervous system and computers, networks, circuits, processors, connectors, etc. Computer science provides a rich set of metaphors for brain research as neurologists attempt to understand its functionality and behavior using computer science analogies.

    So we have made progress going far beyond medieval, pre-scientific reasoning in spite of the fact that certain pre-scientific assumptions seem to lurk in the background. But mysticism and NDEs are notoriously difficult to study because they occur randomly. So these brain scanning methods of analysis and measurement are difficult to perform during the experience. Statistical surveys and interviews that occur after the fact have not resulted in the kind of explanations that satisfy scientific curiosity.

    Thus we have Dr. Nelson who tries to take the best information available from neuro-science and build a case for a biological explanation of NDEs and out-of-body experience.

    The author believes that thus far, the explanations and assertions provided in the book are sometimes contradictory, difficult to test, and less than convincing. But scientists do not give up and the exploration will continue.

    At some point, it might occur to scientists that some human experience is part of a different order. This could be a spiritual realm which science cannot measure or understand using its current reductionist methodology, or a different kind of science that is as distinct from our current science as quantum mechanics is from Newtonian physics. The brain may not be the biological computer they believe it to be and consciousness may be sui generis or a separate ontological entity rather than a product of impulses traveling through nerve tissue in the brain.

    The more difficulty scientists have explaining the brain's structure and tying it to perception and behavior, the more likely it is that they are missing some key element in their knowledge of the subject matter. This critique while not comprehensive can serve as an indication that some of these key elements of understanding are indeed missing and this may motivate a broader approach which may include examining things which currently reside outside the limits of observable scientific inquiry.

    We see this widening of acceptable hypotheses in physics where unmeasurably small strings are used to connect objects to explain gravitational pull. Similarly we see claims of unobservable "dark matter" to explain the missing mass in the universe. Physicists and astronomers are willing to posit unobserved and unobservable phenomena to explain difficult facts and observations but neurologists have not yet reached this willingness to soften "hard science" in this way. Perhaps such change is coming but it does not yet appear to be acceptable in medicine and brain science.

    Introduction | The Geography of Spiritual Travel | The "Travel" Analogy | Leaving the Body in Spiritual Travel | Spiritual Travel Versus Dreams | Sacred Light | Sacred Sound | Psychic States | Spiritual Travel in Western Religious Scripture | The Self in Spiritual Travel | Returning to the Physical Body | Near-Death Experience | Navigation During Spiritual Travel | Spiritual Matter | Method and Techniques To Induce Spiritual Travel | Shamanism and Spiritual Travel | After-Death Experience | Spiritual Travel as a Rehearsal for Physical Death | Beyond Spiritual Travel | Conclusion


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