“The Spiritual Brain” — An Engaging, Intelligent and Honest Look at Neuroscience, Materialism, and the Soul

Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary’s collaborative THE SPIRITUAL BRAIN: A NEUROSCIENTIST’S CASE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF THE SOUL is engaging, intelligent, and honest.  Beauregard is the neuroscientist half of the pair, while O’Leary is a journalist who specializes in the sub-field of Intelligent Design (the thought that the universe is far too rationally-built to have evolved out of random chaos, so there must be a Creator at the heart of it all that we may deduce from the Creator’s works).  Both of them decry what they call “materialist neuroscience,” which as exemplified by Steven Pinker and others, basically says that the differences most people would note between the mind, brain and soul don’t really exist.

Pinker isn’t alone; there are many neuroscientists out there who believe that everything that happens in the human mind can be easily explained by various chemical processes in the brain.  Yet there are so very many things that cannot be explained at all unless there is a Creator at the heart of it, so says Beauregard and O’Leary — and they’re backed up by several past scientists and other allied books like THE TAO OF PHYSICS, which shows that physics has more in common with what Beauregard and O’Leary call RSMEs — Religious, Spiritual, and/or Mystical Experiences — than not.

What Beauregard and O’Leary are most disgusted with can be most easily explained as this: science, itself, has become a religion to many scientists and other observers.  Yet the scientists who profess this religion mostly are blind to it (in the same way the robber barons of the 1890s were blind to their real God being Mammon), and thus they are deaf to anything that doesn’t back up their own point of view — with very few exceptions.

Yet neuroscience — a short answer for the layman being the science of the brain and how it works — doesn’t work well if the only thing it’s about is the neurons themselves and what they’re doing, divorced of the meaning behind whatever allowed human brains to develop in such a way that these particular neurons would work while that other collection of neurons over there might be dysfunctional (or in need of some sort of medication).  There has to be a meaning behind it all, and nonmaterialist neuroscientists like Beauregard believe they’ve found at least a part of it because to a certain degree, RSMEs can now be measured.

That’s right.  The ecstatic religious experiences some nuns, monks, and others have had can indeed be measured — albeit after the fact.  And what those measurements show is that so much of the brain is affected by a RSME that it’s impossible to say there’s an obvious dysfunction there (what the materialist neuroscientists would probably claim), or a delusion (ditto), or anything save a profound, life-changing experience that’s similar to any profound, life-changing experience any person has ever had.  And that any individual person processes his or her RSME differently — that RSMEs are not something that can be “conjured up” by what was once called a “God chip” or anything else, and that they come on their own schedule (or not at all) just goes to show the commonality of a RSME with other human experiences, that also come at their own pace — or not at all.

Beauregard and O’Leary admit where there’s room for doubt and error, which I find refreshing.  (Most scientific books for the laymen do not do this.)  They pointed out something called the “nocebo” effect — that is, something that actually seems to harm people — with regards to an experiment where various people in the hospital with long-term illnesses were told they’d be prayed for.  (Some were told this, while others were just prayed for blindly and were never told.) 

From pages 240 and 241:

Does a patient’s knowledge that he or she is receiving prayer affect the surgical outcome?  (Benson and his colleagues) . . . divided 1,802 heart patients awaiting coronary-artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery at six American medical centers into three groups, as follows:

Group 1 patients were told that they might or might not receive intercessory prayer, but in fact did.

Group 2 patients were told that they might or might not receive intercessory prayer, but in fact did not.

Group 3 patients were told that they would receive intercessory prayer, and in fact did.

The groups chosen by the researchers to do the intercessory prayer were serious about their task.  Two were Roman Catholic religious congregations and one was a Protestant prayer community.  The groups prayed . . . for “a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.”  However, the members of these groups never met anyone that they prayed for.  They were told only the first name and the first initial of the last name.

The results?  After thirty days, all three groups experienced similar mortality . . . by far the highest percentage of postsurgery complications (59 percent as opposed to 51 percent and 52 percent) was recorded among the patients who knew they were being prayed for by the researcher’s prayer group.

As the authors say, intercessory prayer shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed, because the key finding of this particular study was a statistically significant negative effect (otherwise known as a “nocebo effect,” the opposite of a placebo effect) among the patients who knew they were being prayed for.  But as the American Heart Journal said in summarizing this study, “In the history of medicine there has never been a healing remedy that was actually effective without having potential side effects of toxicities.”  Which once again points out that this was a scientific study that attempted to show the value, or in this case the lack thereof, of the power of prayer. 

What you’re probably wondering after all this is, “Does the soul exist?”  The various studies that Beauregard and O’Leary cite, and the various RSMEs that were tracked in a small study of professed Carmelite nuns, strongly suggests that yes, the soul does seem to exist.  And that the mind is different than the brain . . . or at very least, that there’s far more yet to learn about how the brain, mind and soul interconnect as it appears the basis of nonmaterialist neuroscience is doing just that — studying the interconnections as they appear and weighing and measuring them in the same way any other scientist would do.

The main criticism that was leveled at this book was over the whole question of “Intelligent Design,” which at most takes up one chapter of this entire book, than over anything else it discusses, including RSMEs and how they are weighed and measured.  I find such critiques to be spurious, or at best, amounting to “strawmen” arguments.  Because what’s present here in THE SPIRITUAL BRAIN is an honest accounting of what scientist Beauregard and journalist O’Leary have been able to sum up in favor of their position, and what opposes it — and it was written in a lively, engaging and intelligent manner.

In other words, if you’re looking for a good book that may challenge more than a few of your ingrained assumptions, this book is for you.  And if you’re convinced that science (and the scientists who follow it) must all be comprised of promissory materialists . . . well, you’re probably the person most in need of this particular book, where doubt is key and the only things proven are written in black and white.

Grade: A-plus

— reviewed by Barb


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  1. Just Reviewed “The Spiritual Brain” at SBR « Barb Caffrey's Blog

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