The Mystical Mind: Probing the biology of religious experience, by Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg, Theology and the Sciences Series, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, 1999, 240 ff.
The neurology of mystical experience By Howard Jones
Until his death in 1998, Eugene d'Aquili was Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and his co-author is Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Radiology at the same university. They have pioneered neurological research into the nature of mystical experiences for the past quarter-century.
After an introductory chapter explaining the scope of the book, Chapter 2 outlines the anatomy and physiology of the brain relevant to mystical experiences. The next chapters deal with the mind and myth and how the processes of consciousness use cognitive operators that work in the brain in a similar manner to mathematical operators: `The cognitive operators represent the way that the mind functions on all input into the brain [including] sensory input, thoughts and emotions.' The authors suggest that the generation of myth and its expression through ritual `can be traced to the functioning of the cognitive operators.' The importance of this is that myths and rituals form the basis of religions. The authors maintain that: `Ritual and liturgy help bring mysticism and spirituality to the masses in a manner impossible by meditation.'
In the following chapter the authors discuss the neurophysiology of a unitary continuum of mystical experience. This state may involve various human experiences such as the aesthetic joy derived from Nature or music, the intense feeling of romantic love, the numinous experience derived from a vision of a divine that may be provoked by a mandala or mantra, to the state of oneness experienced as the culmination of a transcendental meditation. The rhythm of the activities involved in ritual, such as chanting or dancing, contributes to these transcendental states. The authors discuss the neurophysiological processes involved here. These rituals contain universal elements applicable at all times of the religious calendar and others that are specific for particular occasions - Christmas or Easter, Rosh Hashana or Passover, and so on.
From their physiological studies, the authors suggest models to explain the processes involved in various types of meditative states and there is a whole chapter on the near-death experience as a mystical phenomenon. They attempt a definition of religion in the context of a neuropsychological basis for the concept of deity, and explore the nature of consciousness in terms of reality and sacred visions.
This is an erudite but therefore challenging book for any but those immersed in the psychology of religion at the highest level. I suspect that it will be barely accessible to the general reader.
Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, UK.
This is a demanding book in that it combines ideas, scientific fact and bravely goes where few, atheists or beleivers, care to venture. I found the ideas and suggestions persuasive and intriguing. Buddhists and Eastern religions not wedded to the nonsense of a God with obviously personal characteristics are likely to have their philosophy underpinned by this book. Fundamentalist Christians and others with closed minds will probably need to lie down in a dark room to recover.
I recommend this book as a courageous venture into fascinating and exciting new religious and scientific territory. Shame one of the authors died before it was published.
There is a very good and important book in here - somewhere. Unfortunately, what is enormously significant information about how our brains work, is written in the form of a scientific paper by two men who are clearly primarly scientists rather than scientific writers. The book spouts arcane scietific terminology throughout, focusing very much on detail rather than a bigger picture, and is very dense in the infomation it gives, with only rare flashes of lucidity. Scientific terms are rarely explained, meaning one needs to use an advanced dictionary to be able to understand what is being said. In reality, what was needed was this material being written by a scientific writer with the verve, clarity and energy of a Richard Dawkins or Edward O. Wilson, where the subject was made truely accessible and was illuminated with eloquence.. If you do manage to slog your way through this clogging book - ironically the antithesis of mystical - you will find fascinating information on how your brain works, and in particular how it works with regard to religion - basically, that our brains are so structured and composed to require us to create religion. So was it worth the slog? Ultimately it was, but it is a very frustrating read, and really needs to be rewritten by someone who can make a complex, but by no means impossible subject come alive, showing how the findings here can profoundly illuminate our lives.