Sunday, February 13, 2011

Saturday's Best Book Diary: Scientists Study Spiritual Experiences

Dr. Kevin Nelson is a world renown neurologist who currently is a professor at the University of Kentucky.  His new book, published last month, is one of the very best yet on the scientific examination of the spiritual experience.

It is 326 pages, with generous end notes, cited references chapter by chapter, and a complete index.  Close examination of near-death experiences are often the subject, and Dr. Nelson has over thirty years experience investigating them.  This book is for those who also enjoy reading the works of Antonio Damasio and Oliver Sacks and Joseph Le Doux.  It is science but presented in a form that makes it easy for general readers to comprehend.

One of the cases he could have discussed (but didn't) was that of Harvard trained brain scientist, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, who experienced a massive stroke who wrote of her unexpected spiritual experiences in a memoir entitled My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey.  Like the scientists mentioned above, Dr. Taylor has appeared on the Charlie Rose Show and the interviews are well worth watching.  I especially enjoy Rose's continuing series on the advances in brain science.

Which reminds me again of the light in Cormac McCarthy's metaphysics, a light dismissed by many critics, but always there dim in the darkness.

In Elizabeth Francisca Andersen's discussion of SUTTREE (A string in the maze: The mythos of Cormac McCarthy), she notes:

"...Suttree's altered states are rendered with a precision that demands close attention. Garry Wallace has written that, in a casual conversation with mutual friends, Cormac McCarthy said that he felt sorry for me because I was unable to grasp this concept of spiritual experience. He said that many people all over the world, in every religion, were familiar with this experience. He asked if I'd ever read William James's THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. His attitude seemed to indicate that in this book were the answers to many of the questions posed during our evening discussion."

"In reply to a letter Wallace wrote months later to follow up, Wallace reports that McCarthy went on to say that he thinks the mystical experience is a direct apprehension of reality, unmediated by symbol, and he ended with the thought that our inability to see spiritual truth is the greater mystery."

"Following up on these hints, William C. Spencer has produced an essay on the altered states of consciousness portrayed in SUTTREE...Spencer convincingly argues that through his newfound cosmic or mystic superconsciousness, SUTTREE moves beyond his felt duality to a sense of universal unity, and he thereby gains control over his fear of death..."

The feeling of universal unity is one of the most common denominators among those having the near-death experience.

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