Book Review of The Spiritual Brain by Beauregard and O'Leary
Titus Rivas (publicatiedatum: 16 August, 2011)
Translation of Dutch book review by Titus Rivas of The Spiritual Brain by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary,
Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary. Het spirituele brein: bewijzen voor het bestaan van de ziel (Dutch translation of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul). Kampen: Ten Have, 2008. ISBN 978-90-790-0105-7.
We're living in times in which many people have come to regard paranormal phenomena, evidence for consciousness during clinical death and even the existence of a creator as nothing but outright nonsense. Therefore, publications that may undermine the materialistic view of the brain-mind relation are very welcome. Such as Consciousness Beyond Life by Pim van Lommel, but also The Spiritual Brain by neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and his co-author journalist Denyse O'Leary.
In the introduction, Mario Beauregard stresses that most contemporary scientists are materialists so that they believe the physical world is the only real world. The authors wish to demonstrate that mind does exist and that it is more than just your brain. They turn against the message of popular materialists such as Daniel C. Dennett. Beauregard states that the non-materialistic tradition of which he is part is rich and vital and does more justice to reality than materialism. It may also yield practical advantages and treatments that are ignored by materialists. Also, transformative spiritual experiences can best be interpreted as experiences that put the persons in question into contact with a reality which is external to themselves and approximates them to the true nature of the universe. In general, the authors turn against the skeptical, closed-minded manner in which materialists but also a lot of media are dealing with anything that could threaten their ideology. They show the genetic reductionism that has put a spell on so many people lacks any scientific ground The same can be said for simplistic materialistic explanations of religious experiences and for Michael Persinger's bizarre research. This “neutheologian” tried to induce religious experiences by means of a so-called “God helmet”, but his findings may be better explainable by psychological suggestion than by an inborn neuropsychological program. The authors stress that the hope for a simple neuroscientific, materialistic explanation of the spiritual nature of man is totally unfounded and will remain so in the future.
Beauregard points to the fact that the mind cannot be reduced to the brain and that there is no physical mechanism that could explain the relation between brain and mind. Evidence in support of a non-materialistic theory is being discussed fom Chapter 6 onwards. It turns out the mind is capable of altering neurological patterns, for example through cognitive therapy in case of an obsessive compulsive disorder. Similarly, the placebo-effect (and its counterpart the nocebo-effect) can hardly be included in a materialistic theory, which is even recognized by some materialist authors. Three other phenomena that clash with materialism are: PSI (paranormal phenomena, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis), Near-Death Experiences, and mystical experiences. Beauregard demonstrates that all these phenomena fit well in a non-materialistic theory without having to deny more orthodox data.
The authors present a hypothesis to explain the interaction between the mind and the brain, the so-called psychoneural translation hypothesis or PTH. According to this hypothesis the language of the mind (“mentalese”) is translated into the language of the brain (“neuronese”).
Chapter 7 and 8 offer a survey of the nature and impact of mystical and other spiritual experiences, after which chapter 9 discusses Beauregard's own research into such experiences among Carmelite nuns. It turns out that a whole range of brain areas is involved in mystical experiences and that the brain activity during such experiences from the brain activity involved in more common emotions. To put it differently, an important finding of Beauregard's investigations is that there is no “God switch” in the brain, no “God spot” as Melvin Morse (an adept of this theory) names it. However, just like Morse, Beauregard also believes that man can get in touch with a transcendent reality through his mind.
Naturally, this important book is not perfect. The authors claim that brain and mind are two areas that can interact with each other because they are complementary. This supposed complementarity (that is characteristic for panpsychistic and holistic theories) can hardly be reconciled with the theory that the mind is able to survive the death of the brain, a theory which is endorsed by these very authors. If the brain and the mind are really complementary (like the two sides of a coin) they also would have to be destroyed together at the moment of death.
Furthermore, Beauregard starts from an outdated account of the case of Pam Reynolds namely that she would have received veridical impressions of her surroundings after her brain had stopped functioning altogether (in fact, it happened before the standstill procedure). Also, he seems unaware of differences between Theravada- and Mahayana-currents within Buddhism, and his explanation of the motives of Muslim terrorists strikes me as somewhat too simple. Concerning PSI-research, the authors claim that this has only demonstrated a tiny effect, whereas this only holds for the results of quantitative laboratory experiments and not for other forms of parapsychological and psychical research. All this amounts to relatively small errors.
There is only one respect in which this book has really disappointed me. Beauregard presupposes an extreme dichotomy between the human and animal mind. He even seems to doubt the very existence of animal consciousness. It is clear that the author is unaware of the work of researchers like Jane Goodall, Donald Griffin, and Marc Bekoff, which demonstrates that the materialistic, reductionist explanation is also wholly insufficient for the animal psyche. For instance, Beauregard claims that if we are really 98% identical to chimpanzees, the mind, self, soul and spirituality would, without a doubt, be nothing more than normal animal brain functions!
The authors even claim that dogs are mentally closer to humans than chimpanzees, apparently with the purpose of emphasizing how great the gap between humans and apes would be. Dogs really are very intelligent and sensitive and they usually have a special, close connection to people, but it really goes too fat to underestimate the mental abilities of chimpansees to such an extent. For example, it is sufficiently known that chimpansees possess a highly evolved self-awareness, general intelligence and emotional life, all of which can compete with those of an average human child. Any realistic evolutionary psychology should therefore reject reductionism just as much as neuropsychology. I consider this a blind spot in Beauregard's world view. The spiritual revolution within science has only just started, also in this respect.
This is a translation of a book review in Terugkeer, Spring 2009, 20, (1), p. 28.