Review: The Spiritual Brain

10605_spritualbrainMario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. New York: Harper One, 2007.

Reviewed by Varadaraj V. Raman

This book explores an ancient debate in a modern framework. The debate can be framed in a few questions: Is there or is there not more to human beings than matter and energy, than molecules and metabolism? Are we or are we not endowed, as most religions tell us, with a non-material aspect, called soul or spirit or by some other name? And what about spiritual experiences? Are these for real, or are they simply non-normal modes of brain activity? Is the mystic in a heightened state of awareness or is he or she just hallucinating? Is there more to consciousness than the highly complex network of zillions of neurons firing away in the frontal lobe, or is it the result of some
kind of a resonance with something out there in the universe?

Over the ages these questions have been, to use a crude phrase, beaten to death by philosophers, skeptics, yogis, myth-makers, scholars, theologians, and scientists alike. But perhaps “beaten to death” is inappropriate here since the issues continue to be very much alive. If anything, they are taking on fresh energy and momentum, even as traditional religions are making a grand come-back all over the world.

There are several reasons for this. First, the still growing surge of the rationalist-scientific framework is calling certain religious truths into question while attempting to exile God from human culture. At the same time, the materialist stance on human life retains the potential for trivializing moral values and human worth. Then again, science itself has become far more complex and sophisticated now than in the 18th and 19th centuries when the grand achievements of celestial mechanics and electromagnetism made people assert with more confidence than now that there is nothing beyond matter and energy in the world. Finally, we have now come to understand the brain and biochemistry much better. Just as our knowledge of quantum mechanics revealed to us aspects of the physical world never before imagined, it is entirely possible that a deeper knowledge of neurons and their properties might reveal aspects of thought and spirit that seem as yet to be only emergent properties of the brain.

But on this issue there is a great divide. Most neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and biologists cling on to the traditional scientific view that all talk of soul and thought of God are merely sparks from the complex brain, like so many fantasies and fairy tales which emerge from the same brain: all interesting, but just that, and not revelations of hidden dimensions of physical reality. As they see it, soul and spirit are sprouts from the same fertile soil that the brain is, and not subtle silent entities embedded therein. It is only a matter of time, they say, before we account for the perennial propensity of the brain to engage in God-talk.

There are serious thinkers, and among them some scientists too, who are not persuaded. They are convinced that there is more to the mind than macromolecules, more to mysticism than muddled thinking. They are convinced that the brains of mystics experience an aspect of the world that ordinary brains just let go unobserved. They work on the conviction that the spiritual dimension is somewhat like the Pluto (whether planet or not) of pre-telescopic astronomy. It has always been there, but one not equipped with the appropriate mode of detection (spiritual outlook and discipline) simply cannot know about it. One of the authors has had a profound spiritual experience himself. It is the inner certitude derived from it that that has fueled much of this book.

It is from this approach that Beauregard and his co-author undertook their probe into the spiritual life of Carmelite nuns who were initially suspicious of their motives. After considerable systematic study of their mystical modes, the authors felt they had amassed considerable empirical evidence for the objectivity of something beyond matter and radiation in the physical world. There is, they contend, such a thing as spiritual reality. Needless to say, their conclusion only bears out their initial conviction, and this may be one criticism of their work. But then, one could say the same about a skeptical inquirer who goes on to investigate the claims of a yogi who connects with the transcendent principle. No matter what the evidence or lack thereof, we may be sure what the skeptic himself will declare at the end of the well-funded project. In this matter, there are few open-minded inquirers.

This book is particularly interesting because it is by a practicing neuroscientist who has dared to go against the current of accepted wisdom. It is not easy to swim contrary to well-established scientific theories, but it is virtually impossible to uproot its most fundamental doctrine: namely, that every aspect of the experienced world can ultimately be interpreted in terms of matter-energy transformations in accordance with the inviolable principles of physics and chemistry. In trying to challenge this view, the appeal of which is more because of its proven power and fruitfulness than because of the often alleged closed-mindedness on the part of its practitioners, the authors sprinkle the book with numerous interesting quotes from mainstream authorities, often commenting on them in appropriate and critical ways. Thus, the thesis of the book is not developed in a vacuum, but in the context of the tide that is working against it. And the authors present to the reader persuasive arguments as to why the materialist paradigm currently accepted by the scientific establishment is inadequate in many respects. Moreover, they suggest that at the present precarious state of human civilization, a universal spiritual outlook, based on the best religious traditions of humankind, will be both helpful and necessary.

So, the neutral observer who may also have read Dennett and Pinker, may wonder: Whose finding or thesis am I to trust on this matter? Perhaps the answer would be that when it comes to spiritual matters, it is not whom we trust but what we experience ourselves. This is what makes scientific rejection of spirituality as untenable as scientific confirmation. The human brain often accepts or rejects propositions relating to spirituality, depending on how it has been molded by prior religious, cultural, and scientific inputs. It may be convinced by any or it may resist all arguments on either side of the issue.

The subtitle of the book is unfortunately misleading, however, for two reasons: First, there is no universally accepted meaning or definition of soul. Second, the book does not provide any final evidence for the existence of the soul. However, it does give ample persuasive reasons for accepting the idea that there could well be something more than our body and brain to us humans. What that something is, is not yet quite clear. It could well be that the soul, as conceived and affirmed by some religions through religious pronouncements on the post-mortem trajectory of the soul, have not thus far been (nor are ever likely to be) confirmed by any neuroscience.

With all that, for those who wish to see a not so widely known view on the matter, and certainly for a less popular perspective among scientists, this is a valuable book. It is extensive in its scope and authoritative in its contents. It is rich in citations and insightful in its comments. It has more science than speculation, and more argument than assertion.

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29 Responses to Review: The Spiritual Brain

  1. However, those who are waiting around for some kind of mundane science to verify and establish the existence of the soul will have a long wait. Science can never prove that an entity called “the soul” exists. Such understanding is the domain of religious faith and personal realization through spiritual cultivation and will always remain so.
    People of faith aren’t waiting around for science to prove that there is a human soul that transcends the physical apparatus. People of faith know instinctively that they have a soul and an Over-soul that guides them. They also have scripture to support their faith.
    Such efforts of the scientists cannot prove there is a soul. But, in the end it doesn’t really matter inasmuch as spiritually inclined minds will believe in the soul and the Supersoul even without support from the scientific community.
    Again, does jnana really support or enhance Bhakti?
    Jnana and Jnanis offer nothing that really support or inspire the Bhaktas.
    Not one mention of the Holy Name or the Godhead?
    How much use can this information be for the Vaishnava?

    • It would be good if devotees exhibit more tolerance and accept that there are people who function with a different mind than them. Let the theistic scientists use their acquired skills in a good way. Even SP, who was very critical of science otherwise, did establish BI for this purpose. Not everyone needs to go in this direction, but if there are some people putting some effort in this direction, they should not be discouraged. We expect better from devotees of your standing K.B das.

    • With all due respect, I think there is an important point you are missing. As Gaura-vijaya mentioned, in the early 1970’s Prabhupada had the insight and vision to establish his Bhaktivedanta Institute. Imagine if today it was as prominent as the Disccovery Institute formed more recently that consistently makes world news on the issue of science and the soul, etc. This institute and its members and publications represent one of the major intellectual influences in the world today. This is exactly what SP wanted his BI to be. His idea was that Vaisnavas who were also scientists should write books, etc. and explain, based on scientific data, the reasonableness and rationality of the soul and God.

      In light of the above it gets tiresome reading comments like “”Let’s not be over intelligent here” and so on. If you want to speak to intelligent and materially well educated people as Prabhupada did, you have to speak their language and understand the issues they are concerned with. As far as education goes, I have only a high school certificate of graduation, but I have educated myself as much as I feel the need to in order to communicate with such people with regard to the value Gaudiya Vedanta. I recommend the same to anyone who cares to speak about GV to educated people relevant to our times. Indeed, this is exactly what the Goswamis did. What do you think Sri Jiva was studying in Benares on the order of Nitaicanda? Is he a jnani or a bhakta? I will answer my own question here: Sri Jiva is a jnana sunya prema bhakta. If one does not have much intellect that is one thing, no harm, but if one does, it needs to be engaged in the service of Bhagavan.

      • As best I can remember, Srila Prabhupada was most often “heavy” to most all the so-called intellectuals (mental midgets) that came to see him.
        Srila Prabhupada was never known to be much of a fan of modern science, though he did establish ISKCON’s scientific section that hasn’t seemed to make much headway in proving scientifically that Krishna is God.

        • Results do not come out so easily in these things. It takes time and lack of support from GBC and infighting did not help BI either. Another thing is the presence of discouraging people like you who want everybody to just follow a regimented idea of devotional service where there is no scope of people employing their particular skills in a different manner within bhakti. BI will never establish that Krsna is God. Nobody can establish that Krsna is God conclusively unless you select your Vedic references. It is your personal experience eventually that will confirm that Krsna is God, but you still do use logic and scriptural reference according to a particular lineage to make yourself realize why Krsna is God.

        • It takes time and lack of support from GBC and infighting did not help BI either.

          I certainly know of at least one case which continues to be a source of division among a section of devotees to this day. When Dr Richard L. Thompson published his compelling thesis on Bhagavata astronomy and cosmology in the form of the 315-page book ‘Mysteries of the Sacred Universe’ in late 2000, the fact that he had adopted a non-literal interpretationist strategy in employing his mathematical skills to make sense of the Fifth Canto led an outspoken ISKCON sannyasi to openly castigate this work for not being true to what he thought the Bhagavatam was about. That sannyasi even had the chutzpah to go on and author a book on his own strictly literalist conception of Vedic cosmography, notwithstanding the fact that his numerical and scientific skills were next to nothing compared to those of Sadaputa Prabhu, who was a professional mathematician having worked on one particular NASA-funded project on satellite remote sensing.

  2. True, and expending an inordinate amount of time and energy in trying to reconcile science with religion, or vice versa, is in the end nothing more than prajalpa.

    Now, most people with a certain amount of education naturally, and perhaps logically, tend to do this at least in the early stages of their spiritual lives. This is healthy, in my opinion, as the rational-mindedness spawned by a modern education automatically yearns for empirical corroboration of metaphysical truth claims, especially when a practitioner has not yet attained the state of inner otherworldly exaltation which would ipso facto render such confirmation-seeking from academia futile and pointless.

    Ultimately however, as one advances in bhakti, the requirement to have one’s faith rationalised through some sort of scholarly accoutrement gets eclipsed by direct revelation from above and within. But at this point, it remains principally a personal, internal affair, circumscribed to the sadhaka‘s own experience. Srila Saccidananda Bhaktivinoda Thakura remains one of the few acaryas in recent history to have written at some length about his devotional visions; these have been made available to us in books such as Sri Navadvipa-dhama-mahatmya and Sri Navadvipa-bhava-taranga. Both of these are literatures I perennially relish.

    • Unfortunately you will get this kind of divide on almost all books, be they for or against consciousness over brain. To me the “hard problem” for the naturalists as they see it stems from their attachment to a particular model (naturalism) that while working well in other areas does not work in trying to harness consciousness.

      • Yes, that is true. I just posted it to be aware of all opposing arguments to our position and the strengths of those arguments. Like we discussed before the attachment of science to the philosophy of naturalism is the main problem.

      • This is something that, I believe, many can readily identify with. A few years ago, a BI member wrote a book, titled ‘Human Devolution,’ purporting to present a ‘Vedic,’ consciousness-driven alternative to the mechanistic, reductionistic theories of modern academics. My own assessment of the book was overwhelmingly negative. Not only did it fail to present a convincing, cogent argument in favour of the existence of a non-material entity called the soul, but was more of an embarrassment to the devotee community, in my view evidently.

        On the other hand, others have heaped praise on it. I myself wrote this largely critical review of the work on

  3. Yeap, naturalism does not work in explaining consciousness. And them scientistis get all passionate and frantic about it too. Almost like they have a soul or something. Ooops, did I say that?

  4. Here is a link to an interesting article on this jnana versus bhakti subject (latest Krishna talk article).

    • The article you refer to is about jnana sunya bhakti, which refers to the prema of Vraja wherein the devotees do not know that Krishna is God. The rejection of jnana it speaks of is with regard to the jnana marg as opposed to the bhakti marg, an ascending path as opposed to a descending path. Bhakti is a descending path.

      However, all of this says absolutely nothing against using one’s intelligence in bhakti and being knowledgeable about current intellectual influences in the world for the sake of disseminating bhakti in educated circles. This is what Prabhupada wanted his students to do relative to their capacity and this is what the Goswamis did. They were current with the intellectual and cultural influences of their times and established the sampradaya as a contending spiritual worldview with intellectual integrity that leading thinkers of the day had to recon with. Indeed we find this even in the Gita’s discourse on samkhya. Therein Krshna is obviously aware of the arguments of the day concerning the soul/body issue and he even cites some of them in making his case. To construe this as something opposed to bhakti, as some seem to want to do, is just plain ignorance, not jnana sunya bhakti.

      Of course the author of the article you cite is not doing this. I am merely addressing what I see as a misunderstanding on the part of some. Such persons wonder what the value of reading the book under review is in relation to bhakti. One answer is that devotees who read it will become more aware of what people around them are thinking concerning a subject that they themselves are supposed to be very interested in: the difference between the body and soul. Prabhupada always asked me, “So Tripurari Maharaja, what are the people saying/thinking.” In other words, “What are their arguments/objections to our precepts.” He expected his disciples to be informed.
      Yes of course we must point out the deficiency of reason in terms of its providing perfect knowledge, but that does not mean that reason has no place in bhakti . It does, especially in relation to explaining bhakti to others.

      At the same time, the fact that books like this one are not of interest to some devotees need not by any means be seen as a fault on their part, and their will be many devotees who feel like this. I myself have no intention of reading it. But we would err were we to find fault in others who have an interest and are actively engaged in dialogue with persons concerned with this contemporary issue. And we err that much more when we misconstrue such interest as merely jnana and a deviation from bhakti. No devotee thinks that by reading this book they will realize their atma or svarupa. But, again, they will in the least become informed as to what leading intellectuals influencing the world around them think about an issue that is central to bhakti’s sambandha jnana.

  5. Most usually, what I find about these books that show up on the bookseller’s list is that the bottom line is that the book is a capital venture in which the author looks to make a sizable profit from the sales of the book.
    When people treat these capital ventures as some sort of important revelation that the masses can gain enlightenment from, they are getting sucked into a deception that is neither divinely ordained or authorized.
    Writing and publishing of most all the books on the market today is motivated by the promise of capital gains.
    The true books of spiritual knowledge that we know of make no effort to prove through mundane science that there is a soul or a God.
    This fanciful attempt to use science to prove the existence of the soul or God is a fascinating idea that unfortunately must fail due to the transcendental nature of both.
    I think that the KC movement should spend more time feeding the needy and extending outreach to simple people of faith rather than catering to a deadbeat intellectual order that are the least likely candidates to take to Krishna consciousness.

    • How would you know that? I have been involved in publishing for 25 years and that’s not my experience. The effort to prove the reasonableness of existence of the soul through science in a world strongly influenced by materialism is a noble one. But if you would prefer to open a soup kitchen for actual deadbeats, I would appreciate that as well. Good luck.

      • I was referring to such books as written by mundane academics looking to establish themselves in their field and further their careers.
        I would be foolish to include such books that your holiness has authored in the spirit of Hari-katha.
        Please excuse me if I gave the wrong impression.

        • Yes, but I was referring tot he fact that academics often make very little from publishing. The author of the book in this review is going against the mainstream of science and risking the future of his career.

        • Well, I am not so convinced about the self-sacrificing spirit of the author. I guess I am a little old school ISKCON in some ways of thinking and maybe I need to evolve beyond that. I am very reluctant to give an academic credit for being a sacrificing unit that is only interested in the truth. It’s hard to find a sacrificer even amongst the ranks of the Hare Krishna leaders, much less among the academics looking for a niche in the publishing world.

        • KB writes:

          I am very reluctant to give an academic credit for being a sacrificing unit that is only interested in the truth.

          Well, maybe you need to open up your association and get to know some people. They are out there, trust me. They may not believe exactly what you do, but there are some very sincere, nice, intelligent people in the world. And the good news is that you don’t have to give up your beliefs to honor someone else’s.
          If you are old school iskcon KB you may not believe in evolution, but I say lets do some survival of the kindest! EVOLVE!! It is not black and white, spiritual or maya, demons or devotees, us or them. Become comfortable with difference and before you know it, you are evolving. Growing a superior brain!
          We do need to open ourselves to the idea that there are people of worth, of high character and saintly qualities amongst the majority of the population that aren’t devotees. Bhakti is most generous, and because a person may have all the trappings of a devotee and know the details of our Gaudiya Vedanta, it does not automatically follow that they are a better “person”.
          Why the need to feel some superiority because of having been “saved”, been given “the highest truth”, etc., and the inner push to destroy the credit of people who aren’t quite there yet? This is definitely a brutish mentality that should be left back in the past so that we can attract intelligent, kind-hearted people to our path. Weren’t we all convinced at some point that our senses would guide us to the ultimate truth?
          I often would rather be in the association of “non-believers” who are good people, than devotees who seem to have lost their humanity.
          Ever seen the bumper sticker “Dear God – please save me from your followers!” Good one.

        • I agree with you completely, Madan Gopal.

    • Do your work and let others do their work. Even simple people of faith are eventually influenced by the intellectual paradigm of the day. Anyway you are free to preach in your way. Why interfere with other devotee’s preaching?

      • Also it can be argued that many people of simple faith will continue to be Christian as they won’t question the Bible either.

  6. KB, You repeatedly give the impression that you do not actually read the articles that you jump to criticize. I hope that is not the case. The review mentions the following:

    “One of the authors has had a profound spiritual experience himself. It is the inner certitude derived from it that that has fueled much of this book.”

    This is referring to the final pages of the book when the author explains his motives, but I suppose that is just a ploy as well?

    While you may readily dismiss such people, they may be motivated by experiences and questions that probably brought you to your spiritual life and guru. Assuming the worst of everyone is not an attractive quality of yours.

    To say he wrote this book for money is just silly. If someone wants to make money, they do not get into publishing. And if a neuroscientist employed at a major university wants to make money, they don’t publish some niche book, either. There are people who are genuinely seeking the truth out there, whether they have arrived at the same conclusions that you have or they ever will.

    • And we should also recognise the fact that not all souls are destined for Vaikuntha. There are many transcendentalists who will eventually merge into Krsna’s undifferentiated aspect, the brahmajyoti, or attain the Viraja region, which is understood in some Vaisnava circles as being the destination of Buddhists. Even within Vaikuntha there is gradation, and not all devotees of Visnu end up in Goloka.

      It thus behoves us to respect variety and be pluralist in our outlook. This ought not be regarded as a threat, and should that be the case, then we may need to do some soul-searching as to why we feel so. The fact is, no serious Vaisnava can be swayed from his chosen path, no matter which company he is in on a routine basis.

  7. Books that sell many copies on their own merit are obviously being read – that is a real test for evaluating interest in a particular subject matter or particular presentation.

    The field of scientific evaluation of all things spiritual is potentially interesting to a lot of people. Still it is rare to find good research in this field, especially one presented in a readable form.

    A desire to make a profit while engaging in such a research does not make anybody a suspect in my opinion, provided that the research is done honestly, and with required scientific rigor. Fairytales should be sold as inspirational writings, and there is a market for them as well.

    Bhaktivedanta Institute is a separate subject matter. Given the general history of our movement I am not one bit surprised it did not become a more serious player in it’s field.

  8. Quite a useful review of what sounds like an interesting book. Though we may or may not all read such books it is certainly valuable to know the various thought provoking questions on all sides. This point was brought out in the previous discussion. To my thinking one of the points of this website and these discussions is to show that people involved in spiritual traditions and “faith based” religious, are not necessarily dogmatic non-thinking people. On the contrary in order to hear the various arguments against the existence of the soul or God and to make counter arguments, one has to be vary thoughtful. In addition, as was mentioned toward the end of the review, spiritual experience of the existence of these transcendent realms is the stronger currency or testimony then merely reason. From the Cannon of Gaudiya Vaishnava literature, the ultimate conclusions of the scriptures (siddhanta) is obtained by one’s own experience and spiritual standing. When one has experience, one also has a corresponding reasoning to substantiate it. Though our faith can be reasonably explained, not everyone will be convinced by its particular reasoning. This means that there will always be a divide between those convinced by the reasoning of faith or spiritual experience, and those convinced by the scientific paradigm. Never the less, these discussions are still very valuable since then can help some reasonable people take up the work of gaining spiritual experience for themselves. Upon attaining spiritual experience, one is convinced, and no other reasoning can move one.

  9. i appreciate all of your comments and insights, and thank you for your thoughts and perspectives.

    i would like to offer something in regard to the auspices that can be found in learning to reach and relate with those who are very interested in the study of Life and the natural universe through building on the fundamental principles of modern Science (as many have been taught in school, and expected to live by thereafter).

    today in developed industrial nations there is so very much faith and hopes vested in Science as first authority on Life, Its origin(s), and nature.

    often highest respect, trust, and value is placed on persons who have much money or potential to produce valuable commodities or other lucrative concepts.

    since ‘industrial revolution’, there is considered so much economic prospect to be found through scientific discovery and development.

    subsequently, such ‘Science experts’ become strong influential leaders of society, morality, and culture.

    all the hopes and trust placed in such paradigm are very precious and vital to those who have lent themselves to it.

    understanding that the faith of living entities is also most dear and cherished by Sri Krishna Himself, there is a promising wealth of service to be embraced in helping those individuals see the many marvels and miracles of this vast and wondrous universe in the ultimate context of a glorious living God’s all inspiring glance upon it.

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