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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 503-506 ( 2 November )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/nash.html

Book Review

Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps: Interdisciplinary Explorations of Religious Experience 
edited by Jensine Andersen and Robert K. C. Forman
Imprint Academic, 2000

Reviewed by Jo Nash PhD, Course Director, MA Psychoanalytic Studies, School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield S1 4DA, United Kingdom.

This book is a special edition of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, and comprises a collection of essays on the contemporary psychology of religious and spiritual experience. The areas studied are broad, and divided into two sections. Section one evaluates a range of experiential and experimental studies; beginning with a review of the research literature on the cognitive and behavioural effects of meditation, followed by an essay on mysticism, which explores how the functions of the instrumental consciousness of the ‘survival self’ obscures our experience of the ‘spiritual self’. Next there is a case study of a Mexican shaman that explores ways of knowing, originating from the imagination, intuition, visions, dreams, the senses and the body; and finally a paper that examines the neurophysiological explanations of Christic visions.

Section two is entitled ‘Maps and Analyses’, and comprises of a collection of essays that explore how psychological studies of religious and spiritual experience may help solve the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness studies, otherwise know as the mind-body problem. This section begins with a paper by Ken Wilber on his integral theory of consciousness. This is followed by a number of essays that reflect critically on the core themes of his work, including the evolution of consciousness, achieving the experience of non-duality, and how to map conceptually the psychology of transpersonal experience.

The final essay in the collection ‘The Rhetoric of Experience and the Study of Religion’, by Robert H. Sharf, was for me the most surprising. It explores cherished mythologies about the East West divide in the realm of the rhetoric of religious experience. Sharf, an associate Professor of Buddhist Studies, debunks the myth that Eastern religions are the champions of contemplative practices, that privilege revealed mystical experience over the observance of scripture and ritual, as a means to attain spiritual authority. Rather these Eastern practices are thoroughly modern and are based on nineteenth century Western theologian’s defences of the religious realm as intensely private, and therefore free from the demands of scientific proof in an age of industrialisation. Eastern intellectuals educated in the Christian missionary schools were exposed to such theological ideas and used them to marshal defences against colonialism. Both Hindu nationalists, inspired by the ideas of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in India, and Zen Buddhist nationalists inspired by D. T. Suzuki in Japan, aimed to redefine the East as more spiritually advanced, though technologically behind the West, to instill a sense of national pride and spiritual superiority in their followers. This would appear to undermine New Age perspectives that posit ‘ancient’ Eastern spiritual practices as the true pathway to mystical enlightenment. In fact, argues the author, these contemplative practices are a product of modernity, and were popularised by Eastern intellectuals educated in the Western, Christian theological tradition, for political purposes. I will return to consider the political implications of religious experience at the end of this essay.

To review a book that presents such a range of perspectives on the psychology of spiritual experience is a tough job. I cannot possibly do justice to the complexity and sophistication of the positions on offer. However, despite the breadth of the areas covered there are common questions which each paper seeks to answer in some way, within the limitations of its own psychological perspective. 1) What can a psychological enquiry into the ‘unitary continuum’ of spiritual experience; which stretches from feeling a decreased sense of boundaries between the self and external world, to feeling an ‘abolition of all boundaries of discrete being’; reveal about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness studies? 2) How do spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, ritual and contemplation evoke experiences of non-duality? 3) What is happening psychologically when the ordinary everyday experience of the mind and body as differentiated, and the inner and outer worlds as separate, seems to dissolve?

First perhaps we need a workable definition of the hard problem of consciousness studies, as De Quincy suggests in his critique of Wilber, ‘The Promise of Integralism’. ‘The real mind-body problem is: How are feelings in the body? That’s the hard problem. That’s the world knot that materialists and dualists have been unable to unsnarl...’ (p. 194 emphasis in original)

He launches a critique of Wilber’s position which is ‘the felt body is in the mind’ (Wilber, 2000, p.179), arguing that what Wilber means here by body is ‘sensorimotor awareness’. However, argues De Quincy, this is only an aspect of mind, or interiority, not the body. This sensorimotor awareness is somatic, in that it comprises of a preverbal bodily awareness, but it is not the body per se. De Quincy says: ‘Wilber appears to confuse the body’s awareness with the body itself. A similar sort of confusion exists when new agers talk of ‘psychic energy’ or consciousness as a form of energy. Consciousness is not energy. Consciousness is what feels the energy... sensorimotor awareness is not the body, it is what feels the body.’( ft [18] p.194)

So what is Wilber’s solution to the hard problem? One has to evolve to ‘a higher stage of consciousness beyond the rational mind and its higher visionary logic stage’ (De Quincy, p. 195). In other words, the mind-body problem is resolved by a non-dual awakening: it has a mystical solution. Except that Wilber works very hard to present an integral model of consciousness based on four quadrants, that attempts to demonstrate how the hard problem can be resolved philosophically. De Quincy again: ‘This is Wilber’s “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t” mind-body shuffle: “There is no sub-mystical solution; but here’s a sub-mystical solution anyway”. Except it isn’t.’(p. 195)

De Quincy argues that the mind-body problem remains opaque to a reason-only solution, but not to an ‘extrarational process solution involving for example, feeling and intuition.’(p.196). However, it’s left to a later paper ‘The Neuropsychology of Religious and Spiritual Experience’ by A. Newberg and E. D’Aquili to explain what might be involved in such an ‘extrarational process solution’. They propose that a review of the literature on the neurophysiological, neuropsychological and neuroendocrinal research on the brain’s interaction with body physiology, promises the most likely explanation of how these non-dual states of unitary consciousness are achieved. They say: ‘A consideration of this relation between cognitive processes in the brain and the autonomic nervous system may yield a more complete understanding of a variety of spiritual experiences ranging from a feeling of “awe”, to intense unitary states.’(p.252)

Firstly they propose a model of ‘the brain as having particular functions by which it interprets sensory input and thoughts...We have previously called these functions cognitive operators.’ (p.253). They divide the brain into two cognitive operators, the ‘causal operator’ and the ‘holistic operator’.

The causal function of the brain organizes any set of events in reality into what is subjectively perceived as causal sequences back to some original event. In view of the apparently universal human trait of positing causes for any given event, we postulate that if some original causal event is not given by sense data, the brain automatically generates such an event. (p.254)

While the holistic operator has particular relevance for the study of spiritual experience as it ‘...refers to the brain’s ability to view reality as a whole or as a gestalt.’(p.254) This reflects the neurophysiological findings that ‘...the right parietal lobe is involved in the generation of a holistic approach to things and the left parietal lobe is involved in more reductionist/ analytical processes.’ (p.254)

What happens to the brain when non-dual ‘spiritual’ states are experienced? Neurobiology has named the functions of the sympathetic nervous system (involved in the expenditure of the body’s energy and metabolism) as ergotropic; those functions involved with the parasympathetic nervous system (involved with conservation of energy and maintenance of baseline metabolism) as trophotropic. D’Aquli and Newberg propose ‘...five categories of ergotropic/trophotropic events and their sensorial concomitants which may occur during extraordinary phases of consciousness.’(p.255) A hypertrophotropic state may result in the ‘extraordinary states of quiescence’, such as those that occur in deep sleep, meditation, contemplation and prayer which evoke feelings of tranquility and peace. A hyperergotropic state results in ‘extraordinary states of unblocked arousal and excitation’ which may also occur as a result of ritual, chanting, meditation and contemplation, and evoke experiences of peak alertness and focused concentration.

The hyperactivation of one system can result in ‘spillover’ of excitation into the other system. For example:

During certain types of meditation... We have proposed that as the hypertrophotropic state creates a state of oceanic bliss, the ergotropic eruption results in the experience of a sense of a tremendous release of energy...activity is so extreme that “spillover” occurs...This may be associated with the experience of an orgasmic, rapturous or ecstatic rush, arising from a generalised sense of flow and resulting in a trance-like state. (pp.255-256)

This makes sense to me. As a meditator for some years, I have experienced this kind of eruption of energy in the midst of a feeling of deep peace, with the resulting feeling of rapturous trance. This experience feels extrarational, rather than prerational, because awareness and concentration are heightened not diminished. The authors cite neurophysiological studies performed on meditating subjects in both the Qigong and Kundalini Yoga traditions, that have produced results that support this theory.

So they conclude that it is the maximal stimulation (spillover) of both the ergotrophic and trophotropic systems, activating the holistic operator, that evokes a range of non-dualistic unitary spiritual experiences. The causal operator then conceptualises the trigger for this phenomenon as the Absolute or God. Does this mean that the mind-body problem is an illusion created by the kinds of divisions in brain function these authors describe? Okay, but, then I am left wondering why does maximal stimulation and spillover occur during these spiritual practices? What is being cultivated during deep meditation, that is not ordinarily attended to? This explanation enables us to map and describe what is happening, but we are left without an explanation of the cause. Is a higher state of consciousness responsible, and if so what do we mean by this? We are back to the original conundrum. The authors conclude:

In the most profound unitary states, a person looses all sense of discrete being and even the difference between self and other is obliterated. There is no sense of the passing of time, and all that remains is a perfect timeless undifferentiated consciousness...Such experiences are often described as a perfect union with God...it nevertheless possesses a quality of transcendent wholeness without any temporal or spatial division whatsoever... these rare states.... are attained through the absolute functioning of the holistic operator...Furthermore, different spiritual experiences might be studied to compare and contrast the phenomenology with specific physiological states. That the underlying neurophysiology of extreme spiritual states can be considered at all allows for the eventual conceptualization of a neuropsychology of religious and spiritual experience (p.263).

If we can explain eventually the cause and development of spiritual experiences neuropsychologically, then we will be able to call them ‘spiritual’ in future? My answer would be yes, if we define the spiritual phenomenologically, as a modality of being that is the vehicle through which we may experience an undifferentiated unity between our inner and outer worlds. In this way the phenomenological reality of the spiritual modality of being could be demonstrated scientifically. However, such a redefinition of spirituality produces problems for organised religions, that each claim to have an exclusive pathway to God. For once unveiled by psychology, this pathway becomes universally available to all those with the self-discipline to meditate, pray or contemplate, in order activate otherwise dormant functions of the brain. Once activated these functions reveal the reality of our common intersubjectivity, and ontological connection to the environment, as divisions between self and other, the individual and the ecological, dissolve. Our own minds, rather than exclusive, hierarchical rites related to institutionalised ritual and scripture, become our gateway to experiencing the absolute or God. In a world torn apart by religious war and sectarianism, such a discovery could be the final solution to an increasingly species-threatening problem. Our capacity to experience a unity with the divine principle, or absolute, would be revealed as a universal trait of humanity, not the exclusive province of the chosen few. It would also provide the scientific and phenomenological foundations for an inclusive, universalist spiritual psychology fit for the twenty-first century.

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© Jo Nash.


Nash, J. (2002). Review of Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps edited by Jensine Andersen and Robert K. C. Forman. Human Nature Review. 2: 503-506.

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