Monday, 2 September 2013

The God Impulse

"Basing one's spirituality on science is as foolhardy as basing one's science on spirituality" – Kevin Nelson

In his book The God Impulse neurologist Prof Kevin Nelson argues that spiritual experiences – especially of the near-death type – could be ascribed to a particular type of consciousness, namely being awake while in the REM-state. He also discusses the areas of the brain which produce such experiences. What does this say about life after death?

I have the habit of buying books before flying. A while ago I had to fly to Pretoria on my way to Bloemfontein where I had to participate at the Vryfees (Vrystaat festival) in a discussion on my book Abraham en sy God. As always I visited the Exclusive Books branch at the airport in Cape Town just before boarding. And, as so often happens, I found a book that turned out to be very interesting. It is The God Impulse, Is Religion Hardwared into our Brains? (2011) written by Kevin Nelson, Professor in Neurology at the University of Kentucy in the US.

The God Impulse is a study of the brain's functioning during spiritual experiences. Nelson studied such experiences – especially the type called "near-death" experiences – for many years. He collected many first hand accounts of such experiences and also conducted a more detailed study on 55 research subjects. For the purposes of that study, particular characteristics of such experiences were discerned, based on the work of the philosophers William James and W. T Stace as well as psychiatric and medical studies. The areas of the brain associated with these characteristics were then examined to gain an understanding of the biology underlying such experiences.

Why do we as humans have spiritual experiences? To what extent can we explain such experiences within the framework of the current biological understanding of the brain? Which characteristics of such experiences are associated with which parts of the brain? Can science explain spiritual experiences? These are some of the questions that most of us ask at some stage during our lives. These are also the questions that Nelson tries to answer in his book.

REM consciousness borderlands

Neurology recognizes three states within consciousness: wakefulness, REM sleep (when we dream) and non-REM sleep. The opposite of consciousness is coma. In The God Impulse Nelson proposes that we should ascribe spiritual experiences to the borderlands between consciousness, unconsciousness and dreaming. More particularly, he discerns another state, where wakefulness is blended with REM sleep, and ascribes spiritual experiences, especially of the near-death as well as mystical types, to this state.

Instead of shifting from one state to the other as we normally do (between being awake and asleep), we can get stuck in this borderlands in between states. Since this is an unstable state, this experience lasts only for seconds or minutes even though it can feel like hours. This is the state associated with Lucid Dreaming which is when we are conscious while we are dreaming (this happens in 3% of dreams). One have REM consciousness and is aware and conscious of it at the same time.

What is interesting about this "in-between state", is that one is conscious while one's bodily senses are switched off. One is awake but unable to move any part of your body except your eyes. Studies have shown that people in this state are able to communicate through certain previously agreed (eye) signals with researchers, showing that they are awake even though their bodies are asleep. The reason why this is possible, is that the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex (responsible for logical problem-solving, planning as well as organizing information, thoughts and emotions), which is normally switched off during REM-sleep, is switched on during this state. The same parts of the brain which bring thoughts and sensations together in a wholeness of conscious perception are operative in this state.

While in this state the temporopariental region of the brain is switched off. This region integrates our sensations to orientate us in space. The dorso-lateral prefrontal is also switched off. This can be the reason why time in this state is experienced differently, with things happening instantaneously, people and places shifting abruptly and people having feelings of transportation to new and fantastic places. Our ability to see ourselves as consistent, our sense of being carried through the past, present and future, are distorted.

This in-between state is fundamentally different from dreaming (normal REM consciousness). Persons in this state (as in near-death experiences) have a very strong sense that their world of experiences is as "real" as the one we know when fully awake. The sensations that such persons experience do not come from the outside world, but from the "dream world". Emotions of fear, joy and anger are very strongly felt. A different type of "just-knowing" and telepathic guidance is experienced.

Moving into this state is often accompanied with an awareness of moving through various color-levels. Powerful hallucinations of complex and completely formed animations of people, animals and things appear. Aliens or spiritual beings are also encountered as well as feelings of a transcendent self, encounters with a higher power or being as well as mergence with universal consciousness. After awakening from this state, these experiences are vividly remembered.

Near-death experiences

In his research Nelson found that in persons who have had near-death experiences the REM switch (which switch consciousness between states) operates differently and that such people are more prone to this type of consciousness. It is not clear whether this is the result of their near-death experiences (which could have changed the functioning of this switch) or if they had these experiences because of the way this switch functions. 

Nelson proposes that in near-death experiences people have experiences associated with the above-mentioned "in-between" consciousness. The reason why this is so is that the REM switch (or rather a portion of it called vlPAG) switches to this state (or REM sleep) during severe pain or low blood pressure (as in fainting and cardiac arrest). In people who have had near-death experiences all parts of REM consciousness (paralysis and all kinds of hallucinations) mix with waking consciousness. The various experiences associated with near-death experiences are also encountered in the in-between-state. Nelson explains all the basic phenomena associated with near-death experiences, including passing through the tunnel, seeing a bright light, appearing dead, out of body experiences, life flashing before one's eyes etc. in terms of this state and the way that (especially) the limbic system is affected.

Nelson also ascribe mystical experiences to this state. The difference between lucid dreaming, near-death experiences and mystical experiences is that people in the last group more often experience that they move beyond some sort of uncrossed border. These experiences are "beyond the sense, beyond the understanding". Words like "boundless, ceaseless, bottomless, nothingness, fathomless, infinite, empty, void, barren, abyss, abysmal and absolute" are used for this experience. The sense of being a separate self of thoughts, feelings, sensations and memories is lost and transcends into the One. Time and space dissolves. Those who had this experience describe it as beyond reason and language: "It is absolutely impossible, nor has it time, (so) to speak; but afterwards that it is able to reason about it". The self is, however, not dissolved and the mystics afterwards have clear memories of the experience.

This experience can be induced through hallucinogenic drugs, "ecstatic" seizures (as in the case of Fyodor Dostoevsky) and is clearly distinguished from both dreams and psychotic delusion. The serotonin-2 receptors activated by hallucinogenic drugs are heavily distributed in the very same brain structures which operates in the in-between-state, namely the limbic system, including the hippocampus and the amygdala.

Noumenal intuitions

When I read these things I was quite amazed by the fact that such a state beyond sensibility is not only medically possible, but that a lot of research has been done regarding it. All our interaction with the outside world happens through the senses. It is through the senses that we have experience in this world. And all sense experience happens within the space-time framework. But in the in-between state the senses are switched off, the body is inactive and our experience of space-time is distorted. It seems that we enter some state beyond the senses which is also beyond normal space-time.

These issues have been studied for a long time in philosophy. The great modern philosopher Immanuel Kant situated our sense experience within space-time. In his view all our sense experience are grounded in our ability to perceive space and time. Kant, however, allowed for the possibility that another realm could exist, which he called a "noumenal" realm (derived from nous=mind), which is beyond normal space-time.

Kant argued that our consciousness, feelings (of pleasure and displeasure) and our will are faculties of the mind which are beyond sensibility. For us to have experience within this world, these must interact with our sense intuition. What is remarkable about Nelson's study, is that he shows that these human abilities could still be operative once our sensibility is switched off!  Humans have consciousness (with normal thinking functions), strong feelings and the ability to use their will while in the in-between state. If further research confirms this, it would be a dramatic confirmation of the Kantian view that these faculties are "beyond" sensibilty.

In Kantian philosophy only normal consciousness is considered and he therefore did not allow for any awareness of these human faculties without sensibility. The only intuition (awareness) that Kant considered was sense intuition. What Nelson's study seems to confirm, is that there are particular circumstances when we can have an awareness (intuition) of these faculties of the mind even when sensibility is switched off (i.e. during the in-between consciousness). We have direct access to these faculties and can be aware of them even when our senses are switched off! This could imply that humans have another type of intuition (i.e. different from sense intuition), namely "mind" or "noumenal" intuitions.

Long before Kant, the philosopher Plato allowed for such noumenal intuitions – he described them as "intellectual" intuitions. He believed that we can through such intuitions gain direct knowledge of the noumenal realm which he described as the truly real realm. Nelson's study is also relevant to this. Nelson mentions that people who had experiences while in the in-between state remember them clearly and believed that they were very much real. They had direct noumenal intuitions in the sense of "just knowing" while in this state – very much like Plato's direct knowledge of the noumenal realm.

People who entered the in-between state, not only knew their own thoughts and feelings, they also became aware of things which they experienced as being "telepathically" communicated to them. This could imply that they had been able to gain wider access to the "noumenal realm" while in this state. Since the entities experienced in this realm include all sorts of spiritual beings, this could well be the "spirit world" of the ancients.

Plato did in fact based his noumenal (intellectual) world on the spirit world of the mystics (see especially the discussions in the Phaedo). Plato's noumenal world was but a reworking of the spirit world and his intellectual intuitions was but a reworking of the spiritual awareness ascribed to this world. (Kant also believed in the spirit world and one could argue that his noumenal realm is also based on that world – it is, for example, the realm in which the "soul" is situated).

Real or imaginary experience?

The million dollar question is whether the world accessed while in the in-between state is truly real? Is it really so that one's consciousness is altered while in this state to interact with another world – a world beyond the senses and space-time? A world in which the soul and all sorts of spirits are situated? A world which Christians associate with both good and bad spirits and in which the Spirit of God operates? Is that world only in the mind or is it rather that we access that world only through the mind?

Nelson's study could not answer this question for the simple reason that science cannot at this stage give any such answers. Although Nelson could ascribe the typical phenomena of near-death experience to this in-between state and distinguish the areas in the brain responsible for such experiences, this only tells what happens to us while our brains are still functioning. Once we are brain-dead there is no way in which we can communicate any possible after-death experience through our body.

There is one case that has attracted a lot of attention. Pam, a thirty-five year old woman, had a huge ballooning aneurysm at the base of her brain removed. Doctors had to drain all the blood from her brain to do the operation. To do this they turned down her brain's metabolism so that it didn't require oxygen or glucose. During the operation she woke and was able to see the surgery as if she was sitting on the neurosurgeon's shoulder. She later described the operation in some detail, including the particular saw used to open her skull.

How should we interpret this? Was she viewing the operation from her disembodied soul? Nelson does not think so. He mentions other research which shows that persons who had such out-of-body experiences while asleep (being in the in-between state) were not able to really observe things while in this state. They moved certain things in the room around before their experiences, which they did not observe during their out-of-body experiences. This implies that the visual images were constructed from familiar memory. Nelson therefore argues that the same was true in the case of Pam.  According to him she must have had an opportunity to observe the saw when wheeled into the operation room.

But this is not necessarily the case. One should differentiate between a healthy person having such an experience in which the mind projects itself to some out-of-body position (i.e. no soul really leaves the body) and a situation when a person is practically dead (i.e. when the soul have left the body). In the first case certain capacities of the mind are activated, in the second those capacities involve access to another world (through the soul). Those who argue for the existence of the soul (which continue existing after death) take Pam's detailed description of the operation and of the saw used as evidence for their view. Those who assume that she must have seen the saw beforehand reject this as evidence for the existence of the soul. Science cannot at this stage provide the answers.


The God Impulse is fascinating reading. I believe that the topic discussed is very relevant to current debate. Nelson made a good case that near-death and mystical experiences could be ascribed to a state between being awake and REM sleep where one is conscious (as when awake) while in REM sleep. This is totally different from being awake while being sensibly-aware as well as from sleeping. A strange world is encountered which could well be the spirit world that the ancients often referred to.

I found the possibility that this state could (in principle) confirm the existence of noumenal intuitions especially interesting. This would be a substantial finding. Many Christians believe that they experience such "spiritual" intuitions, which they associate with God's voice in their lives. Nelson's research seems to tell us how such experiences are possible, but not what it amounts to, i.e. whether real communication between us and the spirit world (if it exists), is possible. Although Nelson's research could not confirm or deny the existence of the spirit world, most Christians (and many others) believe that it exists. They could well be right...

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (

See also: Kant's noumenal realm reconsidered