BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

But wait, there's more ...

Well, this is a bit of an unusual case, a LTER – LibraryThing,com “Early Review” program – book that is actually early enough that I've gotten it read and am cranking out the review well in advance of its official release date (mid-March). The book, too, is a bit unusual, being co-authored by an MBA coach and a doctor who's the head of research in “integrative medicine” at a university hospital, writing about spiritual stuff. Actually, by the end of the book it's not as odd a mix (I'll hold off on that commentary until further into this) as it would seem up front, but, still …

Andrew Newberg, MD and Mark Robert Waldman's How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation is evidently a follow-up to their How God Changes Your Brain, and it appears that they're both (they collaborated on several titles, but have a number of others separately) big into the “biology of belief” (or various similar spins on that concept). Frankly, I'm very glad I hadn't looked into their publishing history before I read the book, because it probably would have put me off of this from the start (as their titles sound awfully “preachy”). However, it goes a long way to explaining the vague disconnect that I was having with the book (which is notably not “preachy”, although it goes to great lengths to be “inclusive” of various – especially the major monotheisms – traditions). Needless to say, I would have preferred this to been a “non-religious” look at the topic, and felt the authors weren't really trying to “go there” … but I guess that's just me.

That gripe out of the way, I ended up with way more little bookmarks than usual in this … meaning that I found a lot of notable points. The book is somewhat anchored in the authors' personal stories, with bits like “As I reflected on the problem of how my own brain – my own mind – was trying to find truth, I found myself becoming more contemplative.”. They make a distinction between “small e” enlightenment, and “big E” Enlightenment, and these weave back and forth through the book, and everything is structured in a “Spectrum of Human Awareness”, which goes Level 1 – Instinctual, Level 2 – Habitual, Level 3 – Intentional, Level 4 – Creative, Level 5 – Self-Reflective, and Level 6 – Transformational, which moves from “biological awareness” to “everyday consciousness” to “spiritual awareness”, with levels 2-4 being where we find ourselves most of time.

Despite my kvetching above, the authors do have a chapter “Enlightenment Without God”, so they address the issue, but it still seems like a bit of a stretch for the authors. They note:
Since our main purpose in writing this book is to show the neurological evidence that personal transformation is available to everyone, we want to address Enlightenment through the eyes of a disbeliever.
      The past decade has seen a dramatic rise in atheism, and religious affiliation is at its lowest point in American history. In fact, over forty-six million Americans publicly declare themselves nonreligious. That's 20 percent of the adult population, with nearly a 60 percent drop-out rate for those who are younger than 30.
Interestingly, most of what's presented in this chapter are quotes from interviews with an array of “non-religious” interviewees, which then pivots into discussing drugs. I think a pro-religious bias hangs over this chapter particularly, as though the authors can't really connect with a non-religious world view, and imply that atheists need psychedelics to have enlightenment experiences!

The book is split into three sections, “The Roots of Enlightenment”, “The Paths Towards Enlightenment”, and “Moving Toward Enlightenment” with chapters covering various subjects from “What Enlightenment Feels Like” to “Channeling Supernatural Entities” (yeah, I know). As you can tell from that last bit, they poke around in a lot of neighborhoods which many might not consider particularly “enlightenment” oriented. However, they keep the neuroscience end of things up, and generally will happily hook anybody (Pentecostals speaking in tongues, mediums talking to the dead, Buddhist monks adept at meditation, Sufis doing dhikr,etc.) up to a brain scan. Here's their description of the process:
      We devised an experiment using single photo emission computed tomography (SPECT) to measure different regions of the brain. When certain areas become more active, there is increased blood flow, and if that occurs in the frontal lobe, for instance, your decision-making skills make increase. If it occurs in the parietal lobe, your conscious awareness of yourself may increase. If it occurs in the amygdala, you might feel suddenly fearful, and if it occurs in the thalamus, we believe that the event you are experiencing will feel more real and intense.
      To do a SPECT scan we start by placing a small intravenous catheter in your arm. Then when you are performing a particular activity – {such as} entering a trance state – we inject a small amount of a radioactive tracer that quickly travels to the most active areas of your brain. These tracers are generally considered quite harmless since the several nanograms of material are so small. Importantly, once the tracer gets to the active part of the brain, it stays there. So after you've completed the activity (for example, prayer or psychography) we want to measure … we'll take you down the hall to our SPECT camera and literally take a picture of what your brain was doing at that moment.
One of the things I found slightly irritating here is how they sort of dismiss some practices, while getting all enthusiastic about others. While they are very positive about a number of religious forms (discussed in detail – along with commentary on what is happening in the brains of the practitioners), they do note:
      Evidence suggests that no matter what you think Enlightenment might be, the actual experience is usually very different from anything you could imagine. At some level you must be willing to accept whatever the experience brings. In most religions, this is referred to as surrender, or giving your will over to some higher authority or power. This requires faith, perseverance, and devotion.
      But giving up old beliefs involves risk. So religion poses a double bind: traditions demand that you adhere to the specific tenets of the organization, but Enlightenment involves transcending them. This partly explains why new religions typically are established by people who felt enlightened by their spiritual endeavors, and it also explains why the orthodoxy will persecute them. And when your beliefs are transformed, it appears to be neurologically impossible to return to the old ones.
They go into various elements about “belief”, and this bit stood out:
      Our brains do not like ambiguity – a cognitive function called “uncertainty bias” … regulated by the same frontal and parietal regions that are involved in Enlightenment experiences. In other words, when you decrease your frontal lobe activity … your sense of certainty decreases. This makes it easier for the brain to engage in belief-changing activities. But when the brain activity returns to normal after the experience, it reestablishes the sense of certainty of your new, enlightened beliefs in a powerful way.
I don't know why, but I found the last section of the book, which attempts to walk the reader through practices for attaining “enlightenment”, somewhat bizarre … additionally, this is in fairly direct opposition to their statement: “Enlightenment isn't a practice, it's an emergent experience that can be triggered when the brain transitions from one stage of consciousness to the next.” They have set up a framework for the reader to experiment with various approaches (from reciting a particular prayer, or chanting a specific phrase, to staring at a blank piece of paper, and others) which has five steps: Desire, Prepare, Engage, Surrender, and Reflect. The way they frame these, however, sounds awfully “cultish” to me, such as “you must genuinely desire insight and change” and “you must completely surrender and immerse yourself in the ritual experience”. Perhaps it's my “deep agnosticism” and distrust of religions that makes this part as uncomfortable as it was for me, but much of the material in this last part of the book had me asking “what's a neuroscientist doing telling me to intone Arabic phrases while swaying back and forth?”.

This brings me back to a point in the opening paragraph above. As I've noted in other reviews, I really feel used when I get to the end of a book to find it's been, on some level, a long-form promo for a service by the author. And, in what I thought was going to be a “companion website” with additional information, there it was – a pitch for an “information product” on 5 CDs – which claims to be “based on a new model of human consciousness that Consolidates Over 31,000 Studies ...” and “shows you how to tap into progressively higher states of brain activity and awareness where problems are easier to solve and goals are easier to reach”. Talk about an “aha!” moment. At least it's “reasonably priced” compared to a lot of stuff in that market.

As noted, How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain doesn't come out for a while … so if this all sounds like something you want to get into, you're going to have to wait a couple of months. Needless to say, I was deeply ambivalent on this book, with it repeatedly veering into zones where I'm thinking it's campaigning for the Templeton Prize*, to the whole “shill for the program” bit. This, of course, being set against the very interesting science involved. However, I'll freely admit that these sorts of things bug me far more than most people, so you might be all gung-ho for this and end up spending your afternoons happily chanting allah-hu on the way to shifting the relative activity of assorted brain regions.

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Tags: book review
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