Eugene d’Aquili; Andrew B. Newberg

The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience

Review by Tim Knepper, 2001

d’Aquili, Eugene; Newberg, Andrew B. The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

The central thesis of d’Aquili and Newberg’s neuropsychological analysis of religious experience is admittedly paradoxical – God is generated by and generates the brain: “We will demonstrate the intriguing paradox that although God or pure consciousness is generated by the machinery of the brain, nevertheless a strict phenomenological analysis can logically and coherently see absolute unitary being or pure consciousness not only as primary over external material reality but as actually generating it” (18).  Fortunately, the majority of The Mystical Mind treats the first half of this “paradox,” viz. the neuropsychological mediation of religious experience.  D’Aquili and Newberg first delineate several components of the mind-brain which prove to be integral to their account of religious experience: five states of extraordinary consciousness (from hyperarousal, to hyperquiescent, to simultaneous maximal discharge); four areas of tertiary association (visual, orientation, attention, verbal-conceptual); seven cognitive operators (holistic, reductionistic, causal, abstractive, binary, quantitative, emotional-value); and deafferentation, the physiological “cutting off” of incoming information into the brain that allows cognitive operators to work on themselves rather than reality.  D’Aquili and Newberg then apply these components of the mind-brain to various types of religious phenomena.  Myth is the necessary “subjective manifestation of inherent stable relationships within the mind-brain’s structure” (83); ritual causes both partial deafferentation of the orientation association area and the functioning of the holistic operator; and mediation causes partial to total deafferentation of the orientation association area, thereby creating what is commonly referred to as a mystical experience.  In the case of total deafferentation, such an experience – referred to by d’Aquili and Newberg as a state of “absolute unitary being” (AUB) – is unmediated by both linguistic categories and cultural norms: “We maintain, however, that the actual experience of AUB is itself is necessarily the same for any individual who experiences it.  This is necessary from a neurophysiological as well as a philosophical perspective.  It is necessarily experienced as an infinite, unified, and totally undifferentiated state” (117).  Does this constitute a second paradox of d’Aquili and Newberg’s work?  Religious experience must be neuropsychologically mediated in order for it to be culturally-linguistically unmediated. 

In the final chapters of The Mystical Mind, d’Aquili and Newberg leap from the realm of neuro-psychology into that of neuro-theology and phenomenology.  After fleshing out several neuro-theological categories grounded in the deafferentation of the seven cognitive operators, d’Aquili and Newberg hone in on the state of AUB, approaching it from a phenomenological standpoint.  If subjective awareness (rather than material reality) is given ontological priority, they write, “then we must conclude that AUB or pure awareness represents absolute reality” (189).  Thus, although an experience of God is generated by the mind-brain, God or AUB, taken from the perspective of subjective awareness, generates both the mind-brain and the world.  “One is forced to conclude that both conclusions about God (AUB) are in a profound sense true” (193).