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Mind Beyond Brain: Buddhism, Science, and the Paranormal, edited by David E. Presti

Cover of Mind Beyond Brain: Buddhism, Science, and the Paranormal
Publication Details: 
Columbia University Press, ISBN: 9780231189569.
Publish date: 
October, 2018

Reviewed by Robert A. Charman

The ‘Beyond’ in ‘Mind Beyond Brain’ tells us that the contributors to this book believe that the current neuroscientific hypothesis that our mind is somehow generated by our brain and dies when our brain dies is not the full story. They believe that there is good evidence indicating that while our mind obviously interacts with our physical brain it can also act independently even during this life, and at brain death it seems very probable that it can separate from the brain as a self- sustaining entity. Their view concerning the nature of mind is in line with Max Planck, founder of quantum physics, who said:

All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter … I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.

Who are these contributors? The Editor, David Presti is professor of neurobiology, psychology and cognitive science at University of California, Berkeley. Author of Foundational Concepts in Neuroscience: A Brain-Mind Odyssey (2016) he also teaches neuroscience to Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in India and Bhutan working closely with the Dalai Lama. The four other notable contributors, Drs Bruce Greyson, Jim Tucker, Emily Kelly and Edward Kelly, are all members of the Department of Perceptual Studies (DOPS), University of Virginia. This is perhaps the only university department dedicated to studying not only psi phenomena, but also children who apparently remember previous lives (known as ‘cases of the reincarnation type’ or CORT), Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), veridical Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs), deathbed visions, apparitions, and apparent communication with the dead as in mediumship.

Why Buddhism? Because centuries of introspection by Buddhists through meditative practice have, they believe, revealed deep insights into the nature and properties of mind, including various forms of psi (known as siddhis). Their shared hope is that these insights, together with research into psi in all its forms and advances in the neurosciences will eventually result into a new paradigm incorporating the presently anomalous with the known into a new explanatory framework in which mind is central.

Presti contributes the opening and closing chapters. In his opening chapter Scientific Revolution and the Mind-Matter Relationship he presents some important definitions including Science; or the scientific method, which is the process of collecting and organising knowledge about the world, universe and nature through collecting data by observation and experimentation and constructing explanatory frameworks. Scientific Revolution: which occurs when new observations and experiments lead to a new paradigm of scientific explanation that incorporates the previous anomalous into a new synthesis. Mind and Consciousness: that together refer to all possible mental states, both nonconscious and conscious. Consciousness, which is a state of mental awareness of our personal feelings, thoughts and emotions whether outer or inner directed. Matter: is the stuff of the physical universe according to physical theory (I think Energy should have been included given E= mc2).

Metaphysics: refers to ‘The stage upon which our description of the world is played out, the framework within which the results of our scientific inquiry are interpreted’. At present, the metaphysical framework of contemporary Western science is Physicalism, or Physical materialism, which posits that the whole of reality of which we form part is constructed from the interaction of different combinations of matter and energy as modelled by mathematical physics. Physicalism is a belief system underlying the physical and biological sciences in which the ‘outside’ world, as we see it, is considered as having an objective, independent existence unaffected by the subjectivity of the observer ‘in here’.

In this belief, as Presti points out in his discussion following on from the definitions, Western science has been astonishingly successful. Under the Awesome Explanatory Framework of Contemporary Physical Science we can view the universe from the ‘Big Bang’ cosmology of the infinitely large to quantum physics of the infinitely small. The biological sciences explore the evolution of living things from the genetic code that unites all life from cells onwards through the concept of the evolution of species in the battle for survival against an everchanging environment, although the origin of life itself remains a mystery. All these remarkable discoveries refer to an assumed physical reality that can be observed, acted upon, and measured. But when we ask, as Presti does, ‘How Does the Mind fit in?’ certainty becomes bewilderment because, as yet, the neurosciences can offer no explanation beyond correlation (not causation) of neural activity with mental activity. Known as the ‘mind/body’ problem there are many proposed answers such as physical monism (that mind is a form of matter despite appearing so different), dualism (that mind and brain are  separate entities that somehow interact), panpsychism (that all matter contains some level of mind), idealism (that what we call ‘matter’ is a misnomer as it is a condensed form of mind), and  neutral monism, in which mind and matter are outward manifestations of an underlying reality. Presti explores the implications of these part answers and then expands his discussion of mind under the heading ‘Future trajectories in the investigation of mind and consciousness’ by introducing us to Buddhist concepts of mind and the psi  phenomena to be discussed by contributors in the succeeding chapters.

In Near-Death Experiences Bruce Greyson, the doyen of NDE studies, takes us through the characteristic features of NDEs that distinguishes these profound experiences from anything else, such as nightmares and hallucinations, including their lasting psychological impact. One life affirming change is that near-death experiencers, or NDErs for short, who have had positive NDEs lose all fear of death as they are certain that they have seen how wonderful life will be after death (This is true, but what is omitted here is reference to the15-20% of NDErs  whose NDE  was one of a terrifying hell, leaving a  subsequent terror of death). While NDEs can occur in everyday life, particularly in perceived life threatening situations, Greyson concentrates on those NDEs that occur following cardiac arrest when there is  loss of cerebral bloodflow resulting in a dying, deoxygenated brain that is in no position to support the reported NDE sense of enhanced sensations,  superfast mental processes and vivid, panoramic scenes. Theories of possible cerebral release of a flood of endorphins and other neurochemicals in response to a lack of oxygen remain unproved. In fact, at this point Greyson leaves me puzzled when he says that ‘studies have shown that people who report NDEs actually have more oxygen getting to their brain than do those people who do not report NDEs after a close brush with death.’ This cannot possibly be true of cardiac arrest patients during the period of arrest when NDEs are said to occur. It may be the case that the brains of those who report memories of a NDE happen to have absorbed more oxygen during the post resuscitation period that might help stabilise memory of a NDE.

He dismisses Dr Jimo Borjigin, Associate Professor, Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology, University of Michigan’s unexpected EEG findings (Borjigin et al, 2013a, 2013b)) of a period of enhanced, coordinated brainwave activity in dying rat brains following cardiac arrest, especially in the high gamma frequencies normally correlated with intense mental activity, as an unlikely explanation, partly because ‘the postmortem electrical activity observed in these rats was only a small fraction of the total neuro-electric power present before death of the rats.’ However, in response Borjigin et al. (2013b) argue that they found:

… increased power and global synchrony in the gamma bandwidth, two neurophysiologic features associated with conscious processing. Moreover, this gamma band exhibits an       eightfold increase in top-down information processing (thought to be a key element of consciousness) and fivefold increase in bottom-up information flow (thought to represent sensory       information processing) at near death. In addition, we found tight coupling of gamma bands with both theta and alpha bands, yet another indicator of conscious information processing.

The point here is that as all animal brains, including ours, work the same way, it is possible that all dying brains pass through a short period of enhanced brainwave activity correlated with consciousness.

Greyson emphasises the fact that near-death related out-of-body observations (OBEs) of scenes during actual surgery or of scenes elsewhere that are later verified offer strong anecdotal evidence of clairvoyance. Greyson gives an example of a fifty year old truck driver who had quadruple bypass surgery during which he had an OBE in which he saw his surgeon ‘flapping his arms as if trying to fly’. When he described what he saw to the surgeon the latter was very taken aback and asked ‘Who told you about that?’ to which the patient replied ‘Nobody, I left my body and watched you from above’. When, several years later, Greyson asked the surgeon about this he was told that while his residents started the surgery by opening up the chest to expose the heart before he took over, he did not risk touching anything with his sterile gloves so he kept his  hands to his chest  and pointed with his elbows which would look as if he was imitating flying. Greyson also refers to a study by Sabom (1982) in which he asked OBE and non OBE post cardiac arrest patients what they imagined the surgical scene would have looked like if they had been watching outside of their bodies. Not one of the non OBE patients could describe the scene accurately, with over 80% making major errors in their imagined scenarios, whereas none of the OBE patients made any observational errors including (and this verification is very important) many who reported seeing unexpected events occurring during their particular resuscitation that were clinically confirmed. In a similar survey Sartori (2008) found the same results.

Another fascinating feature of NDEs is that experients never report meeting friends and relatives who are still alive, but only those who have died including (and this again is very important) those that they did not know had died. Children never see their living parents, siblings or friends or during their NDE, but only those who have died including, to their surprise, those they thought were alive as they had not been told otherwise. Greyson quotes the case of Eddie, suffering from severe meningitis who, during his NDE,  had met his deceased grandfather, aunt and uncle who he knew had died but also, to the consternation of his parents,  his nineteen year old sister Teresa who, as far as he and his family knew, was away in college in Vermont and alive and well. When his parents got home there was a message from the college to say that she had been involved in a terrible car accident and had died the night before. Greyson describes another case in which a man saw someone he didn’t know who looked on him very lovingly. He described him in detail to his parents who denied all knowledge. Years later, when his mother was close to death she showed him a picture of a man that he instantly recognised as the man he had seen during his NDE. She then told him that he was a Jew and they had had an affair during which she became pregnant before he was captured by the Nazis and never seen again. She later married the man who had raised him as his own son, but the man he saw during his NDE had been his biological father.

Greyson concludes that NDEs that occur during cardiac arrest ‘challenge the common assumption that consciousness is solely the product of brain processes, or that mind is merely the subjective concomitant of neurological events’ (but maybe this is not such a challenge if the findings of Borjigin et al. are confirmed). Instead, he thinks that they ‘lend support to the alternative view that brain activity normally serves as a kind of filter, selecting the mental content that is allowed to emerge into waking consciousness’(I don’t understand this hypothesis at all). I must add here that if Borjigin et al. are correct, and if ESP is accepted as a genuine phenomenon, then ESP may be considerably enhanced during NDE related OBEs in the absence of competing sensory input).

In Reports of Past-Life Memories Tucker reviews fifty years of research into ‘cases of the reincarnation type (CORT)’ from across the world, now amounting to some 3,000 carefully evaluated cases in the DOPS collection. This is where children, aged between 2 to about 7 years old, after which these memories fade away, say that they were once someone else with a different name and different family including details of where they lived, what they did and their family relationships. In a high percentage of cases they say that they were killed by shooting or had a fatal accident, and in the former case many had birthmarks where records show that the fatal bullet had entered (small birthmark) and left the body (large birthmark). The late Dr Ian Stevenson (1918 -2007), was the recognised authority on these studies, being appointed Chair of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Virginia Medical School, in 1957, and founding the DOPS in 1967. DOPS was part funded by Eileen Garrett, President of the Parapsychology Foundation who alerted him to such cases, and then fully funded by Chester Carlson (1906-1968), the founder of xerography and president of the Xerox Corporation after reading Stevenson’s first book on the subject Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (1966). Stevenson eventually wrote Cases of the Reincarnation Type, a four volume series documenting hundreds of cases that he had examined. Since then other researchers, including Tucker with Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children who Remember Past Lives (2013) and have added their cases. The department now has a huge database from which to classify their cases according to a Strength of Case Scale.

Tucker describes how the painstaking research is carried out, illustrating his account with several case histories including the now famous American case of James Leininger that he investigated personally (see the Leininger entry in the Psi Encyclopedia for details). Born in 1998 to a young Christian couple in Louisiana, after visiting a flight museum aged 22 months and seeing WW2 aircraft  James had nightmares of being shot down in flames at the battle of Iwo Jima while flying a Corsair fighter off the escort carrier Natoma Bay, naming himself as James and  a  Jack Larsen who was a fellow pilot.. All these details were later confirmed by his father’s research, including meeting Jack Larsen and finding that 21 year old James Huston was the pilot who was shot down and whose experiences he was apparently reliving. After reviewing conventional explanations such as faulty memory, deliberate deception, poor methodology and so on DOPS carried out two re-evaluation studies to see whether these counter explanations provided a better explanation of their findings than the hypothesis of reincarnation. After reviewing the pros and cons of different explanations Tucker cautiously concludes that ‘these cases contribute to the body of empirical evidence suggesting that some aspects of mind may, in some way, transcend the physical body and perhaps even survive bodily death.’

In Mediums, Apparitions and Deathbed Experiences Emily Kelly pays tribute to the vast number of painstakingly investigated cases compiled by the early members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), founded in 1882, with their scientific emphasis on written and/or interview corroboration, some of which are now digitised by the Esalen Institute. For the last 50 years DOPS has continued these investigations. On mediumship she describes how investigators have tried to distinguish between whether information supplied by the mediums that they could not have possibly known come from the deceased person or through medium/sitter telepathy, by using proxy sitters who did not know the deceased. An advance on this approach is to ask mediums to give readings based on neutral photographs and then submit a selection of these readings to the actual sitters to see if they can distinguish which transcribed reading applies to their deceased person. According to Kelly the results are far better than chance. For example, when doing a proxy sitting session with many photographs and  Kelly as proxy, a medium said  of one particular photograph of a girl that she sensed the girl’s hair had fallen out, that she had died of cancer, that she had dyed her hair different colours before it fell out and that the college town of Northampton, Massachusetts,  was important to her. The girl’s mother confirmed these details including the fact that although she had lived and died in Texas her daughter very much wanted to go to Smith College, Northampton.

Apparitions, sometimes seen spontaneously by more than one person, often occur as ‘crisis apparitions’ when  the person whose apparition is seen  has been badly injured, or has become very ill or has died at about the same time the experiencer sees his or her  apparition, or hears their voice, strongly feels their presence, or has a vivid dream  of them. For example, ‘I saw my grandfather, who lived 1200 miles away in Kentucky, walking down the hall of my house. Two days later I received a phone call to say that he had died from a massive coronary at about the same time as I saw him. I was extremely close to him and the family had frankly been trying to figure out which one of them should tell me’ Besides these visitations there are also many instances that seem beyond chance coincidence of an unexpected physical event happening at around the time of death, such as favourite clocks stopping and not restarting or closely associated pictures falling off the wall. For example, ‘My mother-in-law died unexpectedly. The night she died my husband, two children and myself were on the couch watching a movie. I suddenly felt a cold breeze as if someone cold was walking quickly towards the kitchen. Then the picture of the Last Supper on the wall of the kitchen, which was a gift from my mother-in-law fell off the wall. We all felt the cold breeze but my husband said it was just a breeze and the picture falling off the wall a coincidence.’

In deathbed visions and moments of terminal lucidity the person about to die sees, and in the latter case,  speaks with clarity, sometimes to those present but more frequently to a deceased family member or friend they are aware of but those present cannot see, and then dies. For example, ‘Just before my grandmother died she looked up with a beautiful smile and said ‘Hi Edward (my long deceased grandfather) I’ve missed you so much.’’ The interesting point here is that, as with NDE cases, the dying person never speaks to absent relatives or friends who are alive but, even when they and those present do not know this, only to those who have died. Kelly quotes a case where, with her family present, a seriously ill elderly woman suddenly became mentally alert and with a look of pleasure she raised herself and said ‘Oh, Will, are you there’? before dying. In due course they received a message to say that her brother Will, who lived in England, had died two days earlier.

In Paranormal Phenomena, the Siddhis, and an emerging path toward reconciliation of Science and Spirituality Edward Kelly writes an extended essay reviewing the history of research into the whole range of psi phenomena, demonstrating that the evidence for their occurrence is beyond reasonable dispute. In Eastern philosophy the term ’siddhi’ refers to the occurrence of ESP phenomena by practitioners following Buddhist or Hindu Vedantic meditative disciplines in their search for supreme enlightenment. Such psi experiences are considered as expected but unwanted distractions. In contrast, to Western researchers the fact that they occur is considered as important evidence of their validity. The evidence indicates that verifiable non-sensory derived  information has been acquired when in this altered state of consciousness (ASC), and conversely when in this state of mind, a person can exert a mentally directed effect upon the outside world, most notably upon other living systems from cells to animals to humans as in healing intention. Kelly, a cognitive scientist, discusses in some detail his own research into psi phenomena after joining J. B. Rhine’s Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (FRNM) following his disillusionment with 1970s and 80s ‘mind as a mental computer’ explanations. Here he met Bill Delmore (BD), a first year law student at Yale who claimed ESP powers and repeatedly obtained astonishing successful results from card guessing trials to anticipating which of four lights would light up (randomly determined) on Helmut Schmidt’s machine. Kelly says that for over 18 months BD ‘could do practically anything we asked him to do’ and this was particularly true  of high scoring card guessing trials (but see Hansen, 1992; cf. Kanthamani, 1992; Kelly, 1992). Kelly concludes that psi phenomena exists beyond all reasonable doubt in life and laboratory and must be included in any explanation as to the nature of mind.

In the final chapter An Expanded Concept of Mind Presti first discusses the implications of psi for the supporting the concept of mind as an independent agent instead of the temporary, brain generated, phenomenon posited by the neurosciences. In a Coda  he says that this book has been motivated by the contemporary encounter and exchange of ideas between Buddhism, which places mind as central in the universe, the findings of Western neuroscience research which considers mind as a temporary creation of the brain, and the anecdotal and laboratory evidence for psi manifestations for which the neurosciences have no explanation. He emphasises that this discussion must be placed within the wider context of quantum physics in which the apparently solid objects of everyday life including our own bodies dissolve into atomic energy fields as studied in quantum physics. He suggests that quantum physics is relevant to this discussion because at synaptic level the brain operates on the cusp where, in effect, the apparent certainties of classical physics and statistical uncertainties of quantum effects meet. The role of quantum energy in biological processes is a rapidly expanding field of study and Presti predicts that a new Kuhnian paradigm will integrate psi, Buddhist insights and quantum neuroscience into a new explanation as to the nature of mind and its place in the universe.

With a Foreword by the Buddhist scholar Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche who organised a symposium between Buddhists and neuroscientists upon which this book is based, extensive chapter endnotes, a bibliography of some 250 titles, index and  author biographies, this slim, 213 page book raises fundamental questions concerning the nature of mind (which, remember, means us), its relationship with the brain and its place in the universe. Is it a temporary, brain generated, phenomenon, or something more?  The authors strongly favour the view that the brain acts not as a generator of mind, but as a selective filter interposed (as I understand it) between a Universal Mind  of which we are somehow part and our individual minds.

Speaking personally, of all the anomalous mental phenomena discussed in this book the one that really intrigues me is that the only people met during NDEs and deathbed visions are people who have died including those not known to have died. Stranger still, children have even met and described a dead sibling such as a twin that their shocked parents have never told them about, and dead relatives such as grandparents, uncles and aunts who they never met but later recognise from photographs. In conclusion, despite occasional caveats which are only my opinion) I strongly recommend this well written and well referenced book on a fascinating subject (us!) to academics and general readers alike.


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Robert A. Charman can be reached at email: