18 February 2019


David E. Presti. Mind Beyond Brain: Buddhism, Science and the Paranormal. Columbia University Press, 2018.

This is a fascinating - if slightly expensive for its size - book that treads the boundaries between science and mysticism in an enlightening way. The author/editor is a professor at Berkeley in California, specialising in neuro-biology and cognitive science, which means he has a grasp of the materialism that underpins any kind of ‘spiritual’ experience.
However, he is not one for whom the brain has a rigid structure that must resolve all things unresolved at present. Not just by reducing them to our knowledge of neurones anyhow.

Indeed his opening premise seems to be that physical science since the 18th century has largely progressed by seeing things only as if they are the result of jello within the brain-matter as being of paramount importance. It has done that by divorcing this hard science from the more fuzzy truth that we as conscious beings play a part in the equations that we define around the nature of reality.

That softer, metaphysical or religious, truth is not necessarily wrong, just different. But science has tended to avoid the hard yards of seeking how to make the incompatible, compatible. Presti argues that this may form the missing element within the necessary rules that define how reality ultimately comes into being and operates. So, if we wish to understand those functions we cannot do so by ignoring the interaction between matter, space and ourselves.

The title itself will scare the life out of materialists, for whom mind beyond brain is almost a literal contradiction from the premise that brain creates as epiphenomena and so in effect must cage mind. So mind outside and beyond resembles mysticism, not science.

However, the book compromises a series of chapters by the author and several colleagues, all research scientists in closely related areas; and is developed from out of a Charlottesville, Virginia retreat in 2010 set up by a Bon shamanistic Buddhist who invited open-minded material scientists to discuss ways in which these differing views of brain might interact with his ideas.

That think tank helped inspire this book and speakers at the event each write their own chapters on their specialist interests in that regard. Presti himself writes the introductory and concluding chapters summing up how science of consciousness has arrived where we are and then how we might move on and incorporate the data revealed by four other specialists exploring the more esoteric rather than traditional neuroscience evidence.

These chapters look in turn at near death experiences (Bruce Greyson - a Virginia professor of psychiatry and neuro-behavioural science), reincarnation (Jim Tucker, a psychiatry professor who has written extensively on research into past life recall of children), Mediums, apparitions and deathbed visions (Emily Kelly, whose PhD from Edinburgh was gained by studying the work of noted early psychic researcher F W H Myers) and psychic experiences and spirituality (Edward Kelly, a perceptual science specialist). There is an extensive fifty page set of notes, references and bibliographies to further your knowledge of each topic.

Not being a large book, each chapter running to about 20 pages long, it is not right to expect in-depth analysis of topics covered. But it is a cogent review of the main points of debate within these overlapping fields. Moreover, it reflects on how the mood has changed in areas such as NDEs - from 40 years ago with these being then usually assumed to be obviously imaginary to now being widely accepted as in some way real with only the cause to be agreed upon.

Presti notes that this usually comes down to what he phrases in this way of these topics: “Whether they are explainable in terms of known neurobiology, or yet unknown but nonetheless conventional neurobiology - or will require a substantial shift in our explanatory worldview - (that) is what remains the outstanding question.”

Whilst a little dry though not impenetrable, and quite popularly written by working scientists, it has just a touch of the books that the late Lyall Watson used to write. Like him this is looking at how science and parascience interact in ways most people unfamiliar with the status of neurological research may not have come to see. -- Jenny Randles.

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