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Measuring the Immeasurable

Measuring the Immeasurable

The Scientific Case for Spirituality

  • Reviewed by Diane Hennacy Powell, MD on Dec. 1, 2009

    Like a sampler plate of hors d'oeuvres, Measuring the Immeasurable tantalizes the intellectual taste buds and stimulates a hunger for more. With contributions from journalists, scientists, visionaries, and healers, this anthology's eclectic nature is both its strength and its weakness. Some chapters are too technical for the average reader, while others are too elementary for the well read. But most chapters are accessible and have value for everyone. Overall, the anthology provides a rich variety of approaches to the question of what science can tell us about spiritual practices and their impact.

    Among these, brain imaging's significant role in answering this question is well represented. For example, functional MRI (fMRI), which measures differences in brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow, has enabled neurologist James Austin to investigate the brain circuitry involved in meditation and enlightenment. He has identified “hot spots” in the resting brain that become less active in the mental state called “no self” in Zen Buddhism. Psychologist Jeanne Achterberg and her colleagues have used fMRI to look at the brain activity of people who unknowingly receive healing intentions. When these results were compared with brain activity in the same people during periods when no healing intentions were sent, significant differences were found. Such findings lend further support to the theory that nonlocal connections exist between individuals. Achterberg, along with many other researchers, concludes that entanglement occurs at the macroscopic level.

    One chapter includes dialogue between the late neuroscientist Francisco Varela and the Dalai Lama on the correlations between Buddhist epistemology and the neuroscience of perception, conception, and action. A 200-millisecond delay occurs between the brain patterns associated with perception and those associated with recognition. The Dalai Lama finds this news exciting because it validates the Buddhist view that conception follows perception, rather than the two occurring simultaneously. The Dalai Lama considers this gap an opportunity for liberation: We have time to intervene between perception and the subsequent cognitions that construct our habitual view of reality.

    Medical biophysicist and psychologist Peter Levine discusses meditation, sex, death, and trauma as “potential catalysts for profound surrender”—portals for transformation. He explores how gaining mastery over our autonomic nervous system can enable us to shift feelings of terror and horror to feelings of joy and bliss. He writes, “While trauma is hell on earth, its resolution may be a gift from
    the ‘gods.’”

    Another chapter explores psychologist Len Ochs's controversial treatment for autism, fibromyalgia, depression, pain, trauma, and various other mind/brain problems. Called “Low Energy Neurofeedback System” (LENS), the treatment protocol consists of less than one second of electrical feedback to a patient's brain at a frequency slightly different from the brain's dominant brainwave frequency. Theoretically, this disrupts a brain's habitual dysfunctional patterns to enable healthier activity patterns to arise. Ochs reports that LENS has shown remarkable healing effects, even though he himself is so astonished by LENS that he refers to it as “weird stuff.”

    Psychologist Joan Hageman provides an overview of meditation practices from traditions such as Sundo Taoism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Indic Tantra, Sufism, and Judaism. She relates not only the differences among these schools of meditation but also their benefits and potential side effects as practices that facilitate enlightenment. The Living Deeply research of the Institute of Noetic Sciences' Marilyn Mandala Schlitz, Cassandra Vieten, and Tina Amorok is also included in this anthology—as well as a chapter overview and analysis of distant healing research from Schlitz and IONS Senior Scientist Dean Radin.

    Measuring the Immeasurable builds its readers' knowledge base while it also affirms the importance of self-observation for spiritual growth. Science relies on the ability to objectively observe; similarly, reaching higher states of consciousness requires honing skills of subjective observation. Over and over again, the book dispels the notion that science and spirit cannot intersect. The more we can integrate their corresponding observations into our daily lives, the more likely that wisdom will follow.

    Review published in Shift magazine

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