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Spirit, Mind, and BrainReview - Spirit, Mind, and Brain
A Psychoanalytic Examination of Spirituality and Religion
by Mortimer Ostow
Columbia University Press, 2007
Review by A. P. Bober
Aug 28th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 35)

A psychoanalyst with neurological avocations, Ostow proposes spiritual experience as comprising awe, upper-cased Spirituality, and mysticism psychodynamically mediated in a developmental scheme he ties to the brain and mood-regulation.  His presentation tours issues with apocalypse, demonic spirituality, and fundamentalism, concluding with a colleague's vision quest.  Exposing mathematics and logic as equally as abstract and intangible as scientists' depreciation of spirituality (4), he says religion's unreality is illusion (8).  He claims we imagine (30) a persistent link after someone dies thence creating spirit to fill a felt emptiness.

He emphasizes the view (37) that "memories of affects can be retrieved independently of memories of the sensory impressions that accompanied them. . . ."  Furthermore (39), spirituality constitutes "affective experiences that reproduce the affects of the infant in his relation to his mother, at a time before he was neurologically sufficiently mature to acquire visual and auditory memory."  Religion's various worship forms symbolically replicate (62) "specifiable stages in child development."  One objection is that (51) "Students of infant behavior acknowledge that no one can ever know what the infant is feeling or thinking."  Supporting the intersubjectivity problem he says (30), "But, in fact, we live within the limits of our skin and our brains."  So much for fusion-fantasies such as (30) "the illusion of lovers that their spirits are united. . . ."  He generalizes the notion of affective union stating (43) that we "yearn to reach out or to be reached out to by an inconceivably attractive, transcendent influence that we seem to know well, although we do not recall from where or when."  The general reader finds accessible everything important for Ostow's argument in the first three chapters of nine.

 His presentation has two notable outcomes:  1. The theory Freud condenses, with great logical clarity, mainly in the first Roman-numeraled part of Civilization and Its Discontents, Ostow scatters throughout his work, and, 2.  the more religiously committed Ostow reassembles Freud's argumental bones making the world safe for deified spirituality while annealing a mysticism he misunderstands annihilating it as psychiatrically hallucinated experience.

Based on three dozen criteria I've developed regarding mysticism, I must counter that it:

--is not regression in the service of anything;

--originates internally, never externally;

--is not withdrawal, self-forgetting, (non-existent) trance, selfless tranquility, or passive;

--does not negate or diminish individuality but rather expands it;

--may not be ecstasy as separation from self, but ex-centric expansion, as with Teresa's ensanchamiento;

--doesn't require vague concepts or Cosmic Muffins;

--is not epileptoid or epileptiform, as perhaps implied in the text.

Positively, Ostow goes out of his way, in lieu of a glossary, to define terms implicitly, aiding the reader with homey explanatory links and repetitions that reduce obscurity, though the reality in reality testing would have self-destructed had he defined it, while praeternatural (16) oddly names strong or unusual emotion.  His literary material, often parochial, may be new to the reader, as to this reviewer.  Later on he improves (54) an absurdly meaningless four-fold Oxford definition (29) of spirit by discussing pneuma and ruah.  He admits (85) an oversocialized tendency to treat a community's behavior as essentially uniform.  Reasoning in support of his main mother-infant-relation thesis that his Suso quote (50) strongly illustrates is well drawn if repetitively relentless .

Even a casual reader will raise strictures too numerous for a review, from the trivial that yet questions his textual faithfulness to the sublime.  Examples:

--a "page 000" (56) reference and continued misspelling of Freud’s "oceanic" source, Rol[l]and

--sharing Rudolph Otto's theurgic mistranslation (105) of the Latin numen which most primitively means "(nod)ding," and, at worst, assent of king or deity, or, at best, equalitarian confirming of will.

--of the first-person reports he relies on, 1 to 9, from Chapter Two, only two--#1, "white heron," and #7, "in all places"--possibly qualify as mystical, while Teresa de Avila's (#5) angel's spear thrust down into heart and entrails "several times" she herself puts in her Vida and not in her mystical moradas core.  (We grown-ups need no Freud to tell us what may have enthralled this relationship-inexperienced woman as the fantasized "spear" ripped out entrails on withdrawal.  The paragraph right after that quoted reveals her embarrassed giddiness in public thereafter.)

--Ostow's mis-positing of Trieb, drive, as instinct , endlessly invented on the spot and rejected for a century, such as the one presumed for attachment (61) when even the "mother-infant-bond" doctor had withdrawn that ill-supported notion and mothers burn babies on stovetops and with cigarettes.

The analytic "oceanic" critique hunches over with osteoporosis.  Recent writers remind us that Freud placed little emphasis on the maternal relationship but much more on the father, whom Ostow only occasionally mentions.  The Indian source for Rolland's oceanic feeling says its like a salt statue dissolving in the ocean--a far cry from any presumed recollection of a child's symbiotic feeling for mother that even Ostow admits is impossible to confirm.  It makes as much sense to say later mystical feeling mimics the baby's warm surrender of fluid to the diaper, or, by indirection, reveals Freud's own feelings regarding his father rather than his mother as substitution, or according Jung, Freud's sex theory as "a bulwark against the black tide of mud of the occult."  Another possible source:  in the male study Kinsey says no boy is born without an erection, perhaps somewhat less prominently for girls.  As Plato knew in Book Five of the Republic, anyone can care for a child after the only event mother need be present for.  The Trobriand tama or motherly biological father of early years does not even belong to the child's clan as the maternal uncle takes over social fatherhood.  Put a baby bottle in a flannel-covered frame and a baby might accept it as does the classic experimental monkey.

Ostow  introduces additional unanticipated misunderstandings about mystical experience.  It

--is waking experience, not dreamy, apocalyptic (178), or extraterrestrial (48);

--need not involve misinterpreted voices;

--is neither negative, destructive (78, 162), nor the "diabolical" which his reality-testing seems to believe in. 

--can occur to an atheist, a fact he is unaware of (57);

--requires no striving (24), as Teresa well understood;

--is not mood-correction (45) of Maslow's deficiency-motivation (26-7);

--involves no sympathetic magic (163);

--has nothing to do with dubious psychotic breaks (26), nor arises from loneliness (47);

--is not wired in humans who are without them;

--remains ineffable only if you refuse the post-blush expressive work.

Prior to demon-ic, daimon (41) was an inspired state of focus subliminally aiming at synthetic insight, classically as Socrates catatonically riveted to a spot as battle raged around him, maybe a great excuse not to fight.  Ostow also relies on the twisted non-mysticism of Rudolf Otto's awe and fear without seeing this obvious father-fear survival of childhood in a bygone patriarchal Europe that should not escape even an analytic trainee. 

Ostow inadvisedly concludes with the dereistic fantasies of another psychoanalyst schmoozing with a tree on a vision quest impliedly later criticized by colleagues (198) as delusionary hallucination.  This can only depreciate his thesis.

Despite all that I can raise against the ghost of Ostow, for he can no longer read and respond, I found his weavings elaborately developed, with reasoning often challenging, a rejection of  psi I concur with (28-9), and laced with sources new to me, such as the Ezekiel quotation.  Perhaps his subtle construction will even draw adverse readers as to an enemy to be known.


©  2007  Anthony P. Bober


A.P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view.  His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields.  Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neuroendocrinology.


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