Mystical Brain, Divine Consciousness: A Theological Appropriation of Cognitive Neuroscience

Amanda Rochelle Alexander, Fordham University


This dissertation addresses the question of how, given the reductionist challenge of contemporary neuroscientific studies of mystical states, one can understand the claim that God acts in the soul of the mystic to effect mystical union. It rejects the language of divine action arising from metaphysical dualism and instead advances a Thomistic participatory ontology. According to this ontology, any exercise of creaturely agency is understood as participation in the divine act-of-being. On this participatory model, practices of meditative prayer are understood an exercise of the formal causality of the soul which actualizes the potentiality of neurological matter. The actualization of this matter results in long-term changes to neurological structures and processes on which a transformed epistemic capacity supervenes. An analysis of Teresa’s of Avila’s autobiography, The Book of Her Life, and her masterpiece, The Interior Castle, traces both within and across those two works evidence of an epistemological transformation, and by implication, neurological changes, wrought by her practices of prayer. Teresa’s work culminates with a vision of the triune God whom she finally recognizes as having always been constitutively present in the center of her soul. What Teresa describes as union is thus actually a recognition of her own ontological participation in the divine act-of-being. In light of this, this dissertation concludes that mystical experience is best understood as a mystical knowing-how that arises from the dialectic of the meditative practices of prayer and the pray-er’s own ontological participation in the divine act-of-being. By means of this dialectic, the mystic gradually recognizes how God is constitutively present in her and in all things.

Subject Area

Neurosciences|Philosophy of religion|Theology|Spirituality

Recommended Citation

Alexander, Amanda Rochelle, "Mystical Brain, Divine Consciousness: A Theological Appropriation of Cognitive Neuroscience" (2018). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10932540.