Saturday, August 25, 2007

Simulated out-of-body experiences - what difference do they make to our view of the soul?

According to Nature News,
Scientists have deliberately fooled people into feeling they are watching themselves from outside their own bodies, using virtual-reality technology. The achievement reveals how the brain can be confused as it struggles to integrate confusing information from the different senses.

[ ... ]

Such experiences have been claimed by spiritualists to represent evidence of a soul. But the new research shows that it is possible to create a similar sensation simply by tricking the mind.

Of course, later on, we read,
The method does not recreate the 'classical' OBE — most strikingly because in the real-world setting, there's no obvious way for a person to 'see' themselves. But people could perhaps draw on their own mental body image to create the effect, says Ehrsson. "In the operating theatre there is no mirror on the ceiling, but there could be a 'mirror' in the head," he says. Ehrsson and Blanke suspect that this illusion might involve some sort of malfunction in brain regions such as the tempoparietal cortex that integrate sensory information.

The New York Times riffed,
The research provides a physical explanation for phenomena usually ascribed to other-worldly influences, said Peter Brugger, a neurologist at University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland. After severe and sudden injuries, people often report the sensation of floating over their body, looking down, hearing what is said, and then, just as suddenly, find themselves back inside their body. Out-of-body experiences have also been reported to occur during sleep paralysis, the exertion of extreme sports and intense meditation practices.

People who participated in the experiments said that they felt a sense of drifting out of their bodies but not a strong sense of floating or rotating, as is common in full-blown out of body experiences, the researchers said.

I guess they’ll just have to keep working on it. When they get the spinning stuff right, the gaming world will eat it alive.

I asked my lead author of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain neuroscientist Mario Beauregard what all this amounted to, and he replied,
The two studies (by Ehrsson and by Lenggenhager, Tadi, Metzinger, & Blanke) really have little to do with OBEs. They demonstrate some interesting techniques for confusing the perception of one's bodily location in space, but -- as the Blanke paper acknowledges -- they did not induce a sense of leaving the body or being outside the body.

Two things worth noting:

- The obsession of popular science media for “proving” that there is no spiritual reality. Articles of this type almost NEVER ask a non-materialist neuroscientist for comment. Any limitations you hear about will depend on admissions that materialists are prepared to make.

- The out of body experiences that are associated with near death experiences - which Mario and I discuss extensively in The Spiritual Brain, are usually accompanied by significant life change. So whatever is happening goes significantly beyond any fairground sense of floating or rotating, so addressing them in any meaningful way requires addressing that factor.