Sunday, November 11, 2007

Do recent studies of out of body experiences show that there is no soul?

Several people have written to me asking whether recent reports of out of body experiences stimulated by electrodes show that there is no soul. The short answer is no, they don't. But first let's look at what they do show.

A report from ivillage, "Scientists spot brain center for 'out-of-body' experience", features a recent experiment in which Belgian scientists were able identify out of body experiences (OBEs) with abnormal activity in a specific region of the brain in a 63-year old patient.

Originally, they had implanted electrodes in the right side of the man's brain (temporoparietal junction) in order to relieve a sense of ringing in the ears (tinnitus). The treatment didn't work, but he started to experience odd episodes, lasting 15 to 21 seconds each, in which he did not feel quite in his body.

According to the report,
While at no time causing any alteration in his sense of consciousness, during each episode, the patient consistently reported feeling disembodied to a specific location -- namely about 20 inches behind his body and to the left. The perception remained the same, regardless of whether the patient was standing or lying down during electrode stimulation.

He was not actually seeing his body from behind. Rather, he felt as if he were to the left and rear of his body's actual location, but he still saw in a normal way.

Would it feel as if one was operating one's body as a remote controlled toy race car?

Anyway, positron emission tomography (PET) scans showed a spike in brain activity around the electrode implant (where the angular and supramarginal gyrus meet, and rear superior temporal cortex)

Study leader and neurosurgeon Dirk De Ridder explained that our total perception of ourselves is built of various parts, one of which is that consciousness belongs in the body.
"But when something goes wrong in that brain area so that the integration of all the incoming information -- sight, sound, smell, the senses -- is not happening as it should, then you can feel that you're not in your body," De Ridder said. "You can get an out-of-body experience. You're perfectly conscious. But you just feel as if you're not actually sitting in your body."

The scientists believe that they have found a clear connection between out of body experience and abnormal brain activity, but they were careful to qualify their findings:
However, they cautioned that while epileptics, patients suffering from migraines and tinnitus, and those undergoing a near-death experience have all been known to spontaneously experience out-of-body episodes, it remains unclear whether pro-actively stimulating the two identified cranial areas -- which don't normally activate in unison -- would induce a similar experience in healthy individuals.

It's well to bear such qualifications in mind. In The Spiritual Brain, Mario Beauregard and I discuss extensively the tendency of the popular science media to jump on anything that looks like a mechanistic or materialist explanation of a phenomenon that is usually considered non-material, spiritual, or religious. The fabled skepticism of the media evaporates, and journalists rush claims into print that even the proposed mechanism's strongest proponents don't advance.

Anyway, I asked Mario what he thought about the assumption that we now "know" how OBEs of the sort that transform lives occur. He replied that it is important to distinguish between the effects of electrical stimulation, as described, and spontaneous out of body experiences:
The sense of disembodiment induced by electrical stimulation is limited to a fixed location. Whereas spontaneous out-of-body experiences (OBEs) often involve accurate perception of the environment (including the physical body) from an extracorporeal visual perspective.

With electrical stimulation, experiencers continue to perceive the environment from the visual perspective of the physical body; In spontaneous OBEs: the disembodied center of consciousness may move about independent of the physical body.

With electrical stimulation, experiencers perceive the event as a trivial illusion; Spontaneous OBEs: experiencers usually perceive the event as profoundly real.

Conclusion: Given the differences in phenomenology and in psychological aftereffects for the experiencer, it is premature to assume that the mechanism of induced sense of disembodiment also applies to spontaneous experiences.

To judge from his comments quoted at ivillage, Dr. De Ridder seems to think of consciousness as if it were a mechanism: "The 'total perception of self,' " he added, "is built out of different parts. And one of these parts is that your consciousness belongs within your body." Consciousness, in short, is like a toaster. It has distinct parts. Malfunctions can always be traced to specific things wrong with specific parts.

Well, that's possible, but it's also possible that consciousness is organic. That is, consciousness is more like a painting. A painting has parts in the sense that we can consider and describe its features separately. Indeed, a part of the painting could be damaged beyond repair. Then the artist's representation of the world to us is damaged. (In the same way, the ability of our consciousness to represent the world to us could be damaged, as the Belgian patient's was.)

The difference is that the parts of the painting are not literally separable, in the way that the parts of the toaster are. The painting works as a whole.*

If consciousness is more like the painting than the toaster, a quest for one simple explanation that covers all out of body experiences is unlikely to succeed. Shades of the "God helmet" (see Chapter 4 of The Spiritual Brain).

*Indeed, if a part were literally separable, it probably shouldn't be there! At least, that is what we writers say about writing - if a chapter of a non-fiction book you are writing is literally detachable from the main argument of your book, save your editor some trouble by just detaching it yourself before you turn in the manuscript.

(While we're here: I've suffered all my life from debilitating migraines and never had anything exotic like an out of body experience, though reportedly ten percent of people have - and for all I know, the majority of those undeserving wretches are migraine-free. Luck of the Irish, I guess.)

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