Sep 21 2007

Bringing Out-Of-Body Experiences Down to Earth

A new study sheds further light on the neurological phenomenon of the out-of-body (OOB) experience. This is an important area of research because, not only does it further our understanding of how the brain works, it is serving to demystify a common human experience (probably second only to waking dreams) that has contributed to a great deal of superstitious beliefs. It is also an important step in the victory of the neuro-materialists (those, like me, who feel that our mind in all of its aspects can be explained by brain function) against the dualists (those who claim that something other than the physical brain is needed to explain our mind and sense of self).

The paper, published in Science, is actually the collaboration of two teams: one from the University College London led by Dr. Henrik Ehrsson and the second from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Both teams used a similar setup – they had subjects wear virtual reality goggles that contained an image of their own back produced by a camera setup behind them. Therefore they were looking at their own backs a few feet in front of them. Next they were given a sensory stimulation – they were touched on the back, and they could see their virtual selves being touched. In some subjects this triggered an OOB experience; they felt they were occupying the virtutal self that they saw and felt being touched. This experiment worked even if the “virtual self” they were viewing was actually a mannequin. Ehrsson’s team also showed that threatening the virtual image resulted in an autonomic response in the subjects, as if they were being threatened.

First, this is further evidence that OOB experiences are not mystical or spiritual experiences, nor are they evidence for dualism. OOB experiences are a neurological phenomenon. We have known for a long time that they can be triggered by drugs, by hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain), sensory deprivation, seizures, and even magnetic stimulation of certain brain structures. These new experiments show that OOB experiences can be triggered by essentially tricking the brain with a false yet compelling image of the self outside our body. The correlation of the image of the virtual self being touched and the physical sensation of the touch was enough to confuse the brain and disrupt the process that normally gives us a sensation of being inside our body.

And this is a key concept to understanding these experiments – before one can ask the question, “why do some people have OOB experiences?” we have to ask the more basic question, “why do we feel that we are inside our bodies?” Neuroscientists have learned to ask these questions, rather than taking them for granted. Everything we feel and experience (according to the neuro-materialist paradigm) requires brain structures and function that cause them – even the most basic components of our sense of self, such as the subjective feeling that we are inside our bodies, living behind our eyes. In exploring the OOB experience neuroscientists are really exploring the neurology of the in-body experience.

What these latest studies confirm, therefore, is that the brain incorporates the parallel processing of our visual map of the world, including our image of ourselves in the world, with our physical sensation of self. These streams are combined to give us a seamless experience of living inside our bodies. When these two sensory streams are discordant, however, the end result may be a sensation that we exist in some space outside our bodies. The sensory cues are therefore critical. These provoked OOB experiences, therefore, are very similar to optical illusions where the normal brain processing of visual information is subverted (either deliberately or accidentally) to trick the brain into making false assumptions and therefore resulting in a false or illusory visual construction of the world. OOB experiences are a visual-somatic illusion.

At least this seems true of the type of OOB experience triggered in these experiments. They may not be the only type. For example, rather than tricking the brain processes, one or more of them may be turned off or suppressed.

Many of the articles reporting these new findings speculate about the possible applications of this phenomenon. If we can trigger an OOB experience at will – and not just any OOB experience but specifically place a subject inside a virtual self – perhaps this can be exploited to enhance virtual reality experiences. I think this is a fascinating possibility. I for one cannot wait for a virtual video game where I will actually feel as if I am in the game world, not just sitting at my computer with fancy goggles on (how cool would that be?). I see no reason why this cannot work, but I suspect it will be tricky – kind of like that magic eye craze we had for a few years. Remember those pictures that you had to look at with a certain focus and then a three dimensional picture would snap into view? My guess is that it will be difficult to assume and maintain “possession” of the virtual self, that some people will be better at it than others, and that it will take some practice. But I also think (and hope) the technology will mature enough that the experience can be reliable and enjoyable.

There are more practical applications as well, namely possessing not just virtual selves but physical robots. This could enable remote surgery, remote exploration of dangerous environments, and also remote handling of hazardous jobs (fire fighting, bomb squad, even warfare). Of course, the robotic technology at the other end still requires much improvement, but we’re getting there.

The bigger picture is that the more we learn how the brain works the better we will be able to exploit the details of brain function in order to interface our technology with our brains. The possibilities are literally mind-boggling. For me, this holds more wonder, hope, and awe than any mystical dualist mumbo-jumbo.

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