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Out-of-Body Experiences: All in the Brain?

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Interestingly, the phenomenon of electrostimulation of the right temporal lobe resulting in non-typical out-of-body experiences is not new. This phenomenon was first reported by neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield in 1955. His procedure involved electrostimulation of a location different from the one stimulated by the Swiss physicians—further indicating that the “one” brain region associated with OBEs has not yet been located (Neppe, 2002). And significantly, some “memories” evoked in patients by Penfield’s electrostimulation of their brains turned out to be partially or totally nonfactual. For example:

“One of Penfield’s patients, when the electrode was applied, heard her mother calling in a lumberyard. A record of the past? No, it was not. The woman stated she had never in her life been near a lumberyard. Other patients’ ‘recollections’ turned out to be influenced greatly by the conversation between the doctor and patient in the two minutes preceding the electrical stimulation.” (Ornstein, 1991, p. 189)

This finding further suggests that the Swiss patient described in the Nature article may have been experiencing a non-typical state of consciousness rather than a typical OBE.

It is one thing for a physician to electrostimulate the brain and produce a single aspect of an experience – for example, contraction of the triceps muscle, causing a person’s bent arm to straighten out. It is a vastly different thing for that same person to enact the intentional, meaningful, complex task of reaching out to grasp a teacup. Although the contraction of the triceps muscle is one component of the task of having tea, it lacks the holistic quality—intention, coordination, etc.—of the enacted experience. Analogously, electrostimulation of the brain has not yet yielded a typical OBE. To assume that the brain is involved in—or, as we have said throughout this article, is associated with—out-of-body phenomena is one thing; but to imply—with phrases like “the part of the brain that can induce out-of-body experiences” or “OBEs…can be artificially induced by electrical stimulation of the cortex”—that electrostimulation of the brain produces typical OBEs is quite another.

The professional near-death literature contains multiple reports of veridical perception of phenomena that were outside the range of the NDEr's sensory perception and, therefore, of brain mediation (Ring & Cooper, 1997; Ring & Lawrence, 1993; Sabom, 1982; Sharp, 1995; van Lommel, van Wees, Meyers, & Elfferich, 2001). In some cases, these perceptions occurred while the NDEr apparently was experiencing the brain inactivity that follows within 10 seconds of cessation of heartbeat (van Lommel et al., 2001). Over 100 such cases are published on www.iands.org, www.nderf.org, and www.oberf.org. Further discussion of veridical perception is presented in the article titled "Does the Arousal System Contribute to Near-Death Experience?: A Response" under review for the Journal of Near-Death Studies. Taken together, the evidence suggests strongly the possibility that near-death OB perception might occur without the mediation of the physical senses or the brain. Therefore, to refer to OBEs in general as "illusions" is premature; science has not yet resolved the question of the accuracy of out-of-body perceptions nor, hence, the "reality" of the sense OBErs report of their consciousnesses functioning independent of their physical bodies. Even if future research convincingly demonstrated that electrical stimulation of a particular area of the brain consistently induced typical OBEs, this finding would not explain veridical perception associated with OBEs.

We believe it is inappropriate to conclude "the part of the brain that can induce out-of-body experiences has been located" (Blanke et al., p. 269) based on a single anecdotal observation, especially with the concerns we have presented. We are not aware of any other published account of the induction of purported OBE by electrostimulation of the right angular gyrus. This observation is especially surprising given the enormous media interest in the Blanke at al. article. It is possible the single anecdotal account presented by Blanke at al. was an anomalous occurrence and extremely atypical of the results of neural electrostimulation. In the absence of a significant number of additional published reports of phenomena similar to that described by Blanke et al., it would be reasonable to hypothesize a correlation between neural electrostimulation and OBE-like experiences but unreasonable to conclude the hypothesis was proven.

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