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

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The question of the mechanism of OBEs is far from answered. Reports like those in the Nature article contribute valuable information regarding this question, but they do not warrant a claim that OBEs might now be “explained.” To their credit, the authors of the article closed with the disclaimer that they “do not fully understand the neurological mechanism that causes OBEs.” Unfortunately that statement still implies that the cause of OBEs can be reduced to neurological mechanisms. But it was the physicians who elicited the patient’s OBE-like sensations by their electrical stimulation of a small area of her brain. Electrostimulation is a mechanism, not a cause. In other words, the patient’s experience was “caused” by the intentional action of the physician holding the probe. In the case of both intentional actions and spontaneous experiences—including spontaneous OBEs—the cause, the external or internal trigger, has yet to be identified.

In summary, the Nature authors did not produce an OBE in their patient that was typical of spontaneous OBEs. Although they reconfirmed a possible neuroelectrical mechanism involved in at least some OBEs, they did not explain the cause of the spontaneous phenomenon. Finally, although they showed that some OBEs may involve illusory perceptions, they did not resolve the question of whether at least some spontaneous OBEs involve accurate, “real” perceptions. As the pioneering neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfield, concluded about the thorny issue of “mind-body dualism”:

“In the end, I conclude that there is no good evidence, in spite of new methods such as the employment of stimulating electrodes,…that the brain alone can carry out the work that the mind does. I conclude that it is easier to rationalize man’s being on the basis of two elements [brain and mind] than on the basis of one. But I believe that one should not pretend to draw a final scientific conclusion, in man’s study of man, until the nature of the energy responsible for mind-action is discovered as, in my own opinion, it will be.” (1975, p. 114)


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