Beside Ourselves

We’ve all heard of the “out-of-body experience” (“OBE”), in which a person has the sensation of detachment from the physical self. These are often reported in situations where a subject hovers close to death; people will recount, upon returning to normal consciousness, that they were floating near the ceiling, looking down upon themselves and others in the room (who are often doctors and nurses struggling to keep the patient from dying).

Yesterday’s New York Times carried an interesting report of some new neurological observations of this phenomenon.

Dr. Olaf Blanke, a neurologist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, was working with two women who were being prepared for surgery to treat epilepsy. In an effort to pinpoint areas of tissue to avoid during the surgery, doctors had implanted a collection of electrodes in their brains, and were asking the women to report on their subjective experiences as various regions were stimulated. When electricity was applied to an area called the angular gyrus, the women reported startling experiences.

One of the women reported the sensation of someone sitting immediately behind her, mimicking her movements and trying to “interfere” with her. Another reported a full “OBE”, seeing herself floating near the ceiling, legs dangling beneath her. The experiences came and went with the flow of current to the stimulated region.

To the scientists who are working on this research, there is nothing miraculous about any of this; they know that the perception of the body’s state is a tremendously complex integration of rivers of data of many different sorts. Visual and auditory cues, proprioceptive information from the skeletomuscular system, positional reports from the vestibular apparatus in the inner ear, and a good deal more besides must all be interpreted in real time, and brought into coherent agreement. We take the smooth functioning of this intricate system for granted, but when any component’s contribution is thrown out of kilter, the effects can be startling, and are often debilitating.

But some would object to such a reductionist description, at least as an exhaustive account of all reports of out-of-body experiences. There is a great body of lore and anecdotal evidence having to do with OBE’s; there are esoteric schools in which such manipulations of the “astral” are as matter-of-fact as going to the corner for a knish. Have I any such personal account to make? No. There are those whom I respect, however, who do, and we tread so closely here to the edges of our understanding that I hesitate to consider the case closed. As I have often pointed out, it is premature, to say the least, to imagine that we have exhaustive knowledge of what matter and mind are really made of, or what they can and cannot do. This I will say, though: it should be easy enough to make experimental arrangements to examine these questions more closely. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I hold firmly to the idea that truth itself is not relative, but unitary; many-faceted, perhaps, and presenting different aspects of itself to different modes of inquiry, but nevertheless One, and that there is scant reason to imagine that we cannot grasp it.

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