Near-death experiences: In or out of the body?
(from Skeptical Inquirer 1991)
Reprinted in Fredriksson, I (Ed) Aspects of Consciousness: Essays on Physics, death and the Mind, Jefferson, NC. McFarland 104-18
With an update on OBEs 2010
Twenty years ago, when I wrote this article Near-death experiences: In or out of the Body. I suggested that any satisfactory theory of NDEs “leads us to questions about minds, selves, and the nature of consciousness.” How much has happened in the intervening years to improve our understanding of all those ideas! I am pleased to be asked to write a short update and explore some of these new discoveries.
Let me start with “minds”. The natural dualist idea that minds are separate from bodies seems, if that’s possible, even more unbelievable than it did twenty years ago. Neuroscience has progressed in leaps and bounds with new scanning techniques that help us peer inside living brains and discover what is going on. To give a few examples, we have learned how decisions are made and impulses held back in parts of the frontal lobes, how memories are integrated with emotions in circuits involving the temporal lobes, and the importance of loops between the outer layer of the cortex and the deeper relay stations of the thalamus that stabilise perceptions and bind their features together. Pain turns out to be correlated with activity in the anterior cingulate cortex deep inside the brain, even though it still seems miraculous that the vivid awfulness of pain can depend on a specific group of neurons firing.
Then there’s vision. There is no single visual system but dozens of different pathways, including specialised areas that recognise faces, perceive objects, or process edges or colours. Fast motor actions are controlled by one visual system (the dorsal stream) and perception by another slower system (the ventral stream), so you can catch a ball before you’ve even seen it. There is no room for the idea of a single “mind” in all of this. (Blackmore 2010, Milner and Goodale 1995).
Why then do we feel as though we are one mind that lives in our body and could potentially survive its death? New answers have been found to that question too. Research on child development reveals that young children are natural dualists. As psychologist Paul Bloom explains, children as young as three see the world as containing two distinct domains: bodies and souls. By five or six they know that the brain does lots of useful things, like thinking and solving problems, but they still talk about it as a tool that “we” use. As Bloom puts it, they see the brain as a kind of “cognitive prosthesis, added to the soul” (Bloom 2004 p 201). Interviewed about death, four year olds know that dead animals don’t need to eat or go to the toilet, then as they get older they separate biological and psychological functions, saying that dead people or animals can have beliefs, emotions and desires, but not perceptions (Bering and Bjorklund 2004). One interpretation is that we tend to attribute to the dead those mental states that we cannot imagine being without (Bering 2002).
So it seems that we all start out as dualists and have to work to overcome this false divided view. Knowing this may help us understand why it is so difficult to wriggle out of dualism and accept the oneness of the universe.
What then of the self? Here is perhaps the biggest change over these twenty years, with many new theories and discoveries that bear directly on OBEs and NDEs. It is hard to realise that Dennett’s seminal work Consciousness Explained was also published in 1991 and I had not read it when I wrote this article. There he described what he called the Cartesian Theatre; that mythical inner place in which we seem to live, consciously experiencing the stream of events flowing through our minds and issuing instructions to our voices and muscles. Of course it cannot be like this for there is no central place to which impressions come in and from which orders go out. The brain is a multiple parallel processing system with nowhere for such a self to live and indeed no need for one. Instead Dennett described the self as a “benign user illusion” created by the stories we tell ourselves. Of course one might argue that this illusion is far from benign and is ultimately the root of suffering, greed, hatred and delusion (Blackmore 2000).
This idea of the self as illusion underlies most new theories of self but they differ in how and why they think the illusion comes about and what its function is. For some the self is an actual brain process, such as Douglas Hofstadter’s theory of strange loops in which “I am a mirage that perceives itself” (Hofstadter 2007) or Rodolfo Llinás’s (2002) “I of the vortex”. In a theory that has echoes of my own descriptions of models of reality Thomas Metzinger describes the self as a Phenomenal Self-Model (PSM). This is “a distinct and coherent pattern of neural activity that allows you to integrate parts of the world into an inner image of yourself as a whole.” (Metzinger 2009 p 115). Some divide the idea of self into different layers, such as Damasio’s distinctions between the proto-self, core self and autobiographical self.
Others go further, denying any continuing process and replacing it with constantly reappearing illusions of a central self. Strawson’s (1999) “pearls on a string” with no continuity is one example. A much older one is William James’s famous contention that “thought is itself the thinker, and psychology need not look beyond” (James 1890, i 401.
Theories of this kind relate to the Buddhist idea of no-self. This means not that there is literally no self but that selves are ephemeral and ever-changing, being born and dying again every moment. Accepting this means that there is no need to fear death because in effect we are dying from moment to moment all the time. There is no continuing “me” who experiences the myriad events of my lifetime, and no continuing “me” who could experience an NDE or carry on afterwards. These events are experienced by someone, but the next moment that someone is gone and another appears. In this light NDEs are just part of the on-going interdependent activity of the one universe. It seems to me that this radical view of self is far more compatible with both the latest scientific evidence and with the insights from meditation and mystical experiences than any idea that of self as something that could survive death. The problem is – it is so hard to accept!
I mentioned research that bears directly on OBEs and NDEs. This includes confirmation of some predictions from my theory of OBEs. For example people who have OBEs are better at spatial imagery, and better at switching viewpoints in imagery. OBErs also have superior dream control skills and more often dream of seeing themselves from above, as in a bird’s eye view (Blackmore 1996).
Other discoveries relate to the construction of our body image. To function properly brains must construct a continuing and stable image of their body in relation to the world around and integrate this with information coming in from the senses. The first clue relating this to OBEs came from an accidental discovery in the 1930s by the Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. A pioneer of electrical brain stimulation, he operated on epileptics when there was no other treatment available and electrically stimulated their exposed brains to try to locate the epileptic focus. On one occasion, when stimulating a patient’s right temporal lobe, she cried out “Oh God! I am leaving my body” (Penfield 1955 p 458).
Other clues came from the fact that temporal lobe epileptics report more OBEs and related experiences. This led to experiments in which OBEs, body distortions, the sense of presence, and many other experiences were induced using transcranial magnetic stimulation (Persinger 1983, 1999). Then, over half a century after Penfield’s operation, with much finer electrodes and greater precision, a team of neurosurgeons in Geneva, Switzerland, achieved the same result with another epileptic patient. When a weak current was passed through a subdural electrode on the right angular gyrus, she reported sinking into the bed or falling from a height. With increased current she said “I see myself lying in bed, from above, but I only see my legs and lower trunk.” This was induced twice more, as were various body image distortions. The researchers believed that her OBE occurred because the stimulation prevented the integration of all the information which normally maintains the body image (Blanke et al 2002).
Since then the specific area involved has been pinned down. It turns out to be the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) on the right side. In this area visual, tactile, proprioceptive and vestibular information all come together to construct a body image that is constantly updated as the body moves and the scene changes. In other words it constructs our physical sense of self. Several kinds of research have converged to show that the OBE is caused by a breakdown of this normal process. Not only does direct stimulation of this spot induce OBEs but PET scanning has shown brain activation at the TPJ during OBEs induced by stimulating the right temporal gyrus. The researchers conclude that “activation of these regions is the neural correlate of the disembodiment that is part of the out-of-body experience.” (de Ridder et al 2007 p 1829). Other evidence comes from several patients who experience OBEs or autoscopy and have been found to have damage to the TPJ (Blanke et al 2004, Blanke and Arzy 2005).
In other studies, the same area was found to be active when healthy volunteers were asked to imagine themselves in the position and visual perspective of an OBE. Finally, interference with the TPJ using transcranial magnetic stimulation made this mental transformation more difficult (Blanke et al 2005). It turns out that close to the TPJ are other brain areas implicated in aspects of the self including body imagery, visuo-spatial perspective and the sense of agency (Blanke and Arzy 2005). So at last research on OBEs seems to be making sense as a natural phenomenon related to our sense of self.
Using a totally different approach, Swiss and German researchers have used virtual reality technology to induce OBE-like experiences in the laboratory (Lenggenhager et al 2007, Metzinger 2009). Volunteers wore goggles showing a virtual room. Their own back was filmed and projected into this space so that they seemed to be looking at themselves from behind. Then an experimenter stroked their back so that they could feel the stroking while watching it as though from behind, with the result that some people felt drawn towards the virtual body and even felt that they could slip or jump into it (Metzinger 2009).
This research has moved extraordinarily fast and has transformed the OBE from an oddity at the margins of psychology to an experience that throws light on the very nature of self. Doubtless there will always be some who prefer the soul theory, such as paediatrician and NDE researcher Melvyn Morse who believes that the brain areas involved must be “the seat of the soul”, “the place where the material and the spiritual worlds meet” (Morse 1990 pp 109, 110). Such soul theories cannot be ruled out but seem ever less convincing as we begin to understand just how and why we normally build a self-model that coincides with our bodily position – but occasionally one that seems to leave the body and fly.
So finally we come to the third mystery I listed – the nature of consciousness itself. Back in 1991 the word “consciousness” was still more or less taboo in psychology. Students did not learn about consciousness in their degrees and respectable researchers were nervous of being thought way-out or not serious if they tackled it. Yet big changes were already under way. Not only was Dennett’s book published then but the first of the Tucson conferences on consciousness was held in 1994 and it was there that the young Australian philosopher, David Chalmers, coined the phrase “The Hard Problem” to describe the problem of subjectivity – or how subjective experiences can arise from objective events in the brain. Solving this modern version of the mind-body problem subsequently became a kind of Holy Grail for consciousness researchers. In 1994 Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, famous for his discovery, with Watson, of the structure of DNA, wrote The Astonishing Hypothesis laying out his first stab at solving the riddle of consciousness. Then until his death in 2004 he worked along with Christof Koch searching for answers. Consciousness had come out of the gloom and into the glare of serious neuroscience, philosophy and psychology. .
In 2010 a solution to the Hard Problem remains elusive although I get lots of muddled emails from people who claim to have solved it. So here we face what some say is the greatest mystery for science today – the nature of consciousness itself. But is there any “itself”? I think not. I suspect that we are still all transfixed by the illusions given us by our long evolution and the way our brains are built. We seem to be someone looking out from behind our eyes at the world the way it really is. But we know this cannot be so. We seem to be a self having a stream of conscious experiences. Yet we know we cannot be.
How can we throw off these illusions? One way is through the collective and rigorous methods of science; another is through the equally rigorous but purely private methods of personal inner inquiry After thirty years of practising Zen meditation and mindfulness I know how very hard it is to accept the ephemeral and impermanent nature of that oh-so-precious illusory self (Blackmore 2009). But this, I believe, is what we have to do.
What if I’m wrong? In this case someone will surely find convincing evidence that people can see at a distance during NDEs or that consciousness can operate beyond the physical body and brain. So far, despite many popular claims, the evidence seems no better than it was when I wrote Dying to Live (1993) but if survival theories are true then someone will surely find the evidence one day.
This is why I applaud recent experiments designed to find it, including those in which randomly selected targets are concealed in hospital wards and cardiac units so that NDErs might see them during their experience. Several experiments of this kind have been attempted but with no success (Parnia and Fenwick 2002, Parnia et al 2001). In 2008 the AWARE project (AWAreness during REsuscitation) was launched and aims to measure brain function at the same time as providing hidden images that NDErs might be able to see. Potentially this could confirm that patients really were close to death during the time of their NDEs, thus refuting the alternative that NDEs depend on brain function just before or just after the medical crisis. I am glad these experiments are being undertaken but I do not expect them ever to provide evidence of vision beyond the body or a spirit or soul that can leave the body. If they do my own theories will be overthrown.
NDEs are wonderful experiences. For those who return from them they are life-changing experiences. But there is no persisting self who has the NDE or who will continue on after the brain processes that gave rise to it quietly settle down into nothingness and the brain that was once so vividly alive seeps back into oneness with the universe of which it is a part. Let us not play down the importance of NDEs or their capacity to teach us deep truths about mind, self and consciousness, but let us equally not delude ourselves into clinging to the oh-so-natural belief that they mean that those selves can carry on when our frail bodies are gone. They cannot.
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