Edge question 2017
my alternative answer

My answer – Replicator Power was published on the Edge Question site

My original suggested answer was ‘Out-of-body Experience’ but this was rejected. Here it is.

Edge Question 2017 – Susan Blackmore


‘Out-of-body experience’

More than ten percent of the population have had an out-of-body experience (OBE). Yet the term is often unknown and when known is frequently misunderstood – mostly by people who assume that it implies a spirit, soul or astral body that leaves the physical body. Scientifically-minded people may think this impossible and so dismiss claims of OBEs as fantasy, wishful thinking, hallucination or just plain lying. Mystery-lovers assume the opposite – that OBEs prove the existence of consciousness beyond the brain and continuing life after death. Both are wrong.

Definitions can be critical, and the concept of the ‘out-of-body experience’ should have escaped its mystical connotations when scientists settled on clear definitions fifty years ago. The standard definition is, ‘An experience in which someone seems to perceive the world from location outside the physical body’.  The significance of this definition is that the OBE is an experience. If you seemto be out of the body and floating around above it then you have, by definition, had an OBE. This leaves entirely open for research the question of whether or not anything has actually left the body.

It has not. At least, there is no good evidence for floating astral bodies that can see at a distance, or spirits that bring back useful information. Among the many such claims are those from religious believers convinced they have died and returned with proof of heaven, but the experimental evidence does not back them up, and attempts to verify anecdotal cases repeatedly fail. Also there are powerful reasons to reject dualist ideas of floating selves and spirit forms, not least the impossibility of explaining how a non-physical being can interact with a physically embodied brain. This conflict has long led to unproductive and frustrating arguments between sceptics and believers in other worlds with no clear way of resolving them.

All that changed in 2002 with the discovery that stimulating a spot in the temporoparietal junction on the right side of the brain can directly induce an OBE. Weak stimulation causes bodily distortions; more intense stimulation creates a full-blown sense of leaving the body. Why? Because this area of the brain maintains the body schema: a constantly updated internal model of the body that is needed by any moving animal to keep track of its bodily position.  So it makes sense that disturbing it leads to distortions and even a separation of the schema from where the body really is.

This typically happens in conditions of reduced sensory input combined with cortical hyperactivity. Indeed hyperactivity in different brain areas underlies other odd experiences associated with OBE; tunnels and bright lights from activity in the visual cortex, floating and flying sensations from the vestibular system, and panoramic life reviews from the temporal lobes. People with cortical hyper-excitability are more prone to having OBEs as are those with unstable temporal lobes and a tendency to positive schizotypy. Sleep deprivation exacerbates these effects, and also the related phenomenon of sleep paralysis in which people wake up unable to move.

There are two reasons why the term OBE should be more widely known. First many people are frightened when they have such an experience. Some have heard tales of astral projection and been told that their astral body may never come back and they will die. Religious believers may be told that having an OBE is the devil’s work, or that the dangerous Jinn spirits described in the Koran will attack them while their soul is ‘out’. Others are simply afraid because the experience is so strange. A little bit of knowledge is the best reassurance against such unfounded fears.

Second, a phenomenon that was totally ignored by serious science and investigated by only a handful of parapsychologists has now hit the mainstream with out-of-body illusions induced in virtual reality, experiments on perspective taking and its relationship to OBEs, and brain scans telling us more about how the illusions are produced. These experiments feed into our understanding of how the apparently unified self is constructed out of at least four distinct aspects: first-person perspective, the feeling of being embodied, the sense of agency, and ownership. In splitting these apart the OBE gives clues to how the construction works. This is why philosophers and psychologists have suddenly found that OBEs have a lot to teach us about self and consciousness.