October 3, 2006

There's nothing mystical at all about out-of-body experiences.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but those damned brain scientists have discovered the physiological cause.

48 comments:

Pogo said...

Well, of course sensations have their origin in the brain. If not, one would have to invoke magic as their origin.

But how does not explain why. And here the researchers have gone beyond the limits of science and have themselves entered the realm of magical thinking. They state:

"Some schizophrenics, Dr. Blanke said, experience paranoid delusions and the sense that someone is following them. They also sometimes confuse their own actions with the actions of other people. While the cause of these symptoms is not known, he said, multisensory processing areas may be involved.
... Yet the sense of body integrity is rather easily duped, Dr. Blanke said. And while it may be tempting to invoke the supernatural when this body sense goes awry, he said the true explanation is a very natural one, the brain’s attempt to make sense of conflicting information."


Nope. Their research says nothing of the sort. It only explains where and (possibly) how the sensations are created. Not why.

The "brain’s attempt to make sense of conflicting information"? Really? Where'd that explantion come from? Not this research. The good doctor has merely come up with a medical "Just So" story.

Ann Althouse said...

So, Pogo, do you think there is a chance God is in there flipping the switches, screwing up the flow, to make us feel weird and think of him?

Pogo said...

The research does not demonstrate the physiological cause of out-of-body experiences, it merely replicates the physiologic process operating. A different thing entirely.

For example, researchers will soon be able to replicate the sensation we asscoiate with love. We are, after all, tissue, so the feeling must arise from the brain. But process and cause are not identical.

Science will like to then claim it has devolved "love" into a simple chemical-neurotransmitter-synaptic reaction. But again, it explains nothing at all. Why do we love this particular person right now?

Science is simply unable to answer certain questions. It has nothing to say whatsoever about God, love, integrity, family, or meaning ...although it will attempt to do so. And it must cease conflating process with origin.

As to your direct question: I don't know. I find it wonderful that we are seemingly designed to believe in God: (an atheist site, notably)

"A group of neuroscientists at the University of California at San Diego has identified a region of the human brain that appears to be linked to thoughts of spiritual matters and prayer. Their findings tentatively suggest that we as a species are genetically programmed to believe in God."

Atheists prefer to think this a mechanism for control or somesuch. I find it lovely.

Ricardo said...

Ann, you are such a non-romantic. "I don't love you, I just have neurotransmitters and hormones for you." Life is so much more than chemistry.

Pogo said...

oops; bad html above
the quote came from this site:

http://atheistempire.com/reference/brain/main.html

Ann Althouse said...

Ricardo: Typical move to try to bully people out of accepting science.

Ann Althouse said...

But frankly, I'm more impressed by a God who got the world to fit together and work smoothly than a God who plays some occasional pranks.

Henry said...

I like the God who doesn't need to exist. It's very humble.

Goesh said...

- nor does it explain the atheist in the foxhole calling out to God and the devout Believer clinging so tenaciously to life while in a terminal, painful condition of disease. Electrodes to the brain - like a Smithy and his tongs attempting to remove a brain tumor, so little is really understood in this our last frontier, the human mind. The need to make sense of things and to explain and hold sway over them becomes magical and ritualized too, like the counting of angels on the head of pin by the best scientific minds of their time....some days we are not much more than bits of undigested beef and potato gone sour and at other times we truly soar with angels.

Pogo said...

I don't see it as a prank anymore than I see the ability to appreciate art a prank.

Why are you so able to arrange objects, people, or buildings so that a photograph will appear beautiful to someone else? What utility could art possibly serve, if art appreciation is also merely a physiologic process (as surely it is)? Will a scientis's ability to make someone feel "beauty" mean there is no beauty, merely the pointless prank of an understimulated brain?

Science is woefully inadequate to answer why we might have a brain location that produces an out of body sensation. What possible purpose could it serve? Does God really play pranks?

I'm left awed by the concept of this sort of design.

bearing said...

I think Pogo's analogy is apt, in describing the researchers' fallacy here. Can you imagine the researcher who one day, fiddling with electrodes, induces a young person to (temporarily, until the current is withdrawn) express attraction or even love for a bystander whom s/he's never met?

While it may be tempting to invoke the concept of "love at first sight" or "magic sparks" or "a person's soulmate" when this body sense appears acutely, or the concept of "deep attachment" when this combination of sensations develops slowly as a chronic condition, the true explanation is a very natural one.

Dave said...

I hate romance and sentiment. But then I'm one of those secular humanists the religious love to denigrate.

Ricardo said...

Who are you going to trust? Some Swiss scientists who are trying to publish-or-perish, or Jennifer Love Hewitt as the Ghost Whisperer? Today's "science" is often disproven or modified as time goes on, so why not take the leap of faith and go with the mystical as the unknown-science-of-the-future?

Ann Althouse said...

Pogo: I assume it's because my brain is working well, not because of some screw-up.

Ann Althouse said...

Bearing: That's like "Midsummer Night's Dream." But I could picture that being used as a treatment for married couples who want to stay together but just don't feel anything anymore. Sort of like viagra, but more profound. Would you artificially induce love with your spouse if you found yourself feeling nothing anymore? Would you want your spouse to take that treatment if he/she confessed to a loss of feeling?

sailorY said...

Ann, your are missing the point. Pogo and Ricardo are describing the lack of logic in the article accurately, although they are confusing the subject by bringing up emotional issues such as God and love.

Think of ice cream instead. If a scientist put an electrode in your brain at just the right spot to give you an incredible sweet taste, like the best ice cream you've ever had, would you conclude that ice cream didn't exist?

Of course not. Proving that you can find a feeling in the brain has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with whether or not that feeling has a real external cause. It is interesting, and it is enlightening, but it proves absolute nothing about the reality or unreality of out-of-body experiences.

I do not believe in out-of-body experiences, not for a second, but, I will wait for the scientist who identifies the particular smell or oxygen deprivation or other physical cause that triggers this particular brain center before I conclude that science has confirmed my intuition.

Ann Althouse said...

Sailor: I'm not missing the point. I'm bringing up a new point.

Pogo said...

Re: "I assume it's because my brain is working well..."

It is indeed working well, but why would our brains be so articulated? To what end? The evolutionary explanations (for there can be only this, from science) fail here. They are circular, generally, stating that "it was useful, and therefore selected" as if in explanation, while really stating nothing useful at all.

And while I agree in part with what sailorY said, I disagree with one thing. It is the very crux of the issue in the article that the scientist thinks he has explained why the brain works, rather than merely how.

But I suggest he has merely expained the engine's mechanisms, no more a mystery than the heart pumping, really. It says nothing at all about the ultimate question: To what end man?

Art, love, fidelity, truth, literature, fantasy, hate, disgust, God, Satan, politics, and all remain unexplained an unilluminated by such efforts. They are trying to explain the soul by teasing apart neurons, and thus have failed.

Henry said...

Pogo --

The scientist has done some research -- now he proposes a hypothesis for further research.

If his hypothesis was "God put that blob in our brain so we would believe in God" he wouldn't be much of a scientist.

Given what you're proposing, I don't think you should be complaining about circular logic.

Mark said...

I have had numerous out of body experiences and I simply can't see how they could be the result of mere electrical impulses in my brain. I move through walls, go outside, fly around. It does not surprise me that you can stimulate a similar feeling by prodding part of the brain with electrodes, but that doesn't mean that there isn't another mechanism by which we separate from our bodies and move about as well. If I had not experienced OOBEs myself I would be highly skeptical, I'm sure. I think sailory's ice cream example is on target.

Pogo said...

Re; "If his hypothesis was "God put that blob in our brain so we would believe in God" he wouldn't be much of a scientist."

because....?

And how am I being circular?

Instead I argue that "God designed our brain so we could believe in God"... the difference is important.

Henry said...

I argue that "God designed our brain so we could believe in God"...

Well that's immaterial to the research. The scientist is trying to figure out how this portion of the brain works, not why it exists. You are arguing that the reason why the brain exists -- "because God designed it" -- should negate research into how the brain works.

Pogo said...

Re: "You are arguing that the reason why the brain exists -- "because God designed it" -- should negate research into how the brain works."

You've got it completely backwards, and I state no such thing.
Read the article.
The scientist stated, " And while it may be tempting to invoke the supernatural when this body sense goes awry, he said the true explanation is a very natural one, the brain’s attempt to make sense of conflicting information"

It was I who argued that the research explains merely "how this portion of the brain works, not why it exists," whereas the scientist suggests why is a result of "conflicting information."

I argue that science says nothing about WHY out of body experiences exist.
I think we agree with each other here, henry.

Mark said...

It would be interesting, if this experiment is duplicable, to see if the subject, while experiencing the sensation of floating above the body and looking down at it, can see things that they couldn't see from where their body was lying.

Henry said...

Pogo -- I guess my confusion here is what you mean by "how" and "why" in your first post. You suggest that Dr. Blanke's statement that "the true explanationa is a very natural one, the brain's attempt to make sense of conflicting information" is inappropriately treading in God's domain. I don't follow. Having located a portion in the brain that triggers multisensory sensations, Blanke describes the physiological manner in which it is triggered. The word "information" in his quote has a specific brain-chemistry meaning.

Notice that Blanke leads into his explanation with the statement "when this body sense goes awry..."

Instead of thinking about art and awe, consider schizophrenia. It is entirely within the scope of scientific interest to propose that unusual emotional states might have a physiological foundation.

Pogo said...

I disagree. Stating that an OOBE is a result of "the brain’s attempt to make sense of conflicting information" is a conclusion about which the research was not designed to answer. Therefore his answer steps outside of science. This need not be religious territory crossed, just bad science being practiced.

The fact that stimulating a portion of the brain produces an OOBE is not an explanation why it does so. To "make sense of conflicting information" is an explanation not based on any proof at all. It is wholly conjecture. And unproveable, I'd wager. And if unproveable, it's not science.

Instead, the scientist can merely state: "We found the part of the brain that when stimulated reproduces an OOBE". Everything else is supposition.

Your schizophrenia idea is a thought, but the schizophrenics I deal with don't have OOBEs. They have delusions of voice and belief and thought, a different thing entirely.

Pogo said...

But I agree that "unusual emotional states have a physiological foundation".

How could it be otherwise?

Fenrisulven said...

I'm one of those secular humanists the religious love to denigrate.

Odd. Usually its the other way around.

chuck b. said...

Today's "science" is often disproven or modified as time goes on, so why not take the leap of faith and go with the mystical as the unknown-science-of-the-future?

Actually, yesterday's "science" was often disproven or modified as time went on too. That's the whole idea of science.

If you're not comfortable with change, religion is definitely the place to be. (or law--stare decisis and all that.)

But if you want vaccinations for small pox and polio and cancer and maybe someday HIV, hurricane monitoring and tsunami alerts, if you want electricity for your computers and lights to read your Bible by, if you want to learn about other planets, or life in the ocean, I suggest science. Because god alone isn't going to be enough to help you out there.

Pogo said...

chuck,
If only technology and wealth solved it all. But after our appetites are addressed, the question remains: to what end man?

Science merely scratches the entrails of our existence, and mistakes data for meaning.

chuck b. said...

Is anyone disputing that Pogo? Are the scientists proclaiming meaning? Is someone proclaiming it on their behalf? Shame on them.

I don't understand why you're getting so exercised.

Science as a method is freely available to test any observables it wants--however "sacred" those observables may be to religionists, or other scientists.

If deeper meanings in the 'out of body' sensation are interesting to you; go for it.

I think it's rich to criticize scientists when they ostensibly tread into areas they seemingly have no right to be.

Because there are many examples of religionists diguising their motivations as scientific and trying to pass their arguments off that way. Do you have several multi-paragraph comments of condemnation for them too?

rafinlay said...

To what end, man?

How is this question better answered without data?

Science is a tool, used for the good, the ill, and (my personal favorite) the frivolous.

chuck b. said...

PS: I'm outta here. Later, folks.

Theo Boehm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alcibiades said...

In fact, the scientist hasn't eplained "how the brain work." He has merely explained that it works thus. This cause creates this effect, in a very limited sense. If he knew how it worked, the internals of the brain chemistry that produced that effect, that would represent tremendous progress. How is still entirely unknown, which is why he is reaching for it in his "explanation" that "[its] the brain’s attempt to make sense of conflicting information." Which, as Pogo points out, is a conclusion far more broad than his research allows.

Which brings us back to another of Pogo's point. The interesting fact that human brains are programmed to have OOBE, and other mystical experiences. What benefit does that provide in natural selection?

This new research syncs well with a previous study about the brain processes underlying mystical experiences, which I discuss here.

Henry said...

Pogo - But I agree that "unusual emotional states have a physiological foundation".

How could it be otherwise?


Alcibiades - In fact, the scientist hasn't eplained "how the brain work." He has merely explained that it works thus.

Again, I would point out that within the context of the research, Dr. Blanke use of the word "information" is synonymous with electric stimulation. That's what information is, at the cellular level.

Perhaps Dr. Blanke mispoke (or was misparaphrased -- it's not a direct quote) by using the word "conflicting." As Al points out, why the pathway traveled by the impulse that creates the OOBE (or paranoid delusion) exists at all is not addressed by Dr. Blanke. Since this question is essentially unaswerable (by science or religion) I see no reason to pursue it.

Nor do I see this issue to be of much importance to Dr. Blanke. Rather he seems to be addressing the idea that the supernatural has its own reality (the ghost behind you, the spirit descending like a dove). Now we know that you can create that supernatural sense entirely within the mind, entirely through well-understood neurological activity.

Revenant said...

The research does not demonstrate the physiological cause of out-of-body experiences, it merely replicates the physiologic process operating. A different thing entirely.

Only if you believe in magic.

Pogo said...

Re: "...you can create that supernatural sense entirely within the mind..."
Well, the mind, plus a few well-placed electrodes.

Re: "Dr. Blanke use of the word "information" is synonymous with electric stimulation."
That's one interpretation. I'm not sure I agree, given the context, and lack of proferred definitions of same. Thus, it's either bad science, bad science writing, or both.

Re: "why the pathway traveled by the impulse that creates the OOBE (or paranoid delusion) exists at all is not addressed by Dr. Blanke"
From the article, "There is nothing mystical about these ghostly experiences, said Peter Brugger, a neuroscientist..."
and
"[Blanke] said the true explanation is a very natural one..."
These are not misquotes, and suggest a very different interpretation from yours. Indeed, the very title of Althouse's post suggests that OOBEs are not mystical, as shown by this scientist.

Re: "Only if you believe in magic."
That's the only other possibility?
I can think of several. But you miss the point. I was explaining how the research was very narrow, and the interpretation exceeded the data's mandate. It's a common enough error in science that one cannot let it pass unchallenged.

Revenant said...

"Only if you believe in magic."

That's the only other possibility?

Under various names, but yes. Whether you assign the credit to "god", "a soul", "a spirit", "the ghost in the machine", etc, it all amounts to irrational belief in vague, undetectable mystical forces controlling your body. I.e., magic.

I was explaining how the research was very narrow, and the interpretation exceeded the data's mandate.

You appear to be attempting to draw a distinction between the origin of sensations and the brain functions that create them. You are welcome to believe that such a distinction exists, but no evidence for it has ever been found.

Pogo said...

Re; "it all amounts to irrational belief in vague, undetectable mystical forces controlling your body. I.e., magic."
Strange, I was discussing Blanke's tautology, and posit another biologic mechanism than magic. You seem to to consider "magic" the only alternative. Why?

Re: "attempting to draw a distinction between the origin of sensations and the brain functions that create them"
You misread; I say no such thing. In fact, the brain must cause them, as I stated above. You've drawn a conclusion that I do not support, and attributed it to me. Why?

Bruce Hayden said...

On a similar vein, scientists think that they have solved déjà vu. Apparently, the two sides of our brains operate independently but coordinate so that we see the same thing at the same time in both halves.

A problem arises though when we are resting - and in that case, we can go into a state where only one side of our brain is operating and the other side is resting. We are not, btw, the only mammels with this system - that is how sea mammals manage to survive in the ocean, esp. with young.

In any case, most déjà vu experiences are when you are in a rest mode, meaning often that one side of your brain is idling, while the other side is awake. Then, a stimulus comes in, and the second half wakes up. But because it has been asleep or idling, that takes a short period of time. So, you first see the scene from your active brain half, and then shortly thereafter, by the side waking up. Since the scenes are almost identical, they match, but there is more of a time lag between the matching that is usual, so our brains treat that as remembering, instead of synchronizing.

Revenant said...

Strange, I was discussing Blanke's tautology, and posit another biologic mechanism than magic.

You did not "posit another biologic mechanism". You linked to an article about the "God spot" in the brain, but that's unrelated to the topic at hand.

You misread; I say no such thing. In fact, the brain must cause them, as I stated above.

Oh, don't give me that crap. There's no difference between "magic caused it" and "magic caused the brain to cause it". You're specifically taking issue with the idea that the brain experiences aren't mystical in origin.

You're also beebling on about how evolution doesn't offer any explanation for these aspects of the brain, which is simply ignorant. There are many and obvious evolutionary advantages to, for example, having a conscience.

Pogo said...

Re: "Oh, don't give me that crap."

Nice talking to you.

Henry said...

Pogo, I'm interested in your opinion -- given Mark and Theo's posts, would you posit that the supernatural is an internal brain function or an external reality? Given the former, there's not much to argue about other than hypotheticals -- evolutionary psychology is an enjoyable party game, but whether the active agent is evolution or God seems pretty immaterial, at least to me. Given the latter, there's no rationale basis on which to have an argument.

Johnny Nucleo said...

I agree with Revenant that people who believe in God, as I do, believe in something mystical, if not magical.

I think all human beings experience the mystical in life, but may not know what to make of it, or may suspect it is ultimately just the meaningless firing of neurons, or may construct an explanation that satisfies them but in fact explains nothing.

Agnosticism is the natural position of the philosopher. Atheism, like Theism, is faith because it can never be proven.

Ernst Blofeld said...

Very interesting article.

I wonder if there is a reason the "shadow people" generated by the stimulation are perceived as hostile or interfering. Don't schizophrenics usually hear hostile voices? Why not friendly or encouraging voices?

kalmia2 said...

I wonder if there is a reason the "shadow people" generated by the stimulation are perceived as hostile or interfering.

Yes, I wondered about that, too. I suppose anything that threatens the status quo of the conscious mind is threatening to it.

Theo Boehm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.