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Reasonable Inferences from Experimentally Induced 'Out-of Body' Experiences

Steven Novella has a post in which he discusses recent experiments in which scientists induce the perceptions common to out-of-body experiences (OBE's), which are experienced by many people and are generally thought to be of mystical or spiritual origin. Dr. Novella:

New research builds upon the growing body of research into how our brains give us a sense that we are inside our bodies. That is one of the brain's functions that we take for granted -- and do not even realize that it is a function of the brain or that it is necessary -- until it is not functioning. When that happens we have an out-of-body experience (OBE)...

Prior to modern neuroscience, OBEs were interpreted as mystical or spiritual experiences. In many cultures they were provoked by drugs during spiritual rituals. They have also been reported during certain dream states and in near-death experiences.

The research that Dr. Novella describes is interesting, and involves the use of virtual reality visors that confuse a subject as to the location of his body and the location of various sensations such as vibrations and lights. The subject, under some circumstances, may misinterpret the somatic locations of the sensory stimuli. The correlation between the actual location of his body and his perception of his location is altered.

Many neuroscientists and commentators draw the conclusion that research such as this is evidence that that the evoked sensation (OBE's, experiences of the presence of God, etc.) represents an illusion, not anything corresponding (under other non-experimental circumstances) to reality. The inference is that this may be part of the mechanism by which OBE's occur, and that by providing the mechanism, we have demonstrated that OBE's aren't real. This conclusion is of course erroneous -- an example of the Genetic Fallacy.

There was no more or less warrant to assert or deny the reality of OBE's "prior to modern science" than there is now. Modern neuroscience can tell us much that is interesting and important about the neurological correlates of OBE's, but it doesn't have much that is meaningful to say about the reality of OBE's.

The most important thing about the interpretation of modern neuroscience is to understand what it tells us, and what it doesn't tell us. The virtual reality experiments don't count against the reality of OBE's, as experienced by people outside of the laboratory. One could even assert, and it would be a cogent argument (although it's not one that I particularly endorse), that the evocation of OBE's in the laboratory supports the reality of OBE's, because all or nearly all mental events evoked experimentally or by seizures (such as flashes of light, tactile sensations, odors, movements of limbs, etc) represent experiences of real things, under other circumstances. Stimulation of the visual cortex evokes flashes of light or patterns of colors (sensations of things that are real at times); it doesn't invoke unicorns. The same inferences applied to OBE's would lead to the conclusion that OBE's are just as real as light, odors, movements, etc, because real experiences share the characteristic that they can be invoked by experimentally manipulating the brain. A cynic might even suggest that the unreality of a perception could be inferred by the failure to experimentally evoke it. Most sensations that can be evoked experimentally by manipulation of the brain represent, under other circumstances, real experiences.

Millions of people have had OBE's, and there is certainly no coherent neurosientific evidence that would disprove the reality of the experience. Surely not all these people are intoxicated or having seizures. There are and have been countless rational, non-intoxicated and non-epileptic people who have had spiritual experiences. Neuroscience can tell us much about the neurological correlates for such experiences, but in doing so doesn't in any way imply that the sensations aren't real, any more than the experimental demonstration of neurological correlates for the perception of light implies that light isn't real. The same kind of faulty reasoning has been used to 'explain' (and thereby deny the reality of) religious belief, a sense of God's presence, etc. This faulty reasoning seems to be common among people with a materialist bias.

The most serious problem in science today, in my view, is that our technological expertise greatly exceeds our ability to understand the real meaning of the results we obtain. From elegantly designed experiments we too often draw witless conclusions, and our conclusions are commonly driven by our ideological presuppositions rather than by the evidence or by logic. I don't know if OBE's are real, but an opinion as to whether OBE's are real or not is grounded in the answers to metaphysical questions such as 'do we have a soul?' and 'can the soul separate or subsist without the body?'. On these fundamental questions, neuroscience has remarkably little traction, and we err greatly when we pretend that it does.