Out of Body Experiences

From Tuesday’s New York Times:

They are eerie sensations, more common than one might think: A man describes feeling a shadowy figure standing behind him, then turning around to find no one there. A woman feels herself leaving her body and floating in space, looking down on her corporeal self.

Such experiences are often attributed by those who have them to paranormal forces.

But according to recent work by neuroscientists, they can be induced by delivering mild electric current to specific spots in the brain. In one woman, for example, a zap to a brain region called the angular gyrus resulted in a sensation that she was hanging from the ceiling, looking down at her body. In another woman, electrical current delivered to the angular gyrus produced an uncanny feeling that someone was behind her, intent on interfering with her actions.

Fascinating stuff. Nonetheless, I had not originally intended to blog this article, since I regarded it as old news. I seem to remember reading long ago that phenomena like out of body experiences could be produce by electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain.

But then I saw this hysterical response, by Jonathan Witt, over at IDthe Future. The title of their post: “This is Your Brain on Materialism.” The implication being that dumbass materialists are too blinded by their prejudices to understand the importance, or lack thereof, of studies like this.

Witt begins by quoting this even more hysterical post from AmbivaBlog. (Her title: “Thumbsucking Scientists.”) Witt quotes her favorably as follows:

It’s almost ridiculous how bright and proud and brave they are at having explained away . . . absolutely nothing! So they’ve found the location in the brain associated with out-of-body experiences. If anything, that only makes it more mysterious that the electrical stimulation of that bit of tissue can trigger the experience of being up near the ceiling looking down at one’s own body. Why? How? How can you see without your eyes? Are those experiences just hallucinations? Is the storied accuracy of things seen and heard during “near-death” OBEs strictly apocryphal? The purely material explanation is not the simplest one, the Occam’s Razor close shave. You’d have to go through contortions to explain why the brain would accurately record precise details of a scene in the midst of a mortal crisis, then choose to hallucinate an accurate view of that scene from a physically impossible perspective.

The entry is filled with sneering references to “they” and “these people.” We are left to infer that it is materialists she has in mind.

The provocation for this little outburst was the following statement, which appeared as a caption to a graphic accompanying the article:

Ghostbusters: Scientists investigating out-of-body experiences and other eerie sensations have found no sign of the supernatural. Instead, they are discovering that the feelings are the product of brain chemicals and nerve cells.

The Times does an article explaining that there is no need to invoke supernatural forces to explain phenomena like out-of-body experiences. Rather, the effect can be produced by stimulating certain areas of the brain. That’s it! That’s all the article says. Nothing about how all mysteries are now solved. Nothing about how we now have a perfect understanding of how the brain produces experiences.

But AmbivaBlog will have none of it. Absolutely nothing has been explained, she huffs, firing off a barrage of questions that are meant to prove something or other. (Most of which are rather foolish, incidentally. How can we see without our eyes? How about by cutting out the middle man and stimulating the brain directly?) She even suggests there is a simpler explanation for out of body experiences, though we are left to wonder what that is.

So the situation is this. People sometimes have weird out of body experiences that are totally different from what people experience under normal conditions. One explanation is that the same organ that we know produces other experiences, can also, when under durress, produce these exotic experiences. The alternative explanation is that there is some ethereal, undetectable, mindstuff that does something that somehow produces out of body experiences.

And she thinks the second explanation is simpler? The reality, as usual, is that nonmaterialist explanations are of no help whatsoever in understanding anything.

Good old fashioned materialist scientist has turned up yet another interesting fact about the human brain and has made a previously difficult to explain phenonenon a bit more comprehensible. Out of body experiences are now more mysterious than any other humdrum experience. But people like AmbivaBlog, and her supporters at IDtheFuture, respond with overwrought bleats about how there are still things that are mysterious darn it, that we haven’t proved there’s no supernatural component to the brain, that it’s so much simpler to believe in some vague nonmateriallist explanation, and, oh yeah, it is the materialists that are being arrogant.

Their desperation is palpable. Please, please, please, leave us some tiny mystery we can hide our fairies and spirits behind…


  1. #1 David D.G.
    October 6, 2006

    Yeah, Jason, I see what you mean. Their emperor’s outfit is unraveling, even before their own eyes, and they’re frantic to weave it back into place as fast as possible — even if it (and the emperor) don’t even really exist in the first place.

    ~David D.G.

  2. #2 Sastra
    October 7, 2006

    Evolution gets the attention because it is taught to children in schools in biology classes, but I think the real problem for theism lies in neurology.

    What defines “the supernatural?” Simply saying it’s those things outside of nature or natural law doesn’t really work, since there is nothing stopping anyone from claiming that virtually any paranormal or supernatural phenomenom is really nature, just a part we haven’t discovered yet. Ghosts are natural, ESP is natural, souls are natural, God is natural, we just don’t see the whole picture, etc. etc.

    But instances of unmediated mind over matter, mind prior to nature — pure mental being or causation — grants intention a special, fundamental place in the universe, and is the hallmark of virtually everything we categorize as supernatural, including God. God is a disembodied intentional force, and its plausibility rests on our intuition that our own minds are — or are at least potential — disembodied intentional forces. If we sometimes “leave our bodies,” this is scientific confirmation for what we already “know.”

    Naturalism entails mind being dependent on nature, growing from simpler mindless elements. Supernaturalism is the opposite. It’s everything — consciousness, personhood, good and evil, love — coming down from a skyhook, always there, irreducible and indivisible. If mind and its products are brought under materialistic theories and dualism is thrown out or ignored by scientists, supernaturalism is going to end up being scientifically screwed. It’s the major battle they can’t lose — not the fundamentalists, and not the “spiritual.”

    IMO evolution is just the tip of the iceburg. Interesting that the IDists are recognizing this out loud.

  3. #3 386sx
    October 7, 2006

    “This is Your Brain on Materialism.”

    Lol, good thing they invented irony meters. These guys get more hilarious by the minute.

  4. #4 pough
    October 8, 2006

    Like I said over at Good Math/Bad Math: Some people seem to think their brains don’t do anything; maybe they’re right.

  5. #5 Ginger Yellow
    October 10, 2006

    “If anything, that only makes it more mysterious that the electrical stimulation of that bit of tissue can trigger the experience of being up near the ceiling looking down at one’s own body. Why? How? How can you see without your eyes?!”

    Well, you see, there’s this whole branch of science called “cognitive neurology” which aims to answer these questions. They do this weird thing called research and test hypotheses and things like that. Also, you may have heard of something called a “dream”.

  6. #6 colin
    October 12, 2006

    dude where’s my soul?

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