Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Again, it's all in the brain

I remember in my teens till early adulthood I often had dreams of flying and hovering above the terrain. Whilst dreaming I felt this tremendous excitement and exhilaration at having this ability to just float up and to exercise some steering control, going where I wanted. If only it were real.

No one (well, I guess practically no one) doubts that dreaming is all in the mind. It's just another neurological phenomenon. We all dream. We all know in the morning that it was just our brain shoving us into its Holodeck. But what about those so-called out of body experiences? Have there actually been cases where people left their bodies and traveled above themselves or elsewhere?

I most certainly doubt it. What part of a human could separate from the body and remain a viable entity (with energy to run its processes) that can sense and make sense of what it is perceiving? Uh, the soul? This invisible, incorporeal, nonphysical, undetectable soul or what have you has eyes and ears and a CPU with memory to record what it's perceived during the flight? And can reintegrate and interface with the body thereafter? The following heads-up by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci sheds light on what these experiences really are.

Blanke and colleagues have shown that small electrical currents in certain areas of the brain involved with multi-sensorial perception, such as the angular gyrus, cause the distinct sensation of out-of-body experience or of a strange presence in the room. One patient had the feeling of hanging from the ceiling, another was sure that there was a presence behind her, and a third one felt a “shadow” next to her, attempting to interfere with her activities. These experiences are repeatable under laboratory conditions, which means that a hallmark of parapsychology – out of body experiences – can actually be turned on or off at will by the experimenter, has been traced to perturbations of specific circuits in the brain, and of course has absolutely nothing supernatural about it. [emphasis added]

Strictly speaking, however, this doesn't mean that out of body experiences, astral travel, and the like have been disproved, that they aren't real. But now whenever paranormalists point to OBEs it's incumbent upon them to first rule out the possibility that it was just another illusion courtesy of the brain. Then again some of these woowoos are pretty deluded to begin with.

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