Being Inside Ourselves

4 March, 2008

Out Of BodyOut of body experiences can be frightening or exhilarating, but always strange. The concept of our minds existing outside of ourselves smacks of Dualism – the idea that our Minds and Bodies are separate and distinct entities that can function happily without each other. This idea has slowly collapsed over the years and it is now clear that the Mind is a function of the brain. There can be a brain without a mind, but it doesn’t look like there can be a mind without a brain. What then of out of body experiences? Does this negate the idea of ‘brain makes mind’?

Almost all reported out of body experiences (OBEs) happen when brain function is altered. The two most common times when people report OBEs are when the brain is deprived of oxygen (so called near death experiences) and when the brain chemistry is altered by drugs. In each case it is still the brain that is causing the mind, but our perception of where we are has changed. The idea of ‘ourselves’ being tied to where our physical bodies are makes so much sense that it is bizarre to imagine it could be any other way. And yet it appears as if this is the case. Many people who have undergone deep meditation or sensory deprivation have experienced the feeling that their consciousness has moved from their head (‘behind their eyes’) to their chest, or some other part of their body. They can feel their head above ‘themselves’. And sometimes they feel as if they are outside of their body altogether. Studies which deliver mild electric currents to specific parts of the brain have duplicated feelings like these. It appears that the sense that we are an integrated whole is one that can be altered.

Subjects with one particular electrical stimulus reported a feeling of being watched, as if there was someone else just behind them. This shadow figure mimicked everything that the subject did, and gave rise to a very eerie feeling. It appears that this shadow was in fact the person themselves, but since they were ‘dislocated’ from their own body they had trouble interpreting their own movements and thought a second person must be there, constantly behind them. This creepy experience is one reason not to mildly electrically stimulate your own angular gyrus.

Other subjects experienced the classic out of body experience, looking down upon themselves. It must be noted that there is no evidence that these subject can see anything other than what their own eyes can see. Even though their ‘floating mind’ sees the room from a different angle, they have no information other than that gathered by the bodies senses. How does this work? How can you see only half a room and yet look at it from above? Another area of brain study reveals the answer. We are constantly modelling the world and using assumptions to fill in ‘blanks’ from our senses. Optical illusions (and auditory illusions) reveal various ways to fool the brain, and most of these illusions rely on our minds making assumptions that turn out to be incorrect. In the same way that we fill in much of the world we see in front of us, so too does the person who is out of their body fill in the remaining details of the world they cannot see.

The study of our own minds is a complex and difficult one. For the moment, the materialist concept of the mind as a product of the brain is the most convincing one, and further studies of our brains will no doubt shed more light on the workings of our minds as well.

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12 Responses to “Being Inside Ourselves”

  1. Tommi Says:

    1. The assumption that there are no minds without bodies can’t be proven or disproven by any means I am aware of. This makes it not a scientific claim (like the existence of gods).

    2. Even if it is true, it does not follow that the functions of mind can be reduced to the material. An analogy: Humans perish without food. It does not follow that humans can be totally explained by their diets. Mind may be an emergent structure that needs a body to sustain it.

  2. magisteria Says:

    1. I like the analogy with gods. There are certain descriptions of gods that can be scientifically tested, and other descriptions that can’t. I think mind could fall into the latter category and you can always come up with a description of a non-falsifiable extra-body mind, but there can be descriptions of minds that we can test.

    2. Agreed that there is more to being human than what we eat (though not much more in my case! I need some breakfast…). I see emergent properties as coming from the material anyway, you need a different way of looking at it, but it can still be explained ultimately by physics. If I want to explain a computer program I wont go into the detail of the chip it’s running on, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need the chip in the first place.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Tommi Says:

    1. Yes.

    2. I assume you have a good reason for believing or knowing that the mind is entirely physical. Care to share it?

  4. magisteria Says:

    Although it’s a strained analogy I do think that the comparison to software for the mind is a helpful one. There is no direct ‘goo’ in the brain that is the mind, it appears to be more of a function and process of the brain. It’s not that I think the mind is a physical entity, just that I think it will be ultimately explainable by the physical things that create it – and certainly that it can only exist within a physical framework (Whether a brain or perhaps eventually within a computer).

    That we will be able to understand our minds in terms of physical objects is a hope, it is possible that we may never work out a great theory of mind, but I’m an optimist!

  5. Tommi Says:

    I understand the position. What I find more interesting is the justification or reason for holding that particular position. Is it because you find it something that would be beneficial, or because you are hardcore materialist in general, or some other reason?

    (My position: I don’t know how things really work.)

  6. magisteria Says:

    Ah, my reason for holding a materialist position is just that I don’t see any reason not to!

    In the case of the mind while it is certainly possible that there is something else to it, I haven’t seen anything that’s convinced me that simple biological processes based on the physics we already know, *couldn’t* create a mind. Without there being something that cries out for a non-materialist explanation I prefer not to rush towards one. I think this may make me a hardcore materialist 🙂

  7. popscience Says:

    This post reminded me a little of Deja-Vus, would you like to enlighten us about those?

  8. Tommi Says:

    Magisteria; I think that makes you a normal person who knows more than a bit about science.


  9. Good job holding fast, Tommi. Hardcore materialist says he hasn’t seen any evidence to convince him otherwise, but he should reveal how he fell into being such a hardcore materialist to begin with. For it’s originally just an idea itself, that holds that ideas need a brain to manufacture them. Current piece on my blog ranges around the same topic

  10. magisteria Says:

    I’m not sure why the fact that the idea “the brain creates ideas” is an idea itself leads to any breakdown…am I missing something here?


  11. Its a difference in substance, as to what an idea can make. One can have an idea of a material universe, for instance, but it remains an idea–not a material universe. Crossing over into that universe requires a real bridge, not just a thought of one. Ideas are restricted to their own realm, in that sense, and so the idea that there is a brain that authors ideas themselves is contradictory. In my mind, at least. Or like I say in my piece ECSTATIC, a category error.

  12. magisteria Says:

    I can see ideas as being a separate category to material stuff. You could put logic and mathematics in there as well (or are they just a subset of ideas?) – and probably other ‘shapes’ that don’t exist as pure bits of stuff.

    I’m not sure about not making the leap though – surely logic or an idea can describe a physical reality and even be tested within the physical reality to see if it holds. Does this not allow us to move from an idea to an idea that works so far as well can tell?

    Actually your last statement about ideas being authored by the brain being contradictory strikes me as a little Godel-esque! A system of logic/math falls down when trying to describe itself completely, could the same be said of our minds? Once we step onto the path of recursion who knows where we’ll end up!


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