Being Inside Ourselves
4 March, 2008
Out 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.