Out-of-Body Experiences

I recently posted an entry on David Hume arguing that many of our beliefs, such as God, morality and even causality, are based on the structure of our minds and not on any entities which we actually experience or to which we have any sort of epistemic access.

The New York times has just published an article, based on the research of some Swiss neurologists, which indicates that so-called out-of-body experiences can be explained through physical brain processes (as should have been expected). The brain combines sensory information from various different senses, and then synthesizes this information to create a whole picture of one's perceptions. In epistemic terms, the human brain seems to subscribe to a coherence theory of truth, with the degree of belief being directly proportional to the number of senses lending credence to the same perception. This is all pretty ordinary.

Things get interesting, however, when our different senses do not seem to agree with one another. The first example that comes to mind is sea sickness: our visual perception is that of a calm horizon, while our stomach and inner ears are experiencing turbulent changes in altitude. The result: a confused brain that won't allow food to stay stored in the stomach... fun fun fun...

The new research suggests that certain out-of-body experiences are produced by temporary neurological changes in different parts of the brain (although the research seemed to focus on the
angular gyrus). When small electrical currents are applied to different parts of the brain, there is a disruption in the synthesis of the sensory input, which forces the brain to try to make sense of the new information it is receiving, thereby producing feelings such as seeing yourself from outside your body, or feeling that some ghost, shadow or general presence (God perhaps?) is behind or next to you. In some cases subjects even seemed to attribute intentional states and character traits to the shadows.

This also reminds me of geneticist Dean H. Hamer's The God Gene, a book that argues that the experience of spiritual episodes seems to be the result of the expression of at least one gene. Hamer, following David Sloan Wilson's work on multi-level selection theory, and group selection specifically, explains the evolutionary advantages that these kinds of mystical experiences can confer to groups, and explains thereby the pervasiveness of this gene in the majority of the human population. Makes you wonder how many other out-of-body, mystical, spiritual or religious experiences are due to similar processes, huh?
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