Commissioned by Sir Henry Tate in 1891, Fildes's popular painting, The Doctor, was inspired by the death of the artist's son.

Here are the results of a survey of 1011 people 50 years old and over, conducted by the AARP.

  • 94% believe in God.
  • 70% believe in Hell.
  • 86% believe in Heaven. Of those, 40% believe that Heaven is an actual place; 47% believe it is “state of being”.
  • 23% have the cake and eat it, too; they believe in Heaven, but also in reincarnation. The percentage was highest in the Northeast (31%) and among people in their 50’s and 60’s (in other words, boomers).

Near Death Experience

Among people believing in the afterlife, there is an almost universal acceptance of Near Death Experiences or NDE as “proof”. The most common manifestations of NDE are euphoria, a bright light (sometimes at the end of a tunnel), encounters with dead relatives, or an out-of-body experience. The sense of euphoria and the bright light can be easily explained: They can be induced by reducing the supply of oxygen to the brain (hypoxia). In fact, among teenagers in search of bigger and better thrills, the “in” thing is strangulation (in most cases, terminated by friends; in others, terminated by complete anoxia and death when the friends are distracted or intervene a bit late).

What about the out of body experience? This is a close cousin of the concept of the soul leaving the body after death. People feel as if they are hovering over their physical bodies. Polls show that 4-5% of Americans claim to have had this experience. This concept, called in Jewish tradition “Neshama Yetera” (extra soul), is on full display in Marc Chagall’s surrealistic paintings, with its floating souls hovering over their bodily “owners”. How to explain that?

 

Out-of-body experience

Until recently, there was no satisfactory explanation. It was left to the realm of metaphysics and mysticism. But those pesky scientists do not seem to leave well enough alone; they keep usurping the territory of faith in metaphysics, sometimes to the detriment of their own well-being (just ask Socrates, Galileo, Copernicus, and many many others). Now, the time of the “out-of-body experience” has come.

Out-of-body experiences are associated more with tabloid newspapers, New Age websites, and large doses of hallucinogenic drugs than serious scientific discussion. Yet, they’re often reported by reputable people who suffer from migraine headaches, epilepsy, and other neurological conditions. Intrigued by such accounts, some researchers are trying to figure out how the brain creates an aspect of human consciousness so fundamental that we take it for granted. The perception that the “self” conforms to the borders of the physical body. Two papers by neuroscientists were published in the August 24 issue of Science, and summarized by Greg Miller.

Two teams of cognitive neuroscientists independently report methods for inducing elements of an out-of-body experience in healthy volunteers. Both groups used head-mounted video displays to give people a different perspective on their own bodies. Each team also drew upon the sense of touch to enhance the illusion. Although details of the experience differed, the people in both experiments reported feelings of dissociation from their bodies. The researchers say their findings will pave the way to new brain-imaging studies of body perception and could have practical applications, such as helping virtual-reality programmers design environments that make users feel as if they are really there.

For one of the studies, a team led by Bigna Lenggenhager and Olaf Blanke, both of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, asked people to stand in front of a camera while wearing video display goggles. In one experiment, subjects saw the camera’s view of their own back, computer-enhanced to create a three-dimensional “virtual own body”. When the subjects’ backs were stroked with a highlighter pen at the same time, they saw their virtual back being stroked and reported that the sensation seemed to be caused by the highlighter on their virtual back, making them feel as if the virtual body was, in fact, their own body.

Moreover, when the researchers turned off the video display, guided the subjects back a few steps, and then asked them to blindly return to their former position, subjects overshot the spot where they’d actually been standing and walked to a point closer to the apparent location of their virtual body.

Adopting a similar strategy to attempt to induce out-of-body experiences, Henrik Ehrsson of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, asked men and women to sit in a chair and don a video headset connected to two cameras that provided a stereoscopic view of their backs. As a subject viewed his or her own back from behind, Ehrsson used two plastic rods to simultaneously stroke the subject’s chest and a location behind the subject’s back. Although people felt the rubbing on their chest, in the headset, they could only see Ehrsson’s arm moving behind their back, reinforcing the sense that they were sitting at a location behind their actual body. The experience often elicited surprised giggles, says Ehrsson, who has tried it out himself. “You really feel that you are sitting in a different place in the room and you’re looking at this thing in front of you that looks like yourself and you know it’s yourself but it doesn’t feel like yourself,” he says. “It’s almost like you’re looking at a dummy.” Nearly all subjects reported similar impressions on a questionnaire.

Ehrsson also repeated the illusion with electrodes attached to each person’s fingers to measure skin conductance, a physiological measure of emotional arousal. Then, he swung a hammer in front of the cameras so that it appeared to hit the region where people perceived themselves to be. The hammer posed no physical danger, but changes in skin conductance indicated that subjects registered a threat (they also reported feeling anxious). By showing that people respond emotionally as if they were located at a position behind their physical body, the findings provide additional evidence that the subjects buy into the illusion, Ehrsson says.

 

What are the implications of this research?

  • Olaf Blanke, the Swiss researcher, summarized it well: “Previous research has pointed to several brain regions, including the intersection of the temporal and parietal lobes, that may be involved in producing out-of-body experiences in neurological patients, Blanke says. The new illusions can be used to examine which of these brain regions contribute to which aspects of these strange experiences and that in turn, says Blanke, could lead to a better understanding of how the brain generates a concept of self.” This is not a trivial matter: Our sense of self is considered one of the fundamental components of consciousness, a trait that separates us from lower animals.
  • These experiments open a new avenue of research into the mechanisms underlying a variety of diseases that are characterized by visual and auditory hallucinations, such as schizophrenia. It could also provide a neurobiological explanation to claims of sightings of religious figures like Jesus and Mary, as well as aliens and their flying machines.
  • Last but not least, it may explain yet another paranormal phenomenon. At this rate, maybe one day, religion will be stripped of its accumulated metaphysical barnacles and only its essence will survive: A code for living a moral and ethical life.
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

1 COMMENT

  1. I suggest that you read Reinventing Medicine by Larry Dossey, M.D. He does an excellent job of relating the spiritual (not religious) dimension to mind-body medicine.

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