Out-of-Body Experiences: All in the Brain?
by Jan Holden, EdD, Jeff Long, MD, and Jason MacLurg, MD
In 2002 an article appeared in the leading scientific journal Nature documenting an induced out of body experience through focal electrical stimulation of the brain's right angular gyrus in a patient who was undergoing evaluation for epilepsy treatment. Access to the original paper is available at the Nature website. This article is a response by three NDE researchers. This article was originally published in Vital Signs Volume 21, Number 3.
Electrodes Trigger Out-of-body Experience was the provocative title that appeared in the “Science Update” section of Nature magazine’s internet web site on Monday, September 19th (Pearson, 2002). The article’s subtitle was: Stimulating brain region elicits illusion often attributed to the paranormal, and the article began by saying, “Activity in one region of the brain could explain out-of-body experiences. Researchers in Switzerland have triggered the phenomenon using electrodes.” This research report was given lots of attention by the mass media. And because many near-death experiencers (NDErs) report an out-of-body experience (OBE) as part or all of their NDE, the research could be relevant to an understanding of NDEs. We therefore wish to examine the matter here in some detail.
The “Science Update” internet article was drawn from a one-page printed article in Nature’s September 19 issue (Blanke, Ortigue, Landis & Seeck, 2002). That article’s four authors, physicians in the Neurology and Neurosurgery programs of Geneva and Lausanne University hospitals in Switzerland, reported findings they’d made during a brain operation to alleviate a patient’s seizures. The 43-year-old woman’s symptoms indicated epilepsy in the right temporal lobe, an area of the brain located above and behind the right ear. Because imaging techniques did not reveal the exact location associated with her seizures, the physicians opened her skull and probed several areas to locate the defective portion, a process known as “brain mapping.” The brain itself does not feel pain, so the patient can be conscious and can speak while physicians probe different locations with minute amounts of electricity. In this way, the patient was able to describe her experience during each electro-stimulation.
[Before continuing with this article, the reader might want to witness this type of brain exploration first-hand by visiting www.pbs.org/wgbh/ aso/tryit/brain and clicking on the phrase “Probe the Brain activity”. There a drawing depicts a patient lying on his/her back, whose skull is open, revealing the brain’s “motor cortex” —the area associated with physical movement. You can probe 17 spots on the motor cortex and see the resulting movement in the patient’s body (arms, legs, mouth, etc). (The site requires Shockwave which, if your computer does not already have it, can be downloaded for free by going to http://sdc.shockwave.com/shockwave/download/frameset.fhtml).]
Like the patient in that drawing, the Swiss woman lay on her back during the operation with her brain exposed just above and behind the right ear. In the process of searching for the site associated with her epilepsy, the physicians stimulated a specific area near the right temporal lobe called the right angular gyrus, and the patient reported intriguing sensations the authors called “out of body experiences.” This brain area was not related to her epilepsy.
When the physicians first stimulated this area, the woman “reported that she was ‘sinking into the bed’ or ‘falling from a height.’” When they increased the electricity, she reported, “I see myself lying in bed, from above, but I only see my legs and lower trunk.” The authors reported that, “two further stimulations induced the same sensation, which included an instantaneous feeling of ‘lightness’ and ‘floating’ about two meters above the bed, close to the ceiling.”
The physicians then asked the patient to “watch her (real) legs during the electrical stimulation…This time, she reported seeing her legs ‘becoming shorter.’” The physicians went on to explain that if her legs were bent at a 90-degree angle before the stimulation, “she reported that her legs appeared to be moving quickly towards her face, and took evasive action.” The authors continued:
“When asked to look at her outstretched arms during the electrical stimulation… the patient felt as though her left arm was shortened; the right arm was unaffected. If both arms were in the same position but bent by 90 degrees at the elbow, she felt that her left lower arm and hand were moving towards her face…When her eyes were shut, she felt that her upper body was moving toward her legs, which were stable.”
The authors asserted that “these observations indicate that OBEs…can be artificially induced by electrical stimulation of the cortex,” and they went on to speculate about the mechanisms involved.
Examining the Researchers’ Interpretations
But how warranted is their assertion? In particular, the authors imply that their patient’s experience was an OBE, that is, that it (1) fell within the definition of OBEs, and (2) that this patient’s OBE was both representative of, and indistinguishable from, spontaneous OBEs—that it was a typical OBE. How accurate is that dual assumption?
Regarding the first assumption, the Nature article authors defined OBEs as “curious, usually brief sensations in which a person’s consciousness seems to become detached from the body and take up a remote viewing position,” a definition for which they cited three European publications (Brugger, Regard, & Landis, 1997; Grusser & Landis, 1991; and Hecaen & Ajuriaguerra, 1952). American OBE researchers have offered somewhat similar definitions, for example: “An experience where you felt that your mind or awareness was separated from your physical body” (Gabbard & Twemlow, 1984, pp. 3-4); “An…experience…in which the center of consciousness appears to the experient to occupy temporarily a position which is spatially remote from his/her body” (Irwin, 1985, p. 5); an experience in which “people feel that their ‘self,’ or center of awareness, is located outside of the physical body” (Alvarado, 2000, p. 183). It appears to us that by all of these definitions, the Swiss patient’s experience qualified as an OBE.
To begin to address the second assumption—that the Swiss patient’s OBE was typical of spontaneous OBEs—consider the description of a spontaneous OBE by an English patient who “had suffered a displacement of the foot, which had been returned under an anaesthetic” (Green, 1968, p. 123):
“Before coming round I saw myself up in a corner of the room and I was looking down upon the hospital bed. The bedclothes were heaped up over a cradle and my legs were exposed from the knees down.
“Around the right ankle was a ring of plaster and below the knee was a similar ring. These two rings were joined by a plaster strip [on] each side of [the] leg. I was struck by the pink of my skin against the white plaster.
“When I regained consciousness two nurses were standing a foot of bed looking at the operation, one quite young. They at once left the private ward and I managed to raise myself up and look over the cradle seeing again exactly what I had seen when still ‘out.’
“Being a hot day was perhaps why the bedclothes had been pulled away from my legs and were heaped over the cradle. The particular way in which the plaster had been applied was plainly seen from my position in the corner of room and the contrast between pink skin and white plaster was striking.”
A comparison of the Swiss and English patients’ OBE accounts reveals these important differences:
|Swiss Patient’s OBE||English Patient’s OBE|
|Spontaneously reported viewing only part of body (legs and lower trunk)||Spontaneous report implied viewing the entire body|
|Viewed body areas not involved in health concern and medical procedure (did not report seeing head or brain)||Viewed body area involved in health concern and medical procedure (leg, cast, etc.)|
|Reported distortion of body image (legs became shorter; arm shorter)||No reported distortion of body image|
|Reported illusion of bodily movement: legs and arm moving toward face; upper body moving forward||No reported illusion of bodily movement|
In a nutshell, the English patient’s experience seemed quite realistic, whereas the Swiss patient’s experience was unrealistic— fragmentary, distorted, and illusory. In fact, a thorough review by one of us (Holden) of three classic books reporting extensiveOBE research [Green (1968), Gabbard & Twemlow (1984), and Irwin (1985)] and one very recent review of the entire OBE research literature (Alvarado, 2000) reveals that the English patient’s OBE is quite characteristic of OBEs in general, while the Swiss patient’s is highly uncharacteristic. Regarding bodily distortion, for example, Holden found only one reference to bodily distortion during OBEs: a single instance reported by a person diagnosed with schizophrenia (Blackmore, 1986). Also Gabbard & Twemlow (1984, p. 118) after reviewing hundreds of OBEs, concluded that “body image disturbances [are] unusual” during OBEs, even though such disturbances are commonly experienced whenever we fall asleep or are just beginning to wake up from sleep.
The absence of body distortion in spontaneous OBEs is substantiated by another one of us (Long), who reviewed hundreds of first-person accounts of spontaneous OBEs and NDEs submitted to his research websites (www.oberf.org and www.nderf.org); none of them included either distortion of body image or illusion of bodily movement.
A second important difference revealed by comparing the Swiss and English patients’ experiences is the factor of lucidity, defined by Webster’s dictionary as “having full use of one’s faculties” and finding an experience “clear to the understanding.” Presumably, the Swiss patient would have been surprised or confused when, right after taking evasive action, the physicians discontinued electrostimulation and she found that her limbs were not at all where she had just perceived them to be. By comparison, the English patient’s description conveyed psychological continuity—his OBE perceptions were followed by perceptions in bed that confirmed each another—indicating that during his OBE he had full use of his faculties and found that experience clear to his understanding. He was lucid. Furthermore, Long reports that most spontaneous OBEs, and the great majority of OBEs within NDEs, reported to his website have involved lucidity.
This attribute of lucidity is related to Holden’s observation of reality in transpersonal experiences. Once a person has returned to everyday consciousness, they look back on their transpersonal experience as having been real, or at least potentially real. By contrast, after a dream or a hallucination, when people regain everyday consciousness they don’t say that the dream or hallucination was even potentially real. Presumably, the Swiss patient would concur that at least much of her outof- body perception was illusory rather than real. Conversely, the English patient, and most other spontaneous OBErs, have reported their sense that the experience was real. [An interested reader may review directly the many OBE and NDE accounts posted on the Internet at three sites, www.iands.org, www.oberf.org, and www.nderf.org, to see the striking difference between the experience described by the electrostimulated patient in the Nature article and the experiences of spontaneous OBErs].
* * * * *
Interestingly, the phenomenon of electrostimulation of the right temporal lobe resulting in non-typical out-of-body experiences is not new. This phenomenon was first reported by neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield in 1955. His procedure involved electrostimulation of a location different from the one stimulated by the Swiss physicians—further indicating that the “one” brain region associated with OBEs has not yet been located (Neppe, 2002). And significantly, some “memories” evoked in patients by Penfield’s electrostimulation of their brains turned out to be partially or totally nonfactual. For example:
“One of Penfield’s patients, when the electrode was applied, heard her mother calling in a lumberyard. A record of the past? No, it was not. The woman stated she had never in her life been near a lumberyard. Other patients’ ‘recollections’ turned out to be influenced greatly by the conversation between the doctor and patient in the two minutes preceding the electrical stimulation.” (Ornstein, 1991, p. 189)
This finding further suggests that the Swiss patient described in the Nature article may have been experiencing a non-typical state of consciousness rather than a typical OBE.
It is one thing for a physician to electrostimulate the brain and produce a single aspect of an experience – for example, contraction of the triceps muscle, causing a person’s bent arm to straighten out. It is a vastly different thing for that same person to enact the intentional, meaningful, complex task of reaching out to grasp a teacup. Although the contraction of the triceps muscle is one component of the task of having tea, it lacks the holistic quality—intention, coordination, etc.—of the enacted experience. Analogously, electrostimulation of the brain has not yet yielded a typical OBE. To assume that the brain is involved in—or, as we have said throughout this article, is associated with—out-of-body phenomena is one thing; but to imply—with phrases like “the part of the brain that can induce out-of-body experiences” or “OBEs…can be artificially induced by electrical stimulation of the cortex”—that electrostimulation of the brain produces typical OBEs is quite another.
The professional near-death literature contains multiple reports of veridical perception of phenomena that were outside the range of the NDEr's sensory perception and, therefore, of brain mediation (Ring & Cooper, 1997; Ring & Lawrence, 1993; Sabom, 1982; Sharp, 1995; van Lommel, van Wees, Meyers, & Elfferich, 2001). In some cases, these perceptions occurred while the NDEr apparently was experiencing the brain inactivity that follows within 10 seconds of cessation of heartbeat (van Lommel et al., 2001). Over 100 such cases are published on www.iands.org, www.nderf.org, and www.oberf.org. Further discussion of veridical perception is presented in the article titled "Does the Arousal System Contribute to Near-Death Experience?: A Response" under review for the Journal of Near-Death Studies. Taken together, the evidence suggests strongly the possibility that near-death OB perception might occur without the mediation of the physical senses or the brain. Therefore, to refer to OBEs in general as "illusions" is premature; science has not yet resolved the question of the accuracy of out-of-body perceptions nor, hence, the "reality" of the sense OBErs report of their consciousnesses functioning independent of their physical bodies. Even if future research convincingly demonstrated that electrical stimulation of a particular area of the brain consistently induced typical OBEs, this finding would not explain veridical perception associated with OBEs.
We believe it is inappropriate to conclude "the part of the brain that can induce out-of-body experiences has been located" (Blanke et al., p. 269) based on a single anecdotal observation, especially with the concerns we have presented. We are not aware of any other published account of the induction of purported OBE by electrostimulation of the right angular gyrus. This observation is especially surprising given the enormous media interest in the Blanke at al. article. It is possible the single anecdotal account presented by Blanke at al. was an anomalous occurrence and extremely atypical of the results of neural electrostimulation. In the absence of a significant number of additional published reports of phenomena similar to that described by Blanke et al., it would be reasonable to hypothesize a correlation between neural electrostimulation and OBE-like experiences but unreasonable to conclude the hypothesis was proven.
The question of the mechanism of OBEs is far from answered. Reports like those in the Nature article contribute valuable information regarding this question, but they do not warrant a claim that OBEs might now be “explained.” To their credit, the authors of the article closed with the disclaimer that they “do not fully understand the neurological mechanism that causes OBEs.” Unfortunately that statement still implies that the cause of OBEs can be reduced to neurological mechanisms. But it was the physicians who elicited the patient’s OBE-like sensations by their electrical stimulation of a small area of her brain. Electrostimulation is a mechanism, not a cause. In other words, the patient’s experience was “caused” by the intentional action of the physician holding the probe. In the case of both intentional actions and spontaneous experiences—including spontaneous OBEs—the cause, the external or internal trigger, has yet to be identified.
In summary, the Nature authors did not produce an OBE in their patient that was typical of spontaneous OBEs. Although they reconfirmed a possible neuroelectrical mechanism involved in at least some OBEs, they did not explain the cause of the spontaneous phenomenon. Finally, although they showed that some OBEs may involve illusory perceptions, they did not resolve the question of whether at least some spontaneous OBEs involve accurate, “real” perceptions. As the pioneering neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfield, concluded about the thorny issue of “mind-body dualism”:
“In the end, I conclude that there is no good evidence, in spite of new methods such as the employment of stimulating electrodes,…that the brain alone can carry out the work that the mind does. I conclude that it is easier to rationalize man’s being on the basis of two elements [brain and mind] than on the basis of one. But I believe that one should not pretend to draw a final scientific conclusion, in man’s study of man, until the nature of the energy responsible for mind-action is discovered as, in my own opinion, it will be.” (1975, p. 114)
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Janice Miner Holden, EdD, is a a Professor of counseling at the University of North Texas, and a counselor in private practice, in Texas. Jeff Long, MD, is a radiation oncologist in Washington state. Jason MacLurg, MD, is a psychiatrist in Washington state.