Alex Lickerman is a physician at the University of Chicago who, until recently, was in charge of all primary care doctors at the hospital (he’s now head of student health). He’s also a secular Buddhist who writes about medicine and matters “spiritual” at his website, “Happiness in this world.” (Alex also helped bring Sam Harris here for his recent talk on morality.)
This week, in “The neurology of near-death experiences“, Alex debunks the religious trappings that attach to the “out-of-body” and similar experiences that occur in conjunction with operations and medical episodes. In particular, he shows that experiencees such as dreamlike states, tunnel vision, and leaving and returning to one’s body are all phenomena that have well-understood medical causes. Some of them can even be reproduced by stimulating people’s brains.
The most telling argument against these phenomena being real out-of body-experiences, however, are the tests conducted to see if people really left their bodies. This is one example of how religious assertions (or assertions about the supernatural; take your pick) can actually be scientifically tested and falsified. For surely the claim that we have souls that can leave our body, and observe things, is a claim about the supernatural.
One test involves putting pictures face up on the ceilings of emergency rooms, to determine if cardiac-arrest patients who report floating above their bodies can actually identify the pictures. (One study is being conducted by Sam Parnia in the UK, but the results apparently haven’t been reported yet. I’d bet a few thousand bucks on the results being negative.)
The other set of tests deal with non-medical out-of-body experiences. As Alex describes:
Neurologists have since recognized that the temporoparietal region of the brain is responsible for maintaining our body schema representation. When external current is applied to this region, it ceases to function normally and our body schema “floats.” Further evidence that this phenomenon is an illusion comes from experiments in which people who’ve had out-of-body experiences when transitioning from sleep to wakefulness were unable to identify objects placed in the room after they’d fallen asleep, strongly suggesting the picture they viewed of themselves sleeping in their beds was reconstructed from memory.
I haven’t been able to locate the studies mentioned here, but I’ll add them to this post when I do.