Friday, August 24, 2007

Out of Body Experiences

Scientists have found a way of inducing out of body experiences (OBEs). Practically, it is said, this technology may take video games to 'the next level' and enable surgeons to operate on patients remotely using a virtual self. Personally, I don't want either of those things to happen. But, leaving that aside, OBEs, especially when they are also NDEs (near death experiences), have often been used as evidence for the existence of the soul. The film Flatliners was based on the potent idea that an ODE/NDE represented an entry into a personal moral drama. Obviously any such interpretation is scientifically offensive. But, equally obviously, OBEs (and NDEs) happen and not necessarily to people who could easily be dismissed as liars or nutters. Scientists, therefore, have sought explanations. One was sleep paralysis, which seemed to be associated with the kind of OBE that led to tales of alien abduction. This latest seems fairly credible, though a little contrived. But what is interesting is the way scientists rush in to draw conclusions that are not actually justified by the experiment. Dr Henrik Ehrsson says it shows the criticality of the first person visual perspective, the feeling that our self is located behind the eyes. Hmmm, well not really - it merely shows that we can create this illusion by disrupting our vision.  Dr Susan Blackmore talks of 'disrupting our normal illusion of being a self behind our eyes'. This is loaded with ideology. Both philosophers and scientists like to shock by talking about the illusion of the self. They also like to say this because it has a consolingly anti-vitalist quality.  But I have never read anything that makes the phrase 'the illusion of the self' meaningful. I could go on for pages about this, but it would all come down to one question: to whom is the self an illusion?


  1. Spot on. That is exactly the question.
    (Also, there seems to be a strange subliminal thread running through the blog - from CBEs [celebrity beauty editors] to OBEs... What next? Ah - of course, YMCA - all together now...)

  2. I don't know what Dr Blackmore really meant by "the illusion of self". But maybe the self is the sum of myriad processes and sensory inputs that go on all the time, hundreds of times a second, rather than something that exists independently of them. It's like watching a film: we get the illusion of continuity but actually what we're seeing is made up of thousands of distinct frames.

    I'd be interested to know what you think of the Buddhist view of self. This seems perfectly reasonable to me and, besides, it's rather a relief to know that I won't be lumbered with "me" for all eternity.

  3. I think I agree, Bryan. It is one of those philosophical questions that I don't think merits much attention for the simple reason that the self is clearly not illusory. Nevertheless, that it can seem illusory raises interesting questions about the nature of perception, memory, time and why some people are more selfless than others.

  4. do blind people hear themselves from the ceiling? I would ask but I don't know any.

  5. Ian, is that what is known as 'thinking out of the box?'

  6. why would anyone get inside a box to think? (they'd get in a tank, wouldn't they? - Ed.)

  7. Susan B., the main self,August 24, 2007 1:55 pm

    I write about autobiography and I'm especially interested in memoirs of madness, from Wm. Styron to Jane Philips -- in depression, multiple-personality disorder, and a variety of other mental illnesses, the self can split and replicate. It exists, yes, but it can hardly be called stable in some conditions.

    Have you never felt the presence of a second self? I did, a couple of years ago on a cruise to Mexico -- I was busily losing hundreds of dollars in a slot machine, yet couldn't stop: I was so sure I would win it back! Another self said inside my gambling-frenzied main self, "Susan, you are in the grip of an addiction."

    Wise words. Of course, I finally won about $100 from the slot, switched to blackjack, won back all I had lost, and was very careful about not telling my dear husband. (All this because a hurricane made it impossible to stop in Key West en route to Cancun, so there was nothing to do but....Hit the casino.)

    But I digress. The self is not such a given as you all think and you need only take some drugs to see just how unstable it is.

  8. We did, Susan, we did...

    A funny thing I've noticed from time to time, when halfway to falling asleep - a hypnapompic experience? - is that I find I can see through things near at hand, they become translucent, in a dim kind of way. It all seems perfectly normal and unremarkable at the time. There are cases, I believe, of people being temporarily able to see with different parts of their bodies, hands for example - a kind of hysteria is the 'scientific' explanation.

  9. I think the 'second self' can be adequately answered by the split-brain concept, and the dual way in which we think - the 'rationalist' and the 'artist'. In multiple personality I'm not sure whether we actually gain other selves, or merely split our emotions into seemingly distinct personalities.
    Getting back to the OBE, my own view begins with an understanding of cryptomnesia - the ability to recall obscure facts we didn't realise we had. It prompts the question: just how much information do we take in from our senses.
    Case studies suggest we access everything it is possible for our senses to sense. Most goes to the unconscious, the only information we are aware of being that upon which we placed 'attention.'
    If this is so, then can we see the possibility of a mind model, crammed with information, as a kind of mental map of the outside world?
    I call it a 'cryptomnesic inner map' which reflects the outside world. Of course, it is slightly different, in that it includes our fantasies, but holds a fair approximation of 'outside.'
    Could this be what we actually journey through in the OBE?

  10. It's perfectly reasonable to argue that the self isn't what we think it is, imho. Is someone aged 20 the same person aged 40? Or is someone with (Gord forbid) brain damage of some kind the same "self" they were before it happened? It's not really enough to say, "Well, I'm here, kicking this piece of stone, Bishop, so the self must be real". So where and what is the self, then?

    I imagine Dr Blackmore was going for a bit of a wind-up with her remark but the notion that the self is a trick we play on ourselves - a rickety trick that often breaks down, as Susan mentions - has a long and respectable pedigree though not in the West, perhaps. Certainly it does in the East. Why are we so sure we're right? Besides, OBEs are no big deal. It's slightly surprising that some scientists think they are.

  11. Our paper also covers the experiments reported in "Science" magazine today. Anyone who's ever experienced an "Indian rope burn" (i.e., every kid who knows this trick) has experienced the phenomenon of feeling something that isn't there.

    We are always shifting perception to focus on just the one thing. Indeed, didn't we learn in school that our eyes take in images upside down, but our brain turns them for us?

    Nige, the thing with your hands is kinda weird, but cool, I grant you. When I am falling asleep I often leap awake thinking I see a huge spider or beetle on the wall near me. I think it must be my eyelashes, but it's nowhere near as pleasant as what you're describing.

  12. Sorry, Nige -- You said "near at hand," not "through your hand." I must have been thinking of "Pan's Labyrinth"!

  13. looking through my library I find there's a lot of information on this subject that might be of interest to you intellectuals.

    furthermore, the prof. is quite correct. the eyes have it (except when asleep and the ear dept. is nightwatchman).

    what do you call those little people inside your head? the name escapes me for the moment...

  14. ...and yes, that is Max Wall, the well-known mind reader.

  15. As to the illusion of the self and that it's no one's illusion I refer to Thomas Metzinger and his lecture at Berkeley: