Neuro- or Pseudoscience?
Over a very long glass of wine, a friend and I recently discussed the important things in life, such as our intuition, emotional blocks, why teenagers don’t find jobs while they still know everything, and our dreams. I mentioned the fact that ever since my teenage years (probably earlier), I do not remember my dreams, except for the odd vivid dream experience. One dream that still stands out some 50+ years later, is me flying through the air, swimming the oceans at breakneck speed, without the restriction of gravity, something that can be defined as an out-of-body experience. Another experience was when I sensed myself lift out of my body and float to the ceiling while looking down on my mother and the doctor next to my bed discussing how to lower my raging fever.
All this talking reminded me of the thought experiments of Albert Einstein, which led him to the formation of the theory of relativity. As a 16 year old boy in 1895 or 1896, the young Albert was attending school in Aarau. While lying on a knoll in the sun, contemplating space and time, he started to fall asleep. In that state between wakefulness and sleep, he experienced an altered state of mind where he was flying through the universe at the speed of light on a sunbeam. His body was paralyzed and static in sleep, while his consciousness was free to explore his fascination with space and time, the first step in the formation of his theory of relativity. My theory is that Einstein experienced multiple out-of-body experiences throughout his life. The vividness of his so-called imaginings and thought experiments were indeed much more than just regular run-of-the-mill daydreams. They were sensations of being outside of the physical body, of floating through space without the confines of gravity or the restrictions of time, which is the definition of an out-of-body experience (OBE).
Out of Body Experience– Categories
Estimates and surveys calculate that between five to ten percent of the population have experienced an OBE. Personally I believe that that number is much higher, or else my friends are not as run-of-the-mill as I thought and I need to get out more! OBEs are classified into two categories: spontaneous and induced.
Spontaneous Out of Body Experience’s
Spontaneous OBEs (SOBEs) occur in that no-man’s land between wakefulness and sleep, just as one is falling asleep or waking up. Catalysts include noise, stress, or illness. OBEs also occur during or following extreme physical exertion, and during Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). Other catalysts for SOBEs include anesthesia, illness, food and water deprivation, moments of great fear such as accidents, being suffocated, after being shot, during child birth, hypnosis, meditation, shamanic vision quests, within the ecstatic throws of dancing, or even when just talking.
Having the ability to induce an OBE is a very tantalizing prospect. If one could induce this state like Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, or Temple Grandin could/can, this would take visualization to the next level. Factors that could induce an OBE are the following:
NOTE: Mary Temple Grandin is an American professor of animal science at Colorado State University, consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior, and autism spokesperson. She is one of the first individuals on the autism spectrum to document the insights she gained from her personal experience of autism. A biographical movie, “Temple Grandin (2010)”, starring Claire Danes, was made of her life.
First of all, hallucinogenic drugs, but in particular the dissociative hallucinogenics and psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, PCP, Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), MDA, and ketamine, produce feelings of detachment (dissociation) from the environment and the self, and distort the perception of sight and sound. Signals to the conscious mind are reduced or blocked. Feelings of depersonalization (feeling unreal, disconnected from the self) and derealization (the outside world feels unreal, feeling as if in a dream state) are often described.
Too little sensory information, experienced in floatation tanks or by listening to white noise, or too much sensory information such as torture, strong G-forces, or spatial disorientation (SD), can induce OBEs. Pilots and astronauts exposed to strong G-forces can experience an OBE when the blood flow is diminished to certain parts of the brain. The pilots suffer from “gravity-induced loss of consciousness” and many have experienced OBEs during this state. Spatial disorientation (SD) is also experienced by pilots and SDs can also spark OBEs. SDs are caused by sensory deprivation or overload, stress, fatigue, drugs, and low levels of light.
OBE – Neuroscience or Pseudoscience?
Have you ever had that falling sensation just as you’re about to fall asleep? In 2002, Swiss researchers (working on patients with epilepsy) stimulated the right angular gyrus (also known as the temporoparietal junction or TPJ; or the temporo-parieto-occipital cortex). The patient experienced the sensation of falling (like when we fall asleep). Then the researchers increased the strength of the electrical current, causing the patient to see herself from above lying on the bed. She experienced an OBE. The researchers concluded that OBEs occur when multisensory information from one’s own body fails to be integrated in the angular gyrus.
NOTE: Patients with epilepsy are reported to experience OBEs more frequently than the average Joe, and for the average Joe an OBE (usually spontaneously) will occur only once, maybe twice, in his lifetime.
What does the angular gyrus (AG) do? The AG is well connected to many parts of the brain. The AG collates inputs received from the thalamus (the sensory switching station of the brain), visual (occipital lobe), auditory (temporal lobe), emotional (limbic system), memory (hippocampus), and somatosensory (bodily sensations) systems. Therefore, the AG is an important interface that integrates information received from the environment (external) with internal bodily sensations and representations. The AG is a major connector hub with widespread connectivity throughout the brain, linking multiple subsystems. This is why it is considered the seat of OBEs.
Out of Body Experience, Astral Projection, or Lucid Dreaming?
In the introduction, I describe two incidents that I experienced. The first experience could be classified as astral projection or lucid dreaming, and the second incident as a spontaneous out-of-body experience. What is the difference? According to the literature, the one is spontaneous and the other induced, but basically it translates to six of the one or half a dozen of the other. Floating to the ceiling and looking down on oneself, or flying through space on a sunbeam, or lucidly finding the answer to the problem that has been bugging you, are all variations of the same experience.
So, what do you think: are OBEs neuroscience or pseudoscience, hogwash or visualization on steroids? OBEs are still very much shrouded in mystery. Many believe that they are merely a trick of the mind similar to déjà vu. However, visual thinkers such as Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein or Temple Grandin (highly visual thinkers), can put themselves into the problem that they are trying to solve, becoming one with it, solving problems before they even occur. That visual ability forces the user to separate him/herself from the physical, gravitational confines of their body, allowing their consciousness to soar free and find the solutions that they are looking for. This separation of body and consciousness and the unification of external and internal awareness, will take your visualization and problem-solving skills to a whole new level. What could you achieve if you developed these latent abilities?
Want to know more?
Einstein’s Pathway to Special Relativity by John D. Norton, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh
Einstein Chases a Light Beam by Galina Weinstein, written while at The Center for Einstein Studies, Boston University
Albert Einstein’s Brain
Neuroscience. 2nd Edition by Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001.
The Angular Gyrus: Multiple Functions and Multiple Subdivisions by Mohamed L. Seghier1
Out-of-body experiences: Neuroscience or the paranormal?
What is Astral Projection? By Gaia Staff