You see a shimmering, brilliant white light approaching on the horizon. Your vision begins to rapidly constrict as if you’re traveling through a tightening tunnel at the speed of light. As you soar through this spectacular tunnel towards the glowing light, you pass by deceased family members and memories of your childhood lining the walls of the tunnel, like abstract paintings hung in a never-ending hallway. Suddenly, all-consuming white light obscures these images and you find yourself immersed in total silence.

You’re dead, or at least that’s what you think. Then, out of the silence, you find yourself face-to–face with a strangely familiar body … yours. In a strange sequence of events, you realize your mind has officially left its corporeal host. You’re watching yourself from outside yourself.

This bizarre occurrence, when the mind or ‘soul’ appears to have left the body, can be described as an out-of-body experience, and it’s more common than you might think. Approximately one in 10 individuals will experience an out-of-body experience at some point in their life. Though scientists have performed limited research on this phenomenon, rare occurrences of the conscious mind dissociating from the physical body (or universally similar near-death experiences, such as “approaching the white light”) may shed light on the intimate connection between our brain and body.

An out-of-body experience (OBE) generally involves a sensation of “floating” or trailing behind one’s physical self. Currently, mainstream science defines an OBE as a genre of hallucination created by neurological factors ranging from lucid dreaming, gravity-induced loss of consciousness, magnetic stimulation in the brain and dissociative agents like the drug ketamine.

Dr. James Winnery, a chemistry professor at West Texas A&M, discovered that one could systematically trigger OBEs among fighter pilots training to withstand extreme gravitational forces felt in the cockpit. When using a centrifuge (the rapidly rotating cylindrical chamber pioneered by NASA astronauts), the tremendous gravitational stress forced the pilot’s blood away from the brain, eventually causing a brief loss of consciousness. After leaving the centrifuge, a number of pilots reported having the strange perception of trailing their physical body, then watching their physical selves as they exited the centrifuge chamber.

Do such phenomena, where one may travel outside the body while still retaining conscious thoughts, perceptions and memories hint at the existence of a ‘soul,’ a immaterial self which pervades physical death? This metaphysically loaded question was examined back in the 16th century by French philosopher Rene Descartes and his theory of Dualism. Descartes, a notably religious thinker, theorized the conscious mind to be separate from the physical body. According to Descartes, upon death it was the conscious, immaterial mind that constituted the soul, the part of us subject to non-physical, perhaps “heavenly,” interactions outside of the body. Is it possible that Descartes was getting at the same out-of-body phenomena experienced by the pilots leaving the centrifuge?

Unfortunately for Descartes, modern day science points to no such heavenly interactions, but rather specific and induced stimulation of novel brain regions which result in hallucinations. It may be a blow to Descartes’ idea of a spirit or soul, but OBEs appear to be a direct result of derived electrochemical activity inside the corporeal brain.

More specifically, according to a study published in Nature authored by Olaf Blanke and colleagues at the University Hospitals of Geneva, Switzerland, the mystery of the OBE may be explained by “temporary dysfunction of the junction between the temporal and parietal cortex,” an area of the brain known as the ‘angular gyrus’ — the part of the brain known to integrate sensory information related to touch, vision and balance.

Using electrodes to stimulate the angular gyrus, researchers observed subjects vividly transcending the physical self, watching the body from above the body itself. Similar to the study of oxygen-deprived pilots in the centrifuge, Blanke’s research again discovered a material foundation by which OBEs may occur.

Ongoing research on the topic of OBEs is making the hypothesis of the immaterial soul less and less probable. However, OBE’s, which occur in rare instances where individuals die, transcend the body and are then reanimated again — known as a near-death experience — suggest that the mind may actually exist outside the brain or body. For example, individuals who suffer from a cardiac arrest and whose brain activity is interrupted (if not made entirely absent) may in rare cases experience vivid OBEs. OBEs caused by the near-death experience challenge the mainstream neuroscientific concept that consciousness arises solely from brain activity, known as materialism.

If the mind pervades the death of the physical body, perhaps Descartes’ nearly 400- year old theory of Dualism may finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Michael Roe: Trippin’ you out, one article at a time.


This article appeared on page 8 of the Friday, February 22, 2012 print edition of the Nexus.