No longer just low-hanging fruit for low-budget TV specials, out-of-body experiences are getting serious attention from neuroscientists. A recent paper in the New England Journal of Medicine finds those temporary vacations from the flesh, often reported after brushes with the Grim Reaper, in fact appear to have a corporeal home in the brain.
Using PET scans, the researchers viewed the brain activity of a man who'd had electrodes inserted into his brain to stop persistent ringing in his ears. The electrodes also gave the man out-of-body experiences.
They stimulated activity in the temporoparietal junction, a portion of the brain other researchers have linked to out-of-body experiences. British scientists last year tied activity in the same region to a 22-year-old epileptic woman's reports of being followed by a "shadow person," who mimicked her every move.
Whether such changes in brain activity occur in patients who "report disembodiment as part of a near-death experience — and if so, how — is a provocative but unresolved issue," according to today's paper.
So...if the issue is resolved, what will it mean? If every mysterious perception is traced to a neighborhood of the brain, what are the implications for belief in the afterlife? Are we the just the sum of the electrical activity of our neurons? Will Discovery Channel, in desperation, run more ghost hunting documentaries?
A few definitions from the paper:
Autoscopy: The impression of seeing one's own body from an elevated and distanced visuospatial perspective.
Depersonalization: The subjective experience of unreality and detachment from the self. Derealization: The experience of the external world as strange or unreal.
Disembodiment: An experience in which the self is perceived as being outside the body.
Out-of-body experience: A brief subjective episode of disembodiment, with or without autoscopy.