Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication

Q: Can science create out of body experiences like spirituality does?

Krishna: I don't know about spiritual experiences but science definitely can!

Out-of-body" and "near-death" experiences - in which people resuscitated on the operating table speak of being drawn toward a brilliant light, or looking down on their own bodies - may be influenced by a portion of the brain misfiring under stress (1).

A processing center in the brain known as the angular gyrus, thought to play an important role in the way the brain analyzes sensory information to give us a perception of our own bodies. When it misfires, scientists speculate, the result can be visions of floating outside of ourselves.

Some Swiss researchers mapped the brain activity of a 43-year old woman who had been experiencing seizures for 11 years. They implanted electrodes to stimulate portions of her brain's right temporal lobe (2).

The temporal lobe, which includes the angular gyrus structure, is associated with perception of sound, touch, memory and speech.

The researchers suspect that the right angular gyrus integrates signals from the visual system, as well as information on touch and balance.

When electrical stimulation was applied, the patient reported seeing herself "lying in bed, from above, but I only see my legs and lower trunk." She also described herself as "floating" near the ceiling.

The Swiss researchers produced the sensation, which lasted for about two seconds, three times in the patient. She reported feelings of lightness and floating about two yards above the bed, close to the ceiling.

When the researchers asked the woman to look at a part of her body from the heightened position, her legs for example, she had illusions and reported seeing her legs "becoming shorter."

She saw this. It was very real. She had the feeling she punched herself in the head if she bent the arm a bit.

Scientists suspect that about 10 percent of people brought back from the brink of death experience something similar .

Scientists have deliberately fooled people into feeling they are watching themselves from outside their own bodies, using virtual-reality technology. The achievement reveals how the brain can be confused as it struggles to integrate confusing information from the different senses (3).

People who claim to have had out-of-body experiences (OBEs) — most famously patients on the operating table or those who have narrowly avoided death — describe a sensation of having floated out of themselves, for example towards the ceiling of an operating theatre. From there they watch their body and activities surrounding it.

Such experiences have been claimed by spiritualists to represent evidence of a soul. But scientific research shows that it is possible to create a similar sensation simply by tricking the mind.

People with a condition called focal epilepsy, who have seizures that affect only one half of the brain, as well as people with schizophrenia  more commonly report out of body experiences. The phenomenon has also been reported by some migraine, epilepsy and stroke patients. Also the anesthetic drug Ketamine (which is used illegally for recreational purposes),  can induce similar feelings of being removed from one's own body.

Researchers using a brain scanner and some fancy camera work gave study participants the illusion that their bodies were located in a part of a room other than where they really were. Then, the researchers examined the participants' brain activity, to find out which brain regions were involved in the participants' perceptions about where their body was.

Then scientists  wanted to understand the brain mechanisms behind the perception of where one's body is located. Experiments in mice and other animals have shown that neurons called GPS cells are involved in navigating one's body in space (as well as in memory), a finding that was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2014.

To better understand how the process works in people, the researchers scanned the brains of people who were experiencing the illusion of being outside their body. In the  experiment, the participants lay in an MRI scanner while wearing a head-mounted display that showed video from a set of cameras elsewhere in the room. The cameras were positioned to look down on the body of a stranger, while an image of the participant's own body lying inside the scanner was visible in the background.

To produce the out of body illusion, the researchers touched the participants' body with a rod while simultaneously touching the stranger's body in the same place, in view of the cameras. For the participants, this technique produces the illusion that their body is in a different part of the room than where it actually is. It takes a couple of touches, and suddenly you actually feel like you're located in another part of the room. Your body feels completely normal — you don't feel as it's floating around.

Then, the researchers analyzed the brain activity in the participants' temporal and parietal lobes, which are involved in spatial perception and the feeling of owning one's body. From this activity, the scientists  decoded the participants' perceived location.

The researchers found that the hippocampus, a region where GPS cells have been found, is involved in figuring out where one's body is. They also found that a brain region called the posterior cingulate cortex is what binds together the feeling of where the self is located with the feeling of owning a body.

These are all games played by our brains. There is nothing supernatural about it. Science could not only explain things in detail but could also produce these strange experiences in the labs.  






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