Out-of-Body Experiences Recreated

There’s now a scientific explanation for out-of-body experiences:

Two teams used virtual reality goggles to con the brain into thinking the body was located elsewhere.

The visual illusion plus the feel of their real bodies being touched made volunteers sense that they had moved outside of their physical bodies.

The article nicely explains the setup of the experiment with visuals.

For some reason, I’m still positive all those out-of-body books will still find an audience… but it’s very telling that we can now recreate those experiences in a lab. When you don’t understand why these things happen, it’s easy to say “God did it” or think you’re somehow special for going through it.

What are the applications of these findings?

The researchers say their findings could have practical applications, such as helping take video games to the next level of virtuality so the players feel as if they are actually inside the game.

Clinically, surgeons might also be able to perform operations on patients thousands of miles away by controlling a robotic virtual self.

Christian, who sent the link, adds this:

Guess those experiences wasn’t God showing us paradise after all… must be frustrating for him that his role in the world keeps shrinking as we learn more.



[tags]atheist, atheism, out-of-body, heaven, Christian[/tags]

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Ah, the childlike faith that grasps at anything to brush away other peoples’ experiences which conflict with our own wishes of what those might mean.

    The assertion that this simulation is a recreation of an experience that anyone else has had and which they have interpreted for themselves is, of course, not dispositive but merely a speculation made by interested parties with prejudicial agendas. It proves nothing about anything but that these researchers were able to convince some people who they subjected to these goggles that they were disassociated from their bodies. It tells us only that that effect can be produced in some people under these conditions. I wonder how many of their volunteers (got problems just there) weren’t convinced that they were having an OBE or who reported experiences that they couldn’t fit into their hypothesis. And I wonder what the volunteers knew about the expectations of the researchers going into and during the experiments. I wonder if they would stand up to Ray Hyman’s level of methodological critique. Probably not, I tend to doubt that any research really could.

    As for Susan Blackmore “This has at last brought OBEs into the lab and tested one of the main theories of how they occur.” Apparently the critique made of her doctoral research hasn’t led her to be more careful about jumping to conclusions in her own favor. Since her reported OBE, which she got so much milage out of, was the result of drugs there is no evidence that other than the words used, that the experiences were actually the results of similar brain function. Just as an aside, she did admit to a critical reviewer that she didn’t prove her “brain only” assertions in Dying to Live, not that she or her publisher spread that fact around.

    As an interesting result that shows how perception can be tricked that might be studied further, this is interesting. The claims you and others are making for it are not science, they are merely speculation, I believe based in your own preconceived desires and not in rigorous and skeptical thinking about the information in the article. Just the volunteer aspect of it and the possibilities of expectations in those volunteers should be enough to arouse skepticism of this type.

    And now, materialists, I’m off. Have fun and don’t get too carried away mistaking what you wish for with what you know. There’s so much of that in this kind of stuff.

  • Miko

    I wonder how many of their volunteers (got problems just there)

    Your alternative to using volunteers, I suppose, is to kidnap people off the street?

    weren’t convinced that they were having an OBE or who reported experiences that they couldn’t fit into their hypothesis. And I wonder what the volunteers knew about the expectations of the researchers going into and during the experiments.

    Based on the article given, there seems to be no cause for those suspicions. That’s not to say they aren’t valid, but that’s what the original study’s write-up is there for. Raising objections without attempting to assess their validity is just a form of special pleading for antimaterialism.

    I wonder if they would stand up to Ray Hyman’s level of methodological critique. Probably not, I tend to doubt that any research really could.

    Most (successful) research outside of parapsychology does. It’s really not that hard when you’re trying to observe an actual phenomenon.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    Anyone familiar with longtime NDE-fan lekatt and folks like him will know that stuff like this will not make even a dent in his certainty that these experiences are evidence of an afterlife.

    I’ve seen him argued down with for endless pages about his claims going against basic facts (like in the Pam Reynolds case, where he falsely claimed that she was brain dead for two hours) that are confirmed in the very sources HE HIMSELF cites as evidence. I honestly don’t even believe its out of intentional dishonesty.

    Better that we just keep studying this stuff (it is very interesting, regardless of any supernatural implications) and churning out new scientific insight into it.

  • Kate

    I wonder how many of their volunteers (got problems just there) weren’t convinced that they were having an OBE or who reported experiences that they couldn’t fit into their hypothesis. And I wonder what the volunteers knew about the expectations of the researchers going into and during the experiments.

    Ummm…google IRB and read up on some research/ethics guidelines. People in studies HAVE to be volunteers. Like Miko said, you can’t kidnap people. That’s why we call them participants now, not subjects. Key word: participate. As in, voluntarily.

    Also, you don’t “fit stuff into your hypothesis”. Do you know ANYTHING about research?!?!?! You gather existing information from other studies, formulate a hypothesis based on that, and then do an experiment to reject the null (ie, find an occurrence that would happen fewer than 5%, 1%, or .1% of the time, too rare for chance).

    Furthermore, it’s called “deception” and it’s perfectly ethical according to the IRB. Participants do not have to know what the intent of the researcher is, so long as they are debriefed after (assuming the debriefing won’t harm them…like saying they were placed into a “less attractive” group for an attractiveness study, etc.). Reasonable deception to ensure accuracy and realism of the study is perfectly allowed.

    Can anyone tell I spent 9-5 yesterday at a mandatory Research Conduct and Ethics seminar for incoming PhD students? :P

    Seriously though – gain a little knowledge before you voice your ignorance.

  • http://www.aldenswan.com Alden

    However, the article in Nature News does say, “The method does not recreate the ‘classical’ OBE.” I’m not a big fan of OBEs as proof of anything, but we do have to be honest in evaluating whether or not these experiments actually duplicated OBEs, or something else.

  • Aj

    I can imagine the faithheads saying “Well it doesn’t disprove God’s existance”. It’s nice we finally agree on something, what about the other “reasons” you use as proof? Of course, faithheads *never* used arguments like this in the first place, we’re just using a strawman again…

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Oh dear, my agnostic friend asked me to answer you and I need to pack.

    Ah, the scientific rigor of the materialist fundamentalists. Kate, well, goody for you. My problem with volunteer subjects in this kind of research is that you don’t get a random sample necessary to represent a larger population that way. Since the article, Hemant and the rest of you want to extrapolate the results, against all reason and, perhaps against the assertions of the researchers, to people whose reported experiences don’t involve goggles and television, just for starters, I’d say that my reservation with the way the research subjects are self-selected is a lot more reasonable than the confirmation of materialist fundamentalism you hope to get out of it.

    “The experiments, described in the Science journal, offer a scientific explanation for a phenomenon experienced by one in 10 people.”

    Oh, really. One tenth of the human population.

    “There’s now a scientific explanation for out-of-body experiences”

    Not really, who knows what “out-of-body-experience” consists of and what the range of actual experiences that phrase is used to represent. If there were even ten distinct and different kinds of “OBE”, a safe bet considering the size of a tenth of the human population asserted in the article, then any one study couldn’t explain them.

    If you are in the social or behavioral sciences it wouldn’t surprise me if you disagree with my reservations. The so-called sciences are notorious for using inadequate selection and sampling and then making universal assertions based on them. They might pretend that isn’t a problem and get away with it but that doesn’t make their assertions about the general application of their “findings” any more reasonable or the “science” done with those any sounder. Ever wonder where all those old “scientific studies” in the social “sciences” go after falling into a state of desuetude? The IRB’s ethical guidelines don’t do anything to improve the ability to make general assumptions from a semi-self-selected subject population. The asserted ethical implications you rely on to answer my point don’t answer that concern one bit. If it’s a problem for the researchers, that’s really not anyone’s problem but their own. It doesn’t make their sample any more representative of the general population than it is. Isn’t the IRB an American institution, by the way, while this research was conducted in Britain? I’m not familiar with their ethical guidelines or if they have extra reservations for the “social sciences.”

    As to what the subjects of these kinds of things know or intuit about the intentions of the researchers, I’d like to know about that, wouldn’t you? Why not? Isn’t it kind of important? Contrary to Miko’s unsupported assertion, research in parapsychology is subjected to a vastly more stringent level of scrutiny and examination for these kinds of things than most conventional psychological research. Thanks in no small part to Ray Hyman, parapsychological research is routinely subjected to scrutiny more rigorous than much of psychology, Hyman’s own field. It’s common for parapsychological research to be accused of “information leakage” when there is not only no evidence for it but when the proposed mechanisms strain credulity. Citations for your assertions, Miko? And I mean real ones, not the assertions of professional debunkers with a personal or financial agenda or assorted CSI hacks. By the way, Miko, are you entirely happy with this kind of research used to explain the casually reported experience of a tenth of the human population? I wonder what the chances are that this one experiment does what the BBC and Hemant assert it does. Maybe you could calculate that figure. Or not, as the case may be.

  • miller

    I’m a little skeptical of this study. The BBC article does not explain any reason to think that these experiences of detachment from the body correspond to the OBE phenomena. I’d like to see, at the bare minimum, a comparison of brain scans.

    I think Hemant (and others) have overstated the results. As far as I can tell, the paper has only outlined a possible method to study OBEs. It has not yet conclusively shown that the method successfully recreates an OBE. By no measure has it provided a scientific explanation for OBEs. And as any Christian would tell you, the philosophical implications are overstated as well.

    In response to Olvlzl, despite our shared skepticism, I disagree on at least one point. I think parapsychology should in fact be subjected to more scrutiny than other psychology. Most claims in parapsychology contradict claims in physics, which are themselves supported, I think, by much greater evidence than anything in psychology.

  • Maria

    thanks for posting this. I have been wondering what’s been going on with the ongoing research to out of body experiences. I have always been interested in that field of study………

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    “I’d say that my reservation with the way the research subjects are self-selected…”

    I don’t see much relevance to this in this particular case. Human brains all work in basically the same way when it comes to pretty major sensory responses and distortions like this. Feeling like you are outside the location where your physical body is is a pretty significant experience, not something that is merely a survey of opinions that may or may not be statistically valid.

    “Not really, who knows what “out-of-body-experience” consists of and what the range of actual experiences that phrase is used to represent.”

    I dunno: there is a pretty decent literature on exactly what these experiences consist of: what it feels like, what the basic phenomena are. Studies like this show that it is not necessary to appeal to supernatural explanations in order to explain some of these phenomena. That doesn’t mean that OBEs as experienced by people under drugs or other methods happen the exact same way or via the exact same biological mechanism, but it does mean that we can show that the brain can simply be tricked into experiences similar to what is reported with OBEs as opposed to use needing to appeal to some sort of spirit leaving the body.

  • Miko

    “I’d say that my reservation with the way the research subjects are self-selected…”

    I don’t see much relevance to this in this particular case. Human brains all work in basically the same way when it comes to pretty major sensory responses and distortions like this.

    There could be. It depends on how the research was advertised. For example, if they had called for volunteers to study OBE, they’d probably end up with a New Age-y crowd of highly suggestible types that could skew the research. (The same phenomenon works for stage hypnotists: the kind of people who tend to volunteer are those that are most hypnotizable). However, for that very reason, studies like this tend to hide their exact goal, especially during the recruitment phase. If they just said something vague like “volunteers needed for a neurology study,” then there shouldn’t be any skewing of this type.

  • Miko

    I think parapsychology should in fact be subjected to more scrutiny than other psychology.

    I’ve always thought that it’s not worth formally studying at all right now: just take all the alleged psychics to Vegas and tell them to drop by your lab in a couple of weeks once they’ve won a few million dollars as proof of their extrasensory cognitive abilities.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    I’m about to leave for my now truncated vacation. I was wondering where this discussion would go and am glad to see it went better than I had feared.

    I have to disagree about subjecting phenomena to different standards of scientific rigor. Not that the standards in parapsychological research should be lowered but that the general level of research in the social sciences should be a lot higher. Some of what gets published in psychological journals and taught in universities as science isn’t only appalling, considering what political uses it’s put to, it’s dangerous. As seen here, the claims that get made for even legitimate studies about interesting tricks of perception can be blown out of any semblance of reason.

    Just philosophically, if the standards of everyday, real science aren’t sufficient to falsify the claims of parapsychology, they couldn’t be relied on for that purpose in any other science. Marcello Truzzi, a genuine skeptic, not a pseudoskeptic, was the author of that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” line so many people though Carl Sagan came up with. One of his friends said that he was planning on renouncing it and writing up his reasons for changing his mind before he died. Unfortunately he didn’t get the chance to do it so we don’t know what his reservations were. But it’s one of the foundations of science that you can’t require different standards for different subjects studied because that would also inject a level of subjectivity that would damage the credibility of the entire effort.

  • miller

    Not that the standards in parapsychological research should be lowered but that the general level of research in the social sciences should be a lot higher.

    I thought that maybe that’s what you had meant. I still disagree. Science must balance skepticism and practical applicability. Psychology probably needs to lower its standards if it is to find out anything. We simply have to keep in mind that all conclusions are provisional, and be extremely careful to use it in politics or any other risky places. But it must be able to make some conclusions, if only to enable further study.

  • Brian Macker

    “Through these goggles, the volunteers could see a camera view of their own back – a three-dimensional “virtual own body” that appeared to be standing in front of them”

    So they were basically watching closed circuit TV feed of themselves.

    “Dr Henrik Ehrsson, who led the UCL research, used a similar set-up in his tests and found volunteers had a physiological response – increased skin sweating – when they felt their virtual self was being threatened – appearing to be hit with a hammer. ”

    Wait a just a second here. If you were at store looking at one of those closed circuit security feeds of yourself when you noticed some crazy researcher coming up behind you with a hammer, wouldn’t you feel “threatened”? Wouldn’t you start sweating o’ so slightly if the experiment you volunteered for all of the sudden took a creepy turn like this?


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