You Didn’t Have An Out-Of-Body Experience

While I was gone last week, Nightline ran a segment about out-of-body experiences and Bob Woodruff interviewed atheist superwoman Margaret Downey for a perspective that doesn’t involve the supernatural. She sets him straight about why those visions occur, politely counters when he brings up his own memories of a “spiritual experience,” and generally comes off as a voice of reason. (Especially when juxtaposed with a woman who begins speaking in tongues…)

I think she comes off wonderfully. Of course, Woodruff screwed up a couple factual things.

Margaret isn’t an “atheist minister.” That sounds confusingly religious. She’s a Secular officiant, licensed to perform weddings and other non-religious ceremonies.

Her uncle didn’t “teach her atheism.” He taught Margaret to question what she heard… and when she applied that principle to religion, she became an atheist.

Who knows what other vital points Margaret made — the whole interview took five hours to film but was edited down to what you see in the clip.

Still, I’ll give Woodruff credit for interviewing her. Normally, you only hear the bullshit 90 Minutes in Heaven version of the story without the skeptical counterpoint.

(via Skeptic Money)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://twitter.com/TPRyan007 tpr007

    Awesome. More atheists in TV please!

  • http://twitter.com/TPRyan007 tpr007

    Awesome. More atheists in TV please!

  • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

    I’m glad they didn’t call it “miraculous” that the gunshot victim’s brain was functional after the incident. Remarkable? Absolutely. Miraculous? Hardly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joequincy Jon Peterson

    You know… the idea of out-of-body experiences always confuses me. I’ve died twice (drowned in a lake when I was 6 or 7 and was resuscitated about 5 mins later… and then ran into a tree while skiing a couple years back and had to have my heart restarted).

    Simultaneously terrifying and relieving about both those incidents is that there WAS no experience. In the first case, I was struggling to escape from the equipment holding me underwater, and then I was lying on my back on the beach with some dude’s face right there. In the second case, I remember starting the run, and then I woke up (massive concussion, so things were in greyscale and kinda dim… like 7pm-ish lighting, but at noon).

    The time I was dead, there was nothing. So I always wonder (I’m actually rather convinced of this theory) if these out-of-body experiences are merely dreams invented by the brains of terrified believers. It wouldn’t be the first time the body’s been shown to drug you up with good feelings in order to prevent the negative effects of natural reactions. *COUGH* endorphins*COUGH*

    • Pseudonym

       I can’t remember the details, but I believe that there are known factors which influence what kind of an experience you have if any. For example, the “out of body” thing almost always happens in a hospital to people who have been administered with anaesthetic.

      • http://twitter.com/enuma enuma

         I wish I had the link handy, but I remember reading a study that found that people who have sleep paralysis and REM intrusion (ie: people whose brains are not very good at regulating between sleep and wakefulness) are much more likely to have out of body experiences than people who do not have such sleep problems. 

    • T-Rex

      If you’re still alive, you NEVER died. Maybe you were near death, but you never actually died.  When you’re dead, you’re dead.

      • http://www.facebook.com/maik.both Maik Both

        Perhaps Jon was referring to the state known as being ‘clinically dead’, i.e. no heartbeat or breathing?

    • Valhar2000

      Yes, that is pretty much what they are. In many cases they contain elements that are strikingly similar to what people involved in experiments that rapidly deprive their brains of blood flow report seeing before they pass out, which is why many neurologists believe that out-of-body experiences are caused in part by lack of oxygen to the brain.

      Perhaps you injuries were such that your brain was deprived of oxygen too quickly, and you passed out before you had time to see anything?

    • Valhar2000

      Yes, that is pretty much what they are. In many cases they contain elements that are strikingly similar to what people involved in experiments that rapidly deprive their brains of blood flow report seeing before they pass out, which is why many neurologists believe that out-of-body experiences are caused in part by lack of oxygen to the brain.

      Perhaps you injuries were such that your brain was deprived of oxygen too quickly, and you passed out before you had time to see anything?

    • Thilinab

      This is nowhere near my area of expertise but from my understanding, out of body experiences were more common in scenarios where the brain was able to still operate unimpeded (the lack of oxygen in drowning tends to shut parts of the brain down).

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson

    I think we really have to hand it to ABC. Most of the recent segments that I’ve seen on the intertubes via network TV have been done by ABC. I don’t think it’s coincidence.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

    I’ve had out-of-body experiences — no death involved. Just me. Looking at my body. And then going, “huh, interesting.”

    • Sven

      I’ve had OOBE through meditation. I cant’ remember how real it felt, it was certainly interesting.

  • Marguerite

    Did anyone see the “Curiosity” episode on Discovery entitled “Did God Create the Universe?”  It was based on the work of Stephen Hawking, and reached a very atheist conclusion.  I enjoyed it.

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, I saw that… it was great to have someone say authoritatively on  TV that there is no god. Too bad they considered this so controversial that they had to have a panel discussion afterwards to water it down and give equal time to the opposition.

      Regarding the above clip, I didn’t like the conclusion that an atheist is “not comfortable” with the concept god. Speaking only for myself, I’m perfectly comfortable with thinking about the concept and concluding that it is incoherent, whereas a religionist would react emotionally to it, so of course our brains would respond differently.

      Also, I seem to remember an experiment where someone produced OOBE’s at will in the lab by giving the subject a set of spectacles which were hooked up to a camera behind the subject’s head… Anyone heard of this?

      • sivart

        Yes, I’ve seen a show, probably on the Science Channel, where they performed that experiment. They gave the participant goggles linked to  a camera positioned directly behind him, just a few feet back. He clearly described having the feeling that he was observing himself from outside of his own body; he felt he was sitting a few feet back from his actual self. Then, when they removed the goggles, he felt as if his mind rushed forward back into his body. I thought it was pretty mind-blowing that our perception could be tricked like that.
        There was another experiment, I think in the same show, where a psychologist had constructed what he called “the god helmet” that used focused electromagnetic energy on a particular part of the brain to induce in test subjects the feeling of a presence in an empty, dark room.

        • Valhar2000

          If you read V.S. Ramachandran¡s books you’ll hear about a lot of experiments like that, some of which you can do yourself at home with a friend. Unfortunately, not everyone is susceptible to these effects, i.e., an experiment that works on me may not work on your, and vice versa.

  • Anonymous

    You can also have out of body experiences with hallucinogenic drugs, which are also simply changes in brain chemistry.

  • bigjohn756

    I speak in tongues whenever I stub my toe or crack my head on the door jamb getting into my truck.

    BTW, Margaret Downey is beautiful and charming. Just right for me.

  • cipher

    I’ll probably be sorry I brought this up.

    People on both sides have been going back and forth over these stories for years. The materialist will bring up chemicals produced by the brain; the NDE advocate will explain why it may produce some symptoms, but not others. It just goes on and on.

    There is one aspect, however, that has never been explained to my satisfaction. Supposedly, people who’ve left their bodies have observed surgical procedures or attempts to resuscitate them, and described them in detail incommensurate with auditory input alone.

    It’s hard to judge, because these stories are so often secondhand, and who knows how much they’ve been embellished in the meantime? Still, I think it bears looking into, insofar as it’s possible to do so.

    • Venture Free

      NDE’s are understandably hard to study…at least if one is to do so in an ethical manner. However, that does not mean that it’s impossible. A believer in NDE’s Dr. Penny Sartori attempted to corroborate the “they knew details that couldn’t possibly have been known” aspect back in 2001 using playing cards placed where they could not be seen from the operating table.

      From the description of the “Near Death Experiences” episode of Skeptoid at skeptoid.com (one of my favorite podcasts): “Dr. Penny Sartori placed playing cards in obvious places on top of operating room cabinets at a hospital in Wales in 2001, while she was working as a nurse, as part of a supervised experiment. Although she’s a believer in the afterlife, and documented fifteen cases of reported out-of-body experiences by patients during her research, not one person ever reported seeing the playing cards or even knowing they were there.

      In my (admittedly limited) research I’ve never found a study with good controls in place that ever found anything significant. The only studies that seem to get results are ones that are poorly controlled, or rely mostly on memory and hearsay, which are notoriously unreliable.

      EDIT: fixed some odd line breaks from copying and pasting from skeptoid

      • cipher

        or rely mostly on memory and hearsay, which are notoriously
        unreliable

        That’s the problem.

        Re: Dr. Sartori – were they NDE’s – i.e., were the people declared dead, then revived – or did they merely report “out of body” experiences?

        • Venture Free

          I honestly wasn’t able to find the original study (to be fair, though, I’m a lazy b*****d  and I didn’t really look too hard), but I was able to find the following description of another study by Sartori:

          http://www.iands.org/research/important-research-articles/80-penny-sartori-phd-prospective-study.html?showall=1

          This one spans several years, and includes both OBE’s and NDE’s. It appears to use similar methods, though for this study she apparently used “brightly coloured symbols” rather than playing cards. From that description it doesn’t appear that anyone saw those symbols either.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      Supposedly, people who’ve left their bodies have observed surgical
      procedures or attempts to resuscitate them, and described them in detail
      incommensurate with auditory input alone.

      In these cases, the person’s body was actually in the room at the time, and thus so were their eyes and ears. Supposedly they were unconscious, but maybe they weren’t as unconscious as was thought. That doesn’t require a miraculous explanation.

      In these cases, the person reports their alleged perceptions later. This detracts from the ability to perform controlled experiments.

      We know how senses work. People see with their eyes. To propose that people can see in other ways, with some supernatural component, would require sufficient quality and quantity of evidence to overturn all we know about how we sense things.

      • cipher

        I know, but their eyes are closed, and they’ve offered descriptions that auditory input alone couldn’t explain – supposedly.

        • Reginald Selkirk

          Once again, these are under uncontrolled conditions.

          ESP proponents have claimed frequently that they can “see” with their eyes closed; that they can see at a distance or that they can see with their fingertips, etc. Somehow under carefully controlled conditions which preclude cheating, they fail to perform.

          Natasha Demkina: The Girl with Normal Eyes

          Since OOBE/NDEs occur in an emergency room, the reporting doesn’t happen until later, and medical personnel are more concerned with the immediacy of saving a life than ensuring that someone didn’t peek around their bandage.

  • cipher

    I like that they showed an atheist who’d had a positive NDE. That always freaks Christians out: “You’ve been deceived!”, etc. Of course, if the atheist has a negative NDE, and converts as a result (which I understand has happened) – then it’s real.

    But speaking in tongues – I mean, really. They couldn’t get anyone else for the religious side?

  • http://happycat.pip.verisignlabs.com/ Chris aka Happy Cat

    We never hear about the inaccurate descriptions given by people “observing” the goings-on during their supposed out of body experience.  I wonder how many accounts are planted in their heads after the fact, like bogus repressed memories.

      Tangentially related… I’m sick of hearing about the most recent “miracle”: a boy who was supposedly lost at sea until his family and friends prayed on the beach.  The boy was found after being in the water (reports state “under water”) for twenty minutes.  Not only was he resuscitated, but apparently he suffered little or no brain damage. NBC has been beating this drum for two days on local and national news and morning shows.  It’s a miracle people! No other explanation possible! There was no mention of water temperature — a critical component. I wonder how the people responsible for saving his life feel about the Xtian god getting the credit.
       Even scarier, the parents said they didn’t care if he was not the same ONLY THAT HE WAS ALIVE.  I didn’t hear them say it, but the way it’s reported they were willing to accept him being a vegetable if god would save him. Really?  I thought Heaven was such a great place.  Why want a kid to be kept alive as a “vegetable” with the alternative?  Sickening.

    • Lindsay Smith

      “I thought Heaven was such a great place.”

      Reminds me of  The Simpsons episode with the hurricane, when Maude Flanders says “Oh Neddy, it was terrifying. I thought I was headed for the
      eternal bliss of paradise!”

  • Paul D.

    I remember a story about neurosurgeons who found the exact spot in the brain that can be directly stimulated to cause an out-of-body experience in which the patient perceives being outside his or her body and seeing the room from above.

  • Eskomo

    I remember a story a few years ago where a hospital member had an electronic sign placed in a high locations in operating rooms in one hospital. It was not visible from a standing location and it changed each hour. No one that had an NDE there could say what word was being displayed.

  • Charles Black

     If I remember correctly some OBEs are caused by sleep paralysis, which might help explain belief in demons, ghosts & angels.
    Joseph Smith most likely suffered from sleep paralysis, which you might have guessed helped to kickstart the Mormon religion.

  • Anonymous

    If the part with the brain scans taught me anything it’s that atheists actually think about god and religious people do not.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The video confuses the concepts of Near Death Experiences (NDE) with Out Of Body Experiences (OBE or OOBE).

    An OOBE is when you perceive that you have left your body, and you may view your body or the room from above.

    A NDE may include an OOBE, but also other phenomena, such as seeing the light, the tunnel, religious figures and dead relatives.

    OOBEs may occur when someone is nowhere near death. Here is an account of the best OOBE experiment ever performed:
    Brain probe triggers out-of-body experiences. This is from 2002. Doctors were probing a woman’s brain with an electrode in advance of surgery to treat her epilepsy. The woman was fully conscious at the time. When they stimulated her right angular gyrus, she reported seeing her legs as if from above. However, at no time could she actually see anything (sign, cards) held so that it was visible from above but not from the position of her eyes.

    This is vastly superior in experimental quality to most cases in which a person was undergoing emergency medical treatment and only reports later what they claim to have experienced.

    We know how vision works. Light bounces off objects, enters the eye through the cornea and is focused by the lens onto the retina, where it is picked up by photoreceptors, whereupon signals are sent to the visual cortex through neurons. So, if a person had a supernatural component (i.e. a soul) which left the body, it would leave the eyes behind, and thus leave the sense of vision behind. Vision is natural, not supernatural. This is quite well tested. The claims by ESP and paranormal proponents to be able to see remotely have spectacularly failed under properly controlled conditions.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I like that they included the speaking in tongues footage. It made the Christian look batshit insane.

  • http://twitter.com/enuma enuma

    Perhaps the one good thing to come out of my chronic migraines is that I’ve learned just how much my brain lies to me.  I’ve had OBEs during migraine prodrome and aura phases .  I’ve also smelled burning grease in odd places, heard a baby crying while completely alone, and seen “heat waves” in temperature controlled indoor locations.  I guess I can’t cherry-pick my experiences as well as theists.  If my OBEs were proof that I have a soul, then my olfactory hallucinations are proof that are many invisible, intangible deep fryers–that are all on the verge of catching fire–hidden throughout my workplace, my doctor’s office, my school, my car, and my home.

  • http://twitter.com/RobinMarie1789 Robin Marie

    I’ve had sleep paralysis several times, and it is fucking horrifying. I struggle to see how that experience could be connected to NDEs or out-of-body experiences, especially positive ones, but it definitely goes a long way to explain alien abduction and the such.

    As for NDEs, I quite like the idea that the last thing I’ll experience before I die is overwhelming peace and a connection with loved one or ones. Ironic that perhaps the one moment in my life where I will have no fear of death will come right before the light is snuffed out. However as someone else pointed out here, these don’t happen every time someone dies, and it seems to me, judging from near death experience stories, that sudden trauma or unexpected injury is what most commonly results in NDEs. I always thought I wanted to die as an old, old lady in my bed, but now I think I want to die as an old, old lady after getting run over by a bus, or something.


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