Sometimes, I think I’d have liked to have been a scientist. At others, I realise I already am. After all, a scientist, by its simplest definition, is one who enquires and gathers knowledge about the natural and physical world. Then again, perhaps I should have been a philosopher for I spend a great deal of time thinking about things to do with our existence, reason and mind. Perhaps, at heart, we are all both.
Why this sudden foray into the scientific and the philosophical? Well, I have just been reading a report on ‘out of body experiences’, a subject I am more than mildly interested in, since I am not without personal experience of such phenomenon. The report, written in 2011 and published in the Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/feb/17/people-virtual-reality-avatars raises even more possibilities than its earlier counterpart, written in 2007, by English and Swiss Scientists, which lies in the archives of the BBC website. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6960612.stm
Both reports carry research results from Olaf Blanke, a neurologist with the Brain Mind Institute at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland.
The 2007 report reads:
“Experts have found a way to trigger an out-of-body experience in volunteers.
The experiments, described in the Science journal, offer a scientific explanation for a phenomenon experienced by one in 10 people.”
N.B. I am not in the business of proving anything really but just because one can create an experience artificially, does not mean that it does not occur for real, through entirely different means – does it? “There is more than one way to skin a cat!” as the saying goes (apologies to cats everywhere)
The report continues:
“In the Swiss experiments, the researchers asked volunteers to stand in front of a camera while wearing video-display goggles. 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.
When the researchers stroked the back of the volunteer with a pen, the volunteer could see their virtual back being stroked either simultaneously or with a time lag. The volunteers reported that the sensation seemed to be caused by the pen on their virtual back, rather than their real back, making them feel as if the virtual body was their own rather than a hologram.”
Interesting enough but I was pleased to read that:
“Their work suggests a disconnection between the brain circuits that process visual and touch sensory information may thus be responsible for some OBEs.”
I emphasise the word, some. This report does not claim, all.
In contrast, the 2011 report printed in The Guardian claims:
“Researchers use virtual-reality avatars to create ‘out-of-body’ experience
The research is aimed at understanding how the brain integrates information coming from the senses in order to determine the position of the body in space. But the results could also be used in next generation computer games or for people who want to transport themselves, digitally, to other locations.”
(Clearly, the film ‘Avatar ’ was not all fantasy according to this report.)
“Olaf Blanke said the work on inducing these experiences artificially, proved that they were nothing more than a brain malfunction.
“Instead of it being a spiritual thing, it is the brain being confused,” he said. “Why do we think that it is spiritual when we don’t think a phantom limb when one is lost is an example of the paranormal?”
Now that is a disappointing conclusion. Simply because the effect can be crudely reproduced, the second report claims that all instances can be put down to brain malfunction. I have to raise the possibility that this is not the case.
For one thing, the people volunteering for this experiment, already held certain expectations of the world, the way it looks and feels. They had experienced far more than a small child for instance.
How would Olaf attribute an OBE experienced by a child of under two I wonder?
Would that child, suffering a temporary brain malfunction, be capable of imagining himself somewhere alien to anything he had previously seen or experienced? One hears of ‘near death experiences’ where people find themselves on the ceiling looking down at their bodies on the operating table. Those people are able to visualise such a scene because they know, or can imagine, what it would be like to look down on someone or something. They have an awareness of the world and all its possibilities that a very young child has yet to achieve.
I have a young child in mind when I write this. Myself, aged somewhere between one and two years.
I am in the corner of the bedroom, somewhere up by the ceiling, looking down at my baby self. My baby self has somehow got her head stuck between the bars of the cot. Of course, once my worried mother appears in response to my cries, I am at once returned to my body and feel myself being rescued.
A memory or a dream? I don’t know. I once asked my mother if she recalled the incident. At the time, she did. She remembers me getting my head stuck but whether I later embellished the memory or actually had an out-of-body experience – who knows? I was only small – not even two years old.
I remember no more such out-of-body experiences until a few years ago when I had gone to lie down on the bed with a migraine headache. (Yes, a brain malfunction at this point is easy to imagine) I made room for myself between the boxes of books that we had just packed in readiness for re-decorating the entire room. The room was messy, to the point where there was hardly any floor space on one side of the bed save for a path to the window.
I had lain there for some time when I suddenly became aware that I had got up, walked to the window and looked out. It had grown dark while I slept and the room was now filled with moonlight. I turned back to survey the room and was surprised to see myself lying on the bed, apparently still asleep. I was stunned but filled with curiosity, not fear. I studied the ‘me’ on the bed in detail. From this angle I could see my back and a thread hanging from my cardigan where it must have caught on something. I remember thinking, ‘that’s a shame’. Next, I noticed all the boxes and the books that seemed to have overtaken the room. Everything seemed to be just as I had left it when I first laid down.
After a short time, I walked towards the bed, curious to know if I could wake myself. I leant forward and touched my sleeping body.
Of course, as soon as I did that, I was back in that body. I sat up on the bed and looked around me. The full moon lit the floor. The boxes of books were still there. I stared at the window and got up to check. Looking back to the bed I saw it exactly as I had seen it moments before except that I was no longer recumbent upon it.
I took off my cardigan to inspect the back of it. There was the hanging thread…
Ok, it proves nothing does it? I know that. I could have seen that thread in the mirror earlier. I could have felt it being pulled then forgotten. Yet, the experience left such a profound impression on me that, even now, I can recall seeing myself lying prone on the covers and remember the utter astonishment at the predicament I found myself in.
I am glad I had the experience, brain malfunction or not. I am glad that the first reports do not claim to have solved the phenomena but merely claim to be able to recreate it artificially. I am glad about that because, the baby me, thrown up to the ceiling to escape the terror of being trapped, did not understand about disconnection between brain circuits, though the older and wiser me accepts that this could have been the cause.
The grown-up me, could possibly have recreated the scene in minute detail and thrown in an image of herself on the bed. I could have known about the pulled thread but forgotten. However, could the baby me have recreated such a scene? I am not so sure.
Presumably, I had not been on the ceiling before and therefore could not even pre-suppose what it would be like to look down on myself from that height. Could I? Would it not make more sense for the baby me to find herself somewhere within my experience – the corner of the cot maybe or on the floor?
This can be my downfall at times. On the one hand I am open to there being an explanation for everything, yet on the other, I believe that some things cannot be explained from our earthly perspective. At times, I am in danger of babbling incoherently. Perhaps, in retrospect, a scientist I would not make!
Maybe the reports are right and all those near death experiences that ordinary people have, really are just a result of the brain playing tricks. Maybe. Personally, I shall keep an open mind.