Friday, March 6

Reflections on ''out of body type experiences".

When I was last in hospital I spoke to a young man opposite me who was recovering from a near fatal car crash. He had fallen asleep while driving and his foot apparently had jammed full on the accelerator pedal as his  car left the road and ploughed into a tree. Miraculously surviving the horrendous ordeal he was pronounced clinically dead during surgery before being brought back to life. Subsequently he became the subject of intense interest from medical staff at the large public hospital as he recounted in intricate detail the procedures he recalled during the period he was pronounced  clinically dead, arising as a consequence of his out of body near death experience. He told me he no longer held any fears of dying.
But out of body experiences need not relate to such traumatic near death events, but are often associated with the use of hallucinogenic drugs or from hypnosis, or from emotional traumas or deep seated meditative practices. Many of these experiences no doubt are due to the confusion on the part of the experiencer, but others, such as was the case of the young man opposite me in hospital are underpinned by reported verifiable events.
This phenomenon has become more prevalent in modernity, no doubt triggered by every day medical resuscitative applications; which I have I have even noticed in my limited circle. Some time ago a good friend, who has since passed away, told me of his vivid out of body experience and another recently recounted the near death experience of his father following revival after a heart attack. Others recall childhood memories not mentioned previously for fear of ridicule.  I recall vividly when I visited Kiribati, (once known as the Gilbert Islands) hearing the story of a volunteer who had experienced an out of body event involving their local culture. Coincidentally, a century earlier, Robert Louis Stevenson, had set out in his south sea voyages for that same destination seeking emotional and physical healing whereupon he was to discover and documented their rich culture. Hence my interest has prompted me to write a discussion paper about this mysterious phenomena.  
This paper defines out of body experiences as rational memories of seeing a recognisable self from a conscious awareness from outside of that place. The vision usually is of normal surrounds and or people to the extent the experiencer is an onlooker from a floating type dimension looking down.
The aim of this paper is to discuss a credible possible explanation.
Early beginnings and development    
The intricate entanglement of the material body with the integrated circuitry of the central nervous system to support the complexity of a massive cell structure, has only enabled humans to discern oneself as separate to self, very late in the evolutionary cycle, possibly only within the last 100,000 years.   
The first early experiences may have simply arisen from gazing into the flickering embers of campfires to become absorbed into a deep imaginative or meditative trance like state. The likely effect of such a feeling, then, may conceivably be not much different to that in modernity which many attribute to various states of enhanced serenity or even wellbeing.  
Tribal existence then was highly reliant on staying in tune with the environment, as survival meant adapting to the changing seasons and migratory patterns. This in turn necessitated critical reliance on our sensory preceptors so that stories and visions became etched into the culture and customs of disparate groups. Seeking shelter or refuge deep within caves, evidenced by the silhouettes and drawings etched onto on the rock walls, they became the first of the sacred cathedrals of humanity. No doubt, as that ventured into the deeper regions with increased curiosity that experience gave rise to vivid  images and feelings, just as they will today, if one spends any prolonged time deep within the earth in complete darkness.  At the same time the hypnotic type dances, under the ever changing starry cosmos, precipitated trance like states, possibly fuelled from prior highly charged anticipatory emotional build-ups.   

When I was staying in the Republic of Kiribati, it was interesting to discover how their culture and oral history was celebrated in the many elaborate dances combined with harmonised singing. Their training and rehearsal extends over several months, as young men are expected to refrain from any intimacy to gain strength before each important celebration. I learnt from a local volunteer from Canada, when we visited the corral atoll of Abyiang she had decided to learn their language and dance that they were arduous and extremely difficult to remember.
She recounted a story to me of a young man who had kindly dedicated himself to train her for a dance but died several months before the intended celebration. During the dance she lost her way but as her mind went blank, so she experienced what she thought was an out of body experience. The way this happened was at this point the image of the man came to her who assumed authority for the dance.  Afterwards many complemented her on her performance.
Such an idea to traverse time and space is evident in the practice of the Great Plains Indian tribes in North America in their quest to make contact with a guardian spirit, through fasting, isolation and meditation, which involves ‘Out of Body type experiences’. This quest was also associated with the rite of passage at puberty, to avail oneself of the ancestral knowledge from spiritual out of body encounters to connect with the distant far off spiritual places to gain wisdom and understanding. In Australia the aboriginal culture believed all life evolved from the dreamtime period of creation with its myths which provided the stepping stones in the connectivity to the environment and to all living things; to provide meaning to their life, death and constant rebirth.
Mystical religious ‘’out of body’’ experiences or visions. 
Subsequently over time the term out-of-body experience was also applied to ever widening aspects of visionary and mystical type experiences. There are many examples within the mystery traditions which often return to the familiar theme of losing one’s fear of death, and more particularly to provide comfort in times of severe trauma or persecution on the promise of an afterlife. The experiences would also conceivably have underwritten a spirit of embolderment or authority or meaning to give confidence of spiritual continuance in the afterlife.  
Certainly in religious terms, probably the most notable was that of the apostle St Paul on the road to Damascus, where he describes a vision of the future kingdom which some attribute to an out of body type experience, although its true meaning remains somewhat obscure and is hotly debated by scholars today.  Although these accounts don’t directly reference seeing the body separate to self there are many references to such a term, to give credence to the idea St Paul was familiar with the idea.  
In the Asian region the degree of complexity was astonishing, as according to Julian Ching (Christianity and Chinese religions) in their evolving Taoist tradition there existed a mammoth divination manual comprising of 1,000 volumes. The essence of such practices was inherent in the idea of transcending the communications between self and the inner self with direct out of body union with the TAO –the way.
In modernity many of the practices of the ancients have tended to be regarded as mere magic or superstition, but in more recent times we are beginning to understand such ideas from a more enlightened viewpoint. In fact the idea of magic or mystery is entwined onto most people’s adaptive style of thinking more than we realize, regardless of the degree of sophistication or the way of life we choose in relation to our beliefs or non-beliefs as the case may be. Understanding others and their motivations, gives credence to how our beliefs and purpose in life are shaped and formed over time. Interestingly enough there are many physicists and neuroscientists who posit a non-mystical technical basis for support in relation to put of body experiences.  One such advocate has been Fritjof Capra’s TAO OF PHYSICS whose motivation for writing his book was Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science, but man needs both.
The evolving interest of science and neuroscience
The human brain is the most complex creation known in the entire universe, yet it weighs in at only a bit over three pounds but is made up of over 100 billion cells. Along its six and one half miles of integrated circuitry the interneuron chemical reactions enable one to switch nerve impulses on or off - mostly from the perspective of an auto pilot since we are not aware of their functions until alerted that something is wrong. Although our knowledge of the human brain is incomplete we do understand how circuitry links the older limbic areas to the more recently evolved executive functioning frontal lobe regions which gives rise to the various ephemeral states of consciousness. This later evolution enables us to make many complex or abstract decisions or ideas- a tiny slither of the up to a billion or so decisions made for us each day of which we are unaware.  But exactly how all of this occurs in a physical sense at the micro level along the neural highways remains somewhat of a mystery. 
A credible possible explanation for out of body type experiences could conceivably entail a concept of a dualistic mind functioning process as opposed to the idea it (the mind) must only be the property of the material brain. At this point it is worth acknowledging the idea of the purely material mind gained credence over the past few hundred years as consequence of the Newtonian mechanised clocklike view of reality. Given the fact large scale physics had been demonstrated to work very well it was not surprising this view gained traction in materialistic philosophical concepts to become the basis for determinism. This was predicated on the basis of the predictability for all events given a knowledge of the underlying initial conditions. But the reality is our knowledge of the human brain in its present state is incomplete in relation to the neural signalling which makes up our consciousness.   
In the latter period beginning with the 20th century, in relation to outcomes of small particle physics known as quantum mechanics it was established such outcomes are indeed unquantifiable, which was first made famous under Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, to create the requirement for an ultimate "observer".  
Physicist Paul Davies, who is author of the Other Worlds and The Edge of Infinity, maintains that the discoveries of 20th-century physics — relativity and the quantum theory — are now pointing towards a more mystical way to view reality  and opens up the possibility of a new appreciation of our place in the universe.
Hence for an out of body experiences to be believable only requires one to accept the possibility of a dualistic view of the mind or spirit. One part (call it a soul if you want to) represents the form of a non-destructible conscious awareness, which could continue on in some disembodied form after death. In a nutshell the idea already exists for a nonlocal depository of brain particle – wave collapsed symmetry within mind consciousness, so that the continuation of that which is already present in some disembodied form may not be such a big deal after all.
Eminent physicist Roger Penrose in collaboration with neuroscientist Stuart  Hereof explains that under quantum theory the brains processing output may conceivably entail non-localised wave and particle entwinement in the same manner as everything is linked in the wider universe. Hence the mystery where traditional large scale physics give rise to certainty to conquer the tyrannies of space and time as in space travel, don’t apply at the sub atomic level.
Penrose proposes the mind processing possibilities at this sub atomic level (which ultimately comprises of you and me) into definite values emerges as a reality from the collapse of the wave function into our conscious experience. Hence the conscious experience, which in turn influences our behaviour, is a combination of space time continuum, comprising both non-localised particles and their collapsed wave functions within the mind. If Penrose is correct then there already exists a “non- locally” brain existence, so that we are linked in one way or another mysteriously to matter within the wider cosmos. That link conceivably might live on in some embodied form after death. Certainly, any form of out of body experience, triggered by stimuli may be just a precursor or glimpse of that ultimate reality.  
Those opposed to such views say that the brain may be able to will itself into producing sensations which are akin to a perceived reality of another body moving outside the boundaries of one’s physical body. Hence the sceptical view is that out of body experiences can be triggered by stimuli of one kind or another in the area of the brain responsible for imagining body movements, to flash an image of yourself as if you have that view from another point in space located outside of the physical body. But they cannot offer any explanation to the detailed accounts of items, procedures and conversations remembered and confirmed by medical staff as correct during periods when patients were declared clinically dead.
I think it is fitting to end this paper with a quote from Albert Einstein who said “Nature shows us the tail of the lion. But I do not doubt that the lion belongs to it, even though he cannot at once reveal himself because if his enormous size “. 
So it seems that conceivably such experiences may be just a precursor or glimpse of that ultimate gigantic reality, so that hopefully this discussion paper does provide some food for thought on this enduring mystery. For there can be no doubt there are persuasive reasons to support the idea life itself and near death experiences are inextricably linked to the infinite cosmos. It is also true that mystery plays a much more pivotal role in our culture than is generally realised in our attempt to understand reality, so that our beliefs and purpose in adapting to our existence are largely shaped and formed by others, inclusive of out of body type experiences. Finally I think one can say with some confidence there are no grounds to be dismissive of these accounts or to hold firm to the idea that the mind must be solely a property of the material brain.  


Tom said...

I recall some while ago now, watching an 'Horizon' programme on BBCTV which is pertinent here. I cannot remember the details, nor can I reference the programme, being made for British TV.

An experiment was conducted in which some people were fitted with a lens/prism attachment to their eyes that had the effect of turning the environment upside down. After a period of time (about 4 days I think) the 'guinea pigs' discovered that were then seeing the world the right way up. Similarly, when the devices were removed, the world was the wrong way up for a period, then reverted to normal.

Far from being a state in which the mind is an emergent property of the brain, this experiment showed that mind was an independent state. At the very least one could conclude that mind had a degree of autonomy.

On the question of 'out of body experiences' I suppose such states will not be fully accepted so long as one believes in total subservience of the mind to the brain. That this attitude seems to fly in the face of experience seems to matter not one jot. One period in life where 'out of body' or 'near death' experiences are relatively common, is at our physical births. Of course such periods cannot be remembered, but can be accessed through meditation.

susan said...

Thanks so much for your wonderful post, Lindsay. Materialism had its role in the evolution of Mind. It would have been very confusing to go from pre-rational religion to transrational awareness all in one step. Science needed a chance to be established to dispel many myths of the pre-rational world. But it's time is past. Many people are waking up to the fact that science has no answers for the most fundamental aspect of life, consciousness. And they will go looking for answers. We must be there to light the way.

All the best

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Thanks Tom & Susan for your thoughtful comments. I think the risk is that we could, in the 21st century, become overly dependent (if we are not already) upon technology to rob us of our individuality.
There continues to be the misconception that brain imaging might even be developed to read off what a person is thinking; a concept which fails to acknowledge the intricate biology and evolution of mind consciousness which makes a mockery of such ideas. As you say Tom, the interesting experiment you mention does prove what we’ve always thought that the mind is far more than just the properties of the material brain. But I do think now is the time to ensure future systems have safeguards to preserve our individuality and avoid slavishly adopting the ruinous route of unfettered materialism.
Best wishes

Rachael said...

Thanks for sharing this! I agree that it's probably a "glimpse of that ultimate gigantic reality"... perhaps when we embrace the possibility of our own extra sensory abilities we will discover more about their existence. Like with science that starts out as a hunch and then later gets "proven."