Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Ask IAC: (1) Isn't the OBE caused by the brain? (Part 1) Question from a New Jersey high-school student

Thank you for your pertinent question! The quick answer is a resolute no. What follows is a three-part long answer, which may be more than you bargained for, but that I hope you and our other readers will find stimulating. In part 1, we will argue that this purported evidence for the OBE being caused by the brain is unfounded. In part 2, we will examine the evidence for consciousness not being produced by the brain.
In part 3, we will examine the very idea of "proving" and end up musing about the very opposite possibility: that the brain, in fact, all of reality - physical and beyond - may be produced by consciousness, at the very least, an inseparable facet of consciousness.

Part 1 - The "evidence" is wanting

From time to time, scientists perform interesting experiments or come across phenomena that appear to be related to the out-of-body experience.  Card-carrying skeptics rush to the scene and the sensationalist media conclude, in quite an illogical and biased way, that there is proof that the out-of-body experience is caused by the brain.  Apart from tautologies and confounding correlations for causation, there is yet a single piece of evidence that the brain causes anything at all. It remains the unquestionable assumption for most, because what else could it be? It is understandable, as there is no other explanation available with the limited perspective of physical technology and senses.  The "cartesian prison" many find themselves in will lead very intelligent people to circular statements like "people who experience near-death experience cannot have a completely non-functioning brain, they are not clinically dead, otherwise how could they perceive anything at all?" The genius Richard Feynman once described a lucid out-of-body experience he had in a floatation tank as the most vivid hallucination ever - because there is no way it could have been real, right?

What is some of this purported "evidence" that the OBE is illusory?  Perhaps the most famous report is by Swiss neuroscientist Olaf Blanke who accidentally triggered OBE-like experiences in an epileptic patient when electromagnetically stimulating her right angular gyrus. In a posterior article, Blanke interpreted neurophysiological differences in projectors as “abnormalities” but they just as well could have been evolutionary outliers.  In a BBC interview, Dr Blanke states that certain people "suffer" from OBE's.  The only suffering is caused by not having access to information about the OBE and not being able to talk openly about it because for fear of being stigmatized by the materialistic worldview prevalent in most (but not all) cultures. 

Even if those particular subjects had pathological deformities, it does not mean that all projectors do. Dr. Blanke concedes that perfectly healthy individuals do experience OBE's.  Let us recall that people can train to project intentionally without drugs, brain lesions, anoxia (lack of oxygen in the brain) or any sort of trauma. Also, just because the patient felt sensations akin to those in some OBE's, she was not necessarily having an OBE. For instance, when certain areas of the brain are stimulated, a person may perceive smells or tastes - which does not suggest that all smell and taste and the things we smell and taste do not exist.

In a 2002 BBC World Service radio debate with IAC president Wagner Alegretti, Dr. Blanke also conceded that his laboratorial observations do not falsify the OBE as an objective phenomenon. In other words, Dr. Blanke actually demonstrated a higher degree of neutrality than many. He is simply reporting the facts. The hasty interpretation is done and distributed by others.  Journalism, which is supposed to question things, failed miserably in this task, with some exceptions, such as Slate Magazine.

Wagner Alegretti discusses the theory of the psychosoma ("astral body")
as an objective body and his exchange with Olaf Blanke on the BBC World Service
You can read about two other studies that received international attention, but that fall well short of proving the OBE is an oneiric phenomenon in a previous post: Out of Body Experience - Commentary on Science Friday Feature.

Consciousness-centric paradigms point out that even though extraordinary experiences can be triggered by electromagnetic pulses, stress (i.e. drowning victim), physical trauma (i.e. head injury), and chemicals, they are also produced spontaneously or by will.  Detected neural activity that is characteristic of such altered states is not necessarily the cause: it is just as logically plausible that it is a concomitant effect. In other words, just because the OBE may be triggered by a physical stimulus, it does not make it illusory. To say otherwise would be a logical fallacy that any exempt person - even without a basic course in philosophy, statistics or psychology will recognize. Ad hominem attacks, scoffing dismissal, and such faulty or manipulative logic (sophism) are typical of so-called 'skeptics' who hold on to their materialist beliefs or metaphysical biases. It sounds sophisticated to shoot down other people's work from an armchair. Very few of these scoffer-skeptics are also lucid projectors, for instance. Most of the time, it is not unlike someone who's never even gone snorkeling to ridicule some discovery from the depths of the ocean by Jacques Cousteau.

Nelson Abreu is an educator at International Academy of Consciousness based in Los Angeles. He is a contributing author of Filters and Reflections: Perspectives on Reality (ICRL Press, 2009).  His research has encompassed consciousness and biological evolution, consciousness and physics/engineering, out-of-body experience, subtle energy and psychometry.

Part 2
Part 3


  1. Excellent article, Nelson. Thank you! I'm looking forward to parts 2 and 3.

  2. "[T]here’s a more insidious form of human-centric ontology, as found in many version of scientism. On the one hand, scientism insists that human consciousness is nothing special, and should be naturalized just like everything else. On the other hand, it also wants to preserve knowledge as a special kind of relation to the world quite different from the relations that raindrops and lizards have to the world. Another of putting it… for all their gloating over the fact that people are pieces of matter just like everything else, they also want to claim that the very status of that utterance is somehow special. For them, raindrops know nothing and lizards know very little, and some humans are more knowledgeable than others. This is only possible because thought is given a unique ability to negate and transcend immediate experience, which inanimate matter is never allowed to do in such theories, of course. In short, for all its noir claims that the human doesn’t exist, it elevates the structure of human thought to the ontological pinnacle."
    - Philosopher Graham Harman on the folly of reductionist scientism.

  3. Indeed, to postulate an objective reality outside of consciousness is to invoke a whole new ontological category - and that this is a much bigger logical leap than to consider that other people may experience consciousness ("in" or "out" of the material "reality"), as pointed out by idealist philosopher Bernardo Kastrup in this panel discussion: