The NY Times recently ran an article titled “Out-of-Body Experience? Your Brain Is to Blame.” The article opens with these words:


They are eerie sensations, more common than one might think: A man
describes feeling a shadowy figure standing behind him, then turning around to
find no one there. A woman feels herself leaving her body and floating in space,
looking down on her corporeal self.


Such experiences are often attributed by those who have them to
paranormal forces.
But according to recent work by neuroscientists, they can
be induced by delivering mild electric current to specific spots in the brain.


Like the TIME magazine article I blogged about a couple of days ago, this article is an example of reductionistic thinking at its best. It attempts to explain out-of-body experiences (OBE) in purely physicalist terms, eliminating the need to invoke the supernatural. While the scientific find supporting the article’s “thesis” are fascinating, it does not eliminate the supernatural. Indeed, the find does not make sense apart from the existence of the supernatural.


The article describes how, in preparation for surgery, a Swedish neurologist inserted dozens of electrodes into the brains of two women suffering from epilepsy. When the electrode connected to the angular gyrus region of the brain was activated, it produced some bizarre and unexpected experiences. One woman described her experience as “a weird sensation that another person was lying beneath her on the bed.” She said it “felt like a ‘shadow’ that did not speak or move; it was young, more like a man than a woman, and it wanted to interfere with her.” When the current stopped, the feeling of the presence went away. When the current was reapplied, the feeling returned.


The same experiment produced a significantly different experience for another woman a few years earlier. When the electrode in her brain was activated she had a complete OBE. She told the researcher, “I am at the ceiling. I am looking down at my legs.” When the current stopped she said, “I’m back on the table now. What happened?” According to the article “further applications of the current returned the woman to the ceiling, causing her to feel as if she were outside of her body, floating, her legs dangling below her.”


How do researchers explain this? According to the article


researchers have discovered that some areas of the brain combine
information from several senses. Vision, hearing and touch are initially
processed in the primary sensory regions. But then they flow together, like
tributaries into a river, to create the wholeness of a person’s perceptions. …


These multisensory processing regions also build up perceptions of
the body as it moves through the world…. Sensors in the skin provide information
about pressure, pain, heat, cold and similar sensations. Sensors in the joints,
tendons and bones tell the brain where the body is positioned in space. Sensors
in the ears track the sense of balance. And sensors in the internal organs,
including the heart, liver and intestines, provide a readout of a person’s
emotional state.


Real-time information from the body, the space around the body and
the subjective feelings from the body are also represented in multisensory
regions…. And if these regions are directly simulated by an electric current, as
in the cases of the two women he studied, the integrity of the sense of body can
be altered.


More specifically, why did one woman feel a distinct presence that shadowed her own? According to the author, Dr. Blanke postulates that “because the presence closely mimicked the patient’s body posture and position…the patient was experiencing an unusual perception of her own body, as a double. But for reasons that scientists have not been able to explain…she did not recognize that it was her own body she was sensing.”


What about the woman who had the OBE? “Because the woman’s felt position in space and her actual position in space did not match, her mind cast about for the best way to turn her confusion into a coherent experience…. She concluded that she must be floating up and away while looking downward. … [W]hile it may be tempting to invoke the supernatural when this body sense goes awry,…the true explanation is a very natural one, the brain’s attempt to make sense of conflicting information.”


There you have it! It’s all in your brain. No supernatural is needed. Reductionism at its finest. Peter Brugger, a neurologist at University Hospital in Zurich, told the reporter ‘there is nothing mystical about these ghostly experiences.’ According to Brugger “the research shows that the self can be detached from the body and can live a phantom existence on its own, as in an out-of-body experience, or it can be felt outside of personal space, as in a sense of a presence.”


The researchers, and the author reporting it, commit the same logical fallacy as TIME: thinking correlation means causation. I admit that the association between various regions in the brain and certain surreal experiences is quite a discovery, but that association is not tantamount to causation, yet alone identification. I explain the fallacy in my “What Makes Man Different from Chimps” post, so I will not repeat myself here.


The Soul Won’t Go Away That Easily


What I want to focus on is how these experiments fail to eliminate the supernatural (meaning anything beyond the natural world, not necessarily “God”). It seems to me that an appeal to the existence of the supernatural—specifically a human soul—is the only way to make sense of what these women experienced (particularly the woman who had the OBE).


First, notice how Dr. Brugger presupposes that the self is distinct from the body, even though his view reduces the self to the physical constituents of the body. In case you missed it he said “research shows that the self can be detached from the body and live a phantom existence on its own as an out-of-body experience.” If the self can be detached from the body so as to have its own existence apart from the body, then it is not reducible to the body. It must be something other than material; i.e. immaterial. Even reductionists cannot help but to speak of the center of our consciousness as something distinct from the physical body.


Second, if these experiments demonstrate that there is nothing mystical or supernatural about OBEs—and that it’s a purely chemical-physical phenomenon—then how do they explain the details of the experience the woman described? She said she was at the ceiling, looking down at her legs. How could she see her legs from the ceiling if the only way to see is with one’s material eyes, and her eyes were on the ground looking up at the ceiling? As Jonathan Witt noted:


If anything, that only makes it more mysterious that the electrical
stimulation of that bit of tissue can trigger the experience of being up near
the ceiling looking down at one’s own body. Why? How? How can you see without
your eyes? Are those experiences just hallucinations? Is the storied accuracy of
things seen and heard during “near-death” OBEs strictly apocryphal? The purely
material explanation is not the simplest one, the Occam’s Razor close shave.
You’d have to go through contortions to explain why the brain would accurately
record precise details of a scene in the midst of a mortal crisis, then choose
to hallucinate an accurate view of that scene from a physically impossible


What we’re talking about here is the transferring of one’s first-person perspective from inside their body, to some location external to their body. If one’s first-person perspective can be located somewhere outside their body, so that they can look upon their own body as if it were someone else’s body, clearly our first-person conscious self must transcend our physical body. It must be immaterial, and capable of existing apart from the body. This is precisely what the Christian doctrine of the soul maintains. I think this research is good scientific evidence for the existence of the soul, and a crushing blow to materialistic reductionism.


Other Errors


While reading the article my mind harkened back to Dean Hamer’s book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes (2004). Both claim to explain away mystical experiences as mere biological misunderstandings. Some of my
criticisms of Hamer’s work are equally applicable to the NYT article.


Even if were true that the brain alone is responsible for these sorts of mystical experiences, there is no necessary connection between such experiences and belief in God. Not everyone who has these sorts of mystical experiences believes they are from God. In fact, neither of the two women documented in the experiment interpreted the feeling/experience as being the divine, or divine in origin.


Furthermore, even if the ultimate cause of these experiences is biological in nature, and even if everyone who experienced them interpreted them as being from the divine, this could not explain away religious faith because so few people have ever had such experiences. I would argue that most people who believe in God do so without ever having had a mystical experience. Quite a few believe in God for purely intellectual reasons. Others simply have an intuitive awareness of His existence. If these sorts of experiences do not cause believers to believe, faith in God is not deterred when the experiences are shown to be biological rather than religious in origin and nature.


At best these findings demonstrate that it is not rational to conclude God exists simply because you have experienced a feeling of self-transcendence. But to conclude God is a figment of our biological imagination because people have improperly confused biological malfunctioning for a religious experience is a categorical error. While humans may be guilty of confusing a biological function for a religious experience, it does not follow that God is a figment of our biological imagination.


If the feeling of transcendence is a biological experience rather than religious experience, then studies performed on that experience only tell us about biology, not religion. The question of God’s existence remains a philosophical question, not a biological question. While the sciences can tell us a lot about the physical world, they are not equipped to properly evaluate the spiritual. Only philosophy is equipped to evaluate metaphysical issues such as the existence of God


[1]Jonathan Witt, “This is your brain on materialism”; available from

; Internet; accessed 09 October 2006.