Wednesday, October 4, 2006

The Trouble With Astral Projection

Many years ago, the small town in which my parents lived was rocked by a poetry scandal. A young woman, whose name I had better not mention, had written and self-published a small booklet of short poems, which she was selling for fifty cents a copy at local literary hot-spots such as the drugstore and the laundromat. Sales were brisk and she had apparently made several dollars of gross profit when the whole enterprise came to a screeching halt; one of her poems, local literary nabobs had discovered, was set in said laundromat and detailed her stream-of-consciousness as she watched her undergarments spinning in the dryer.

What with community standards and all, it was bad enough that a young woman's undergarments could be spinning in a public dryer, but infinitely worse to have such a scene mentioned in a fifty-cent book of poetry available for sale at the drug store. So she was forced to seek sales elsewhere, and she began taking her booklets to stores in the nearest small city, where community standards were considerably more lenient.

I happened to be working in one of those stores at the time, and that was how I met her and her poetry. To be honest, the poem about the undergarments was not exactly stellar; I was much more impressed by a shorter poem called "The Trouble With Astral Projection", which I reproduce here.

The Trouble
with Astral Projection
is that you're never really sure
whether you're out of your body
or out of your mind

All this came flashing back from my nearly frozen memory banks when I saw an article in today's New York Times, saying that researchers have found a way to induce out-of-body experiences in their patients by applying electrical current to certain areas of the brain.
Dr. Olaf Blanke, a neurologist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland who carried out the procedures, said that the women had normal psychiatric histories and that they were stunned by the bizarre nature of their experiences.
“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,” Dr. Brugger said.

Scientists have gained new understanding of these odd bodily sensations as they have learned more about how the brain works, Dr. Blanke said. For example, 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. A dog is visually recognized far more quickly if it is simultaneously accompanied by the sound of its bark.

These multisensory processing regions also build up perceptions of the body as it moves through the world, Dr. Blanke said. 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, Dr. Blanke said. 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.
All this is well and good but I'm not convinced that it settles the question. It proves that the application of electricity to key areas of the brain can cause an out-of-body experience. But what about people who have out-of-body experiences while there are no electrodes attached to their bodies?

Where are they?