If the brain mediates all experience, then paranormal phenomena are nothing more than neuronal events
Five centuries ago demons haunted our world, with incubi and succubi tormenting victims as they lay asleep. Two centuries ago spirits haunted our world, with ghosts and ghouls harassing sufferers during all hours of the night. This past century aliens haunted our world, with grays and greens abducting captives and whisking them away for probing and prodding. Nowadays people are reporting out-of-body experiences, floating above their beds. What is going on here? Are these elusive creatures and mysterious phenomena in our world or in our minds? New evidence adds weight to the notion that they are, in fact, products of the brain. Neuroscientist Michael Persinger, in his laboratory at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, for example, can induce all these perceptions in subjects by subjecting their temporal lobes to patterns of magnetic fields. (I tried it myself and had a mild out-of-body experience.)
Similarly, the September 19, 2002, issue of Nature reported that neuroscientist Olaf Blanke of Geneva University Hospital in Switzerland and his colleagues were able to bring about out-of-body experiences through electrical stimulation of the right angular gyrus in the temporal lobe of a 43-year old woman suffering from severe epileptic seizures. With initial mild stimulation, she felt she was “sinking into the bed” or “falling from a height.” With more intense stimulation, she said she could “see myself lying in bed, from above, but I only see my legs and lower trunk.” Another trial induced “an instantaneous feeling of ‘lightness’ and ‘floating’ about two meters above the bed, close to the ceiling.”
A related study is cited in the 2001 book Why God Won’t Go Away. In it, Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center and the late Eugene D’Aquili found that when Buddhist monks meditate and Franciscan nuns pray, their brain scans show strikingly low activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, a region the authors have dubbed the orientation association area (OAA). The OAA provides bearings for the body in physical space; people with damage to this area have a difficult time negotiating their way around a house, for instance. When the OAA is booted up and running smoothly, there is a sharp distinction between self and nonself. When the OAA is in sleep mode — as in deep meditation or prayer — that division breaks down, leading to a blurring of the lines between feeling in body and out of body. Perhaps this is what happens to monks who discern a sense of oneness with the universe, or nuns who feel the presence of God, or alien abductees who believe they are floating out of their beds to the mother ship.
Sometimes trauma can become a trigger. The December 15, 2001, issue of the Lancet published a Dutch study in which 12 percent of 344 cardiac patients resuscitated from clinical death reported near-death experiences, some having a sensation of being out of body, others seeing a light at the end of a tunnel. Some even described speaking to dead relatives. Because the everyday occurrence is of stimuli coming from the outside, when a part of the brain abnormally generates these illusions, another part of the brain interprets them as external events. Hence, the abnormal is thought to be the paranormal.
These studies are only the latest to deliver blows against the belief that mind and spirit are separate from brain and body. In reality, all experience is mediated by the brain. Large brain areas such as the cortex coordinate inputs from smaller brain areas such as the temporal lobes, which themselves collate neural events from still smaller brain modules such as the angular gyrus. Of course, we are not aware of the workings of our own electrochemical systems. What we experience is what philosophers call qualia, or subjective states of thoughts and feelings that arise from a concatenation of neural events.
It is the fate of the paranormal and the supernatural to be subsumed into the normal and the natural. In fact, there is no paranormal or supernatural; there are only the normal and the natural — and mysteries yet to be explained. It is the job of science, not pseudoscience, to solve those puzzles with natural, rather than supernatural, explanations.