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Scientific American

Demon-Haunted Brain

published March 2003 | comments (5)
If the brain mediates all experience, then paranormal phenomena are nothing more than neuronal events
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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.

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5 Comments to “Demon-Haunted Brain”

  1. Nyampah Mlulu Says:

    Wow, has nobody told Michael Shermer that his summary of the Dutch study issued by Lancet was in fact false and misleading, and this coming from none other than the author of the said article itself, Pim van Lommel? Here’s the article:
    His conclusion in the last 2 paragraphs of that article should be very interesting to Michael Shermer:

    “Michael Shermer states that, in reality, all experience is mediated and produced by the brain, and that so-called paranormal phenomena like out-of body experiences are nothing more than neuronal events. The study of patients with NDE, however, clearly shows us that consciousness with memories, cognition, with emotion, self-identity, and perception out and above a life-less body is experienced during a period of a non-functioning brain (transient pancerebral anoxia). And focal functional loss by inhibition of local cortical regions happens by “stimulation” of those regions with electricity (photons) or with magnetic fields (photons), resulting sometimes in out-of-body states.

    To quote Michael Shermer: it is the job of science to solve those puzzles with natural, rather than supernatural, explanations. But one has to be aware of the progress of science, and to study recent literature, to know what is going on in current science. For me science is asking questions with an open mind, and not being afraid to reconsider widely accepted but scientifically not proven concepts like the concept that consciousness and memories are a product of the brain. But also we should realize that we need a functioning brain to receive our consciousness into our waking consciousness. There are still a lot of mysteries to solve, but one has not to talk about paranormal, supernatural or pseudoscience to look for scientific answers on the intriguing relation between consciousness and memories with the brain.”

  2. Glouphop Says:

    Whole argument of Pim van Lommel is based on the assertion that the OBE occurs during the EEG flatline. Is this really the case? The analysis of rapport of Pamela Reynolds’ operation answer clearly to this question: OBE has started before 2:25 EEG flatline. It is therefore a production of conscious brain.

  3. Atomized Says:

    Glouphop wrote:

    “OBE has started before 2:25 EEG flatline. It is therefore a production of conscious brain.”

    My comment:

    No, not necessarily. Many highly-qualified observers lean toward thinking otherwise. It is not a foregone conclusion that the cortex (or the brain, in general) is where NDEs originate; on the contrary, many think that the cortex actually “gets in the way” of NDEs.

    To say that “[The NDE] is therefore a production of conscious brain” is not justified. One reason is because consciousness, itself, is nowhere near to being defined. How can it be known where consciousness originates, when consciousness hasn’t even yet been defined? (This question is part of what has been called “hard problem of consciousness.”)

    Better to say something along the lines of, “Based on what information I have been able to gather so far, the NDE seems quite likely to me to be originating in the cortex.”

    Certainly, the consensus jury is out on this subject. As Micheal Shermer wrote in his book, “Why People Believe Weird Things”:

    “NDEs remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of psychology…”

  4. Atomized Says:

    Michael Shermer wrote: “In fact, there is no paranormal or supernatural; there are only the normal and the natural.”

    Wrong. Quantum physics, possibly THE most exhaustively tested area of physics, shows us that our consciousness directly creates and affects (effects/affects) physical reality on a very microcosmic level, instantaneously, with no physical intermediary. By any common sense yardstick, that is quite a paranormal-like event. Mind non-physically affecting matter — what would you call that?

    One example of this paranormality — this consciousness-initiated event outside of physicality (i.e., metaphysical event), is spooky action at a distance, aka non-locality. Again, this is one of the most extensively tested and verified phenomena in physics. Non-locality is a phenomenon wherein information about one particle’s position is INSTANTLY transmitted to another particle across a distance of any length. And, the initial piece of information that triggers this instant response in a distant particle can be created by the mere conscious focus of an observer, with no physical intermediation required (or possible!) — no photons, no nothing. This sounds metaphysical to me.

    If this information transmission event were physical, it couldn’t occur. If it were physical, it would have to obey the speed of light, and the transmission could not, then, be instantaneous. But, since it entirely non-physical — since this information is entirely a process determined by non-physical consciousness — it doesn’t follow the rules of physical matter and the speed of light, and thus can be instantaneous. And it is. This has been so exhaustively tested that it can be sensibly considered to be part of a set of laws — the laws of quantum physics. And these laws show us that consciousness, independent of the laws of physical matter, effect changes in matter, instantaneously, via non-physical transmission of information.

    That sounds pretty metaphysical and paranormal to me.

    This is so NOT pie-in-the-sky, that commerce is placing huge bets on research into harnessing these metaphysical phenomena for commercial use, particularly in the area of data processing.

    It’s time to get get real. It’s time to get metaphysics.

  5. Atomized Says:

    One final thought. You wrote: “If the brain mediates all experience, then paranormal phenomena are nothing more than neuronal events.”

    That doesn’t necessarily follow. That’s like saying “If a radio mediates everything you hear from it, then the radio programming coming from a distant studio is nothing but product of radio circuitry.”

    I find myself thinking of our family dog. There was a soccer match on the TV. The dog would follow the players as the ran across the screen. When the player ran “off” the screen, the dog would look behind the TV, looking for the player, not realizing that the player was not in the TV.

    There are numerous well-reasoned models that incorporate the notion of consciousness being apart from the wetware of the brain. These books are written by quarterbacks of the cutting edge of mainstream science. Two of these many individuals are university physicist Bruce Rosenblum (“Quantum Enigma”); and the exceptionally well-credentialed astrophysicist Bernard Haisch (“The God Theory” and “The Purpose-Guided Universe”).