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Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences

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Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences J Groove 8/20/09 1:44 AM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences J Groove 8/20/09 2:13 AM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences Nigel Sidley Thompson 8/20/09 3:47 AM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences David Charles Greeson 8/20/09 9:40 AM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences David Charles Greeson 8/20/09 9:47 AM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences Sven Hansen 8/26/09 9:12 PM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences Sven Hansen 8/26/09 9:15 PM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences J Groove 8/27/09 1:33 AM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences J Groove 8/27/09 1:38 AM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences Wet Paint 9/2/09 7:28 AM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences David Charles Greeson 9/2/09 8:11 AM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences David Charles Greeson 9/2/09 8:18 AM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences J Groove 9/2/09 1:20 PM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences J Groove 9/2/09 1:45 PM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences J Groove 9/2/09 1:52 PM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences David Charles Greeson 9/2/09 2:05 PM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences J Groove 9/2/09 2:36 PM
RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences David Charles Greeson 9/2/09 3:35 PM
Forum: Dharma Overground Discussion Forum

Greetings.
A good friend of mine is a neuroscientist who went to medical school hoping to focus on both conventional and alternative medicine. He gave up the latter after becoming convinced that most alternative approaches are ineffective. During an e-mail discussion yesterday, the subject of out-of-body experiences came up.
My friend said,
"...we should be able to let go of certain beliefs when scientific evidence demonstrates them to be false. For example, give me an electrode and a brain, and I can induce an 'out of body' experience - we've known this for some time, yet this continues to be presented in pop culture as a mysterious, immaterial phenomenon ... However, if I argue against it, I'm accused of doing so because I'm biased by some privately held belief of my own (and not because I've critically evaluated the evidence with an open mind). Personally, I'd love think that one day I might actually fly outside of my body. But alas...."

This comment shocked me a bit--I realized that the idea of an astral or energy body that rises out of the corpse at death and can actually leave the body during so-called OBEs is a fairly major part of my worldview and is one of the main reasons I take rebirth more seriously now than I have in the past. I've read a lot of stuff about OBEs and NDEs. Was it all bunk? Does the ability to induce such an experience through brain manipulation invalidate the phenomenon of "out of body" experiences, as my friend claims? Anyone have any thoughts on this subject?

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
8/20/09 2:13 AM as a reply to J Groove.
I should point out, there are those who would dispute neuroscience's claim of OBEs, and perhaps by extension NDEs, having been debunked. This paper is an example of such counterarguments:
http://tinyurl.com/lp6ket

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
8/20/09 3:47 AM as a reply to J Groove.
We could talk about this in any number of ways, but in light of the present context, it would be useful to first mention the three characteristics. no-self, impermanence, and dissatisfactoriness. Whether it's the OBE, or the so-called scientific debunking of the OBE, our first step would be to find the characteristics in the subjective experience.

Apart from that, on more of a 'content' level, I can't see anything non-miraculous about an OBE that is caused by electrically stimulating the brain. We do know that our experience is centered around and mediated by our body. The eye and the visual cortex and the various visual pathways definitely do mediate the experience of sight. Electrically stimulate those parts of the brain and the person will experience a subjective visual sensation.

On the other hand, to say that this somehow renders less profound the visual experience of regarding a Picasso, the Grand Canyon, or the nighttime sky seems a bit facile.

Banging on a working piano will produce a sound, however pressing the piano keys in the right pattern through space and time will produce a Rachmaninoff concerto. The pattern is conducted through the mundane material medium of the piano. And it's the shape of the pattern itself that is the source of the profundity.

This makes it no less true that we could chop that piano into small pieces, put it into a blender, add bananas, and make it into a smoothie. Though it's kind of funny that nowhere in that smoothie will we find the concerto. Or maybe we would. At any rate.

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
8/20/09 9:40 AM as a reply to J Groove.
I like Nigel Thomson's response, and not only agree with the counter-arguments that are listed in the link, but would assert that even if the claims the scientists were making were fully valid (that these were typical spontaneous OBEs) that this would necessarily strongly implicate a logical positivist materialist universe. This kind of thinking is called Neurotheology by the way.

The basic problem is that our knowledge of the brain is so limited that it's barely comprehensible what it would mean that electric stimulation of the right angular gyrus induces OBEs would actually mean. It's a fairly common hyppothesis that mystical experiences represent a rearrangement of "normal" brain states, but how does that in turn, invalidate them. The question is tied up in Cartesian dualism and the older, Spirtual vs. Real dichotomy in Western Culture. I explain to psychiatric patients that our minds are so enmeshed with our biology, that it doesn't make sense to ask if something is more "psychological or biological" - and that I can alter their neurotransmitter levels simply by giving them bad news, or performing psychotherapy.

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
8/20/09 9:47 AM as a reply to J Groove.
My own position regarding this is that energy, and astral bodies, and so forth do not exist outside our consciousness, they are in fact, expressions of our consciousness -these experiences indicate levels of trance - or absorbtion, if you prefer. I can help people to experience Chi, after all, through hypnosis - and OBEs too. How can a lucid dream be distinguished from an OBE?

Yet they are "real" in their own way... Such a view doesn't rule out a Panpsychist position, nor does it rule out my own preference - a Panprotopsychist universe with emergent conscioussness. Yep, spirit is something about matter...

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
8/26/09 9:12 PM as a reply to J Groove.
First I think to engage in OBEs is a waste of time. But it is possible to investigate it. We need a mark to differentiate things of the "real world" with things of a "mind created World" (both are finally mind objects but they have other causes). A mind object of a "real thing" is supported by so-called sensory impressions. This makes "real things" seems to be very stable. If an OBE has the same quality as a "real thing" try e. g. this: In your OBE take a book poems and read them. If it is supported by impressions from "outside" the resulted mind object of the book will be stable and you can read it without any problems.

Normally in OBEs things are not stable as "real things". Just a wooden table in an OBE will dissolve if you look at the patterning. This kind of mind object is not complex and has in general no support for patterning.

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
8/26/09 9:15 PM as a reply to J Groove.
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RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
8/27/09 1:33 AM as a reply to J Groove.
Yes. What's the point of belief one way or the other. If a so-called OBE arises, investigate the three characteristics of the subjective experience.

And I would also agree with the content-level argument: psychedelics often have profound effects on the psyche of the experiencer; whether the experience was induced through external manipulation is beside the point. Some people have OBEs or NDEs that have similarly profound significance for them. Rather than drawing and clinging to fixed beliefs about such experiences, the experiential impact (and real-time investigation during the event) seems to be the point.

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
8/27/09 1:38 AM as a reply to J Groove.
My neuroscientist friend definitely would agree! The whole encounter has reminded me--the point of the dharma is suffering and the end of suffering, not cosmology or belief.

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
9/2/09 7:28 AM as a reply to J Groove.
Author: emptijoy

Anybody who has ever had a true OBE knows. Your neuroscientific friend has probably not ever had one?? I do not believe your worldview is too far off Joel. The best way to describe an OBE for me has been through art. Warning: untrained art emoticon

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bree7/32058011/in/set-960468/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bree7/sets/960468/show/

p.s. your link (tinyurl) did not work for me.

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
9/2/09 8:11 AM as a reply to J Groove.
I think you hit the nail on the head with your last two posts, Joel. It really doesn't matter whether they are literally real. Where your neuroscientist friend might disagree with me is that I don't think consciousness is particular to any one organism - it's something that happens *between* us - which lends a kind of objective reality to "imagined" things. This is why no one will be able to create a sentient AI in the absence of sensory experience or social interaction - and indeed, a human would not have sentience without those two things.

I also believe that alternative therapies can work - much is dependent on the belief of the practitioner, as well as the patient. Placebo cures are real, and robust - so that raises the question of what lies behind them. I would suggest that much of what Bruce Wampold from the U of W found in his paper "The Great Psychotherapy Debate" is also true of alternative treatments. In it Wampold, a former statistician who went on to train as a counseling psychologist, reported that psychotherapy is indeed effective, but a. the type of treatment is not a factor, b. the theoretical bases of the techniques used as well as the strictness of adherence to those techniques are both not factors, c. the therapists strength of belief in the efficacy of the technique is a factor (!), d. the therapist as a person is a large factor, e. the alliance between the patience and the therapist (meaning affectionate and trusting feelings toward the therapist, motivation and collaboration of the client, and empathic response of the therapist) is a key factor."

I suggest that there are two possible modes of belief - epistemic, which attempts to look at all such phenomenon skeptically, and a pragmatic mode of belief

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
9/2/09 8:18 AM as a reply to J Groove.
The pragmatic mode of belief is rather like the example of Babe Ruth walking up to the batter's box, and he firmly believes that he will hit a home run, despite the fact that he is drunk, and has been in a slump recently. He knows that he is more likely to hit a home run if he maintains confidence. Likewise, for a healer, it may be quite useful to invest belief in energy, whether he believes it is literally (epistemically) true or not.

Yes, I've had two spontaneous OBEs, emptijoy. They certainly seemed "real" by the standards I believe ordinary physical reality or objects to be real, but that doesn't mean they were. By the way I've found the stability of objects during lucid dreaming to be variable - sometimes quite solid. The acid test for that is reading something, and then looking away, and reading it again. if it doesn't say the same thing, you are most likely dreaming. I didn't know enough to try this with my two OBEs.

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
9/2/09 1:20 PM as a reply to J Groove.
Hi emptijoy.
Great art! I enjoyed that!
My friend asserts, very confidently, that brain is mind, mind is brain. He deals with people who have had strokes and might, for example, be totally paralyzed on the left side of the body and yet also totally unaware of that paralysis. It's a compelling argument for sure. My friend would even argue against any radically impersonal substrate consciousness, etc. Consciousness, in his view, is an epiphenomenon of the brain. He would also say that, with a perfect knowledge of neurobiology, one could induce the full range of interior subjective experience. What is reality, then, as our current state of consciousness already is "induced" by evolution, genetics, conditioning and so on? I've read a lot of NDE and OBE accounts, and some of them are so detailed and meaningful and realistic that one does have to wonder about just dismissing them as the result of oxygen deficits or random neuronal misfires, etc. Ultimately, though, I think Buddhism would argue that one would have to apply the Three Characteristics to such phenomena. Hmmm... [say, did you try cutting and pasting that link into your browser at the top?]

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
9/2/09 1:45 PM as a reply to J Groove.
The exchange with my materialist friend--someone who is orders of magnitude smarter than I am--has been interesting for me. One thing I've realized is that in order to think about consciousness we tend to extricate it from matter (i.e. the body-brain) as well as its physical environment (including the somatosensory, auditory and visual matrix), social relationships and interactions with others, and make it into an "it" or "thing." Buddha said it wasn't a thing, right? Whether it is limited to brain is something I'm still pondering. I've had certain experiences--perhaps A&P or formations, in Dan's parlance--that were so profound, for me, that I would say mind is at least somehow one with the material universe, and that the material universe is much more luminous, fluid, spacious--what words to use?!--than we normally perceive. But I cannot claim to have been totally dead, without a brain at all! (Though some might argue I don't have much of one!) How to talk to a neuroscientist about such things without sounding nuts!?

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
9/2/09 1:52 PM as a reply to J Groove.
An interesting article in Wired magazine this month on the placebo effect (http://www.wired.com/medtech/drugs/magazine/17-09/ff_placebo_effect) and how it appears to be getting stronger and stronger, so that even long-established drugs like Prozac are losing ground against the increasingly effective placebo. This certainly says a lot about the brain-mind's ability to heal itself. A very interesting point about psychotherapy! Makes me wonder how many of the positive life effects I attribute to meditation could be placebo! Even conventional doctors are now using pragmatic tactics in order to maximize the placebo response in patients.

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
9/2/09 2:05 PM as a reply to J Groove.
I'm familiar with your friend's point of view. You should gently remind him that we are not even close to solving the "hard problem" of consciousness, and have him take a look at "A General Theory of Love" by Lewis, Amini, and Lannon - which you might also find interesting. The problem with looking at strokes to understand things about the mind is that it's sort of like trying to figure out what the parts of a television set do by pulling out wires. Is a perfect knowledge of Neurobiology even possible? Surely there are epistemological limits, at least at the quantum level. I think Daniel Dennett's argument falls apart on this point..

On conscioussness as an epiphenomenon, there *is* some hard evidence to suggest this (the intention wave) - but so long as he ascribes to Hebbian learning by neural networks he admits to some form of emergence - he's just denying "hard emergence" (which I greatly ascribe to). My general approach with people like your friend is to explain that I'm a hard emergentist. When they make sounds about the implausibility of novel characteristics of a system arising that cannot be reduced to the component parts,I show them this paper : http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/nlin/pdf/0609/0609011v1.pdf then I explain that such events are a consequence of the formal aspects of any system which is sufficiently powerful in a manner consistent with Godel's Incompleteness theorem and hand them a copy of "Godel, Escher, Bach" by Hoffstadter, and walk away

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
9/2/09 2:36 PM as a reply to J Groove.
Thanks, Haquan. I'll take a look at these resources. Methinks they're a bit over my head! Just keep sitting?
;)

RE: Neuroscience, skepticism and out-of-body experiences
Answer
9/2/09 3:35 PM as a reply to J Groove.
Hehe... Nah - you'll get it - the General Theory of Love is very well written and explains some of that jargon I threw out trying to stay under my 2000 word limit. The mathematical paper on emergence is admittedly pretty dense, but worth it if you can wade through. Interesting point about meditation placebo - the thing is, it's impossible to pick apart the placebo effect from intrinsic effect in meditation, or any treatment - it's a component of any therapy.

The interesting part about the General Theory of Love is that it hypothesizes that humans are an "open loop information systems" - that we are wired to have accurate empathic responses and share information on multiple pre-conscious channels - and that moreover we co-regulate each other's physiologies and emotional states. It then presents a copious body of research to back the hypothesis that is more than a little impressive, and quite convincing. It shows, from a scientific perspective, how we really don't have separate selves - how we co-create each other.

Then it's pretty easy to extrapolate from that, that we interact together as people to form a larger emergent system )just as our cells interact to form the larger emergent system which is "us") - which also has "downward causation", and so on and so forth to possibly Cosmic levels of scale... The Hoffstadter book is just fun...

One last point regarding this stuff - instead of "energy" and chakras, and all these metaphysical constructs being somehow an inherent property of our bodies or the universe at a quantum level - maybe instead they are emergent phenomenon of *having* consciousness, language, and culture... in a sense, we create them. That puts an altogether different spin on things for the rationalists.