9/19/02 Swiss OBE Study,
by Jody A. Long 9/25/02


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Experience description:   

Study Purportedly Finding that Electrical Stimulation of Brain Induces OBEs

On September 19, 2002, the British journal “Nature” published a conservative study with findings allegedly relevant to the out of body state.[1]  The study was led by a Swiss Doctor, Olaf Blanke, and reminiscent of Wilder Penfield’s earlier work started in 1942 where electrical stimulation to various parts of the brain would produce memory recollections.[2]  The right angular gyrus integrates visual information, such as seeing your body, and information that creates the mind’s representation of your body.  This is based on balance and feedback from your limbs about their position in space.[3]

Blanke was operating on an epilepsy patient and using electrodes to stimulate various parts of the brain.  This patient reported that she was “sinking into the bed” or “falling from a height.”  When the amplitude was increased, she reported “I see myself lying in bed, from above, but I only see my legs and lower trunk.”  She said that she was floating about two metres above the bed, close to the ceiling.  At the suggestion of the doctor for her to watch her legs, the patient reported that she saw her legs “becoming shorter.”  When stimulation was repeated when her legs were bent, she reported that “her legs appeared to be moving quickly towards her face, and she took evasive action.” 

Findings based on the above results, “suggest that changes in visual attention and/or current amplitude in the right angular gyrus could bring about these phenomenological modifications.  They also suggested that it is possible that the experience of dissociation of self from the body is a result of failure to integrate complex somatosensory and vestibular information. 

From this article a series of press articles were promulgated:

On September 18, 2002, the Associated Press, by Joseph B. Verrengia, came up with a highly questionable article entitled “Stress Cited in ‘Out of Body’ Claims.”  His irresponsible reporting stated that the new study suggests “out-of-body and near-death experiences may be influenced by a portion of the brain misfiring under stress.”  He quoted Michael Shermer, a psychologist and director of the Skeptic Society, as saying “Since all of our brains are wired in a similar manner, there is no reason to think that stimulation of this brain region will not corroborate the finding. It’s another blow against those who believe that the mind and spirit are somehow separate from the brain.  In reality, all experience is derived from the brain.”    He quoted Dr. Bruce Greyson of the University of Virginia as saying, “the experiment does not necessarily prove that all OBEs are illusions.  It is possible that some OBEs occur in different ways than the scientists suspect.

Greyson, when asked about such a lame response, replied that he had given Verrengia a 1,000 word response as to why this study was largely irrelevant to spontaneous OBEs, and totally irrelevant to NDEs, which encompass a whole lot more than OBEs.  Verrengia chose a one-line indirect quote.  Greyson wrote a letter to the editor of Nature.  He points out in the letter that while the induced out-of-body sensations elicited by temporal lobe stimulation resemble spontaneous OBES, the sensations are not identical.  Bizarre distortions of one’s body image do not occur in spontaneous OBEs.  He also states that there is “no reason to assume that all OBEs are caused by temporal lobe activity, just because some are.  Likewise, we cannot assume that because electrical stimulation of the brain can induce OBE-like illusions, that all OBEs are therefore illusions.

A daily blurb posted on the Nature website under the category of Weird science is entitled, “Electrodes trigger out-of-body-experience, Stimulating brain region elicits illusion often attributed to the paranormal.”  The article was written by Helen Pearson on September 19, 2002.  Much of her article is based upon an interview with Blanke.  He indicated that when the woman was asked to “raise her arm, she thought it was coming to punch her.”  Then he makes a leap of logic that this observation shows that the ‘phantom’ limb syndrome, reported after many amputees have lost a limb, could be related to out-of-body experiences.  When interviewing John Marshall, an English neurologist, he stated that out-of-body experiences are incredibly common and some are part of the near-death experience.

Marsha Walton of CNN reported September 19, 2002 on CNN.com that “Out-of-body experience clues may hide in the mind, Scientists: Misfiring brain behind bizarre sensation.”  The article was based upon Blanke’s research and reports “the case of a woman who described ‘floating above her own body and watching herself’ while she was undergoing testing and treatment for epilepsy.”  Blanke is quoted as saying, “You hear strange reports sometimes, but in five or six years of doing this I’ve never gotten that sort of response before.” 

Dr. Barry Gordon, professor of neurology at John Hopkins Medical Institutions is credited with the phantom limb discussion attributed to Blanke in the Pearson article.  The stress causing an OBE misquote by Verrengia may be attributable to the CNN article where Walton states that:

 “An out-of-body experience may be a slight disconnect or misfiring of the processing of information.  And, said both Blank and Gordon, the trauma of having electrodes implanted in one’s skull, plus the fear and uncertainty that go along with a complex clinical procedure, could possibly help trigger such a misfiring of information, such as the case of the Geneva patient.”

Some of the best facts about perceptions of epileptics came from Walton’s interview with Dr. Cindy Kubu, a neuropsychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.  She said that

“Sometimes patients describe looking down on their own bodies, and that experience is actually an aura or a warning that a seizure is about to occur.  Some patients see lights flashing, others see cartoon characters, other have feelings of déjà vu, or its opposite, jamais vu (when what is really a very familiar experience seems to be happening for the first time).  All of these events can be precursors to a seizure.”

Discussion

While Blanke is credited with important research, there are a few problems with the way the article itself was written and the conclusions Blanke drew from the observations.  Readily apparent is the media spin against the OBE phenomena as anything other than a brain hallucination, and there is a shining example of irresponsible reporting.  The best article goes to CNN.  The gag-me-with-a-spoon award goes to the Associated Press article.  Of particular note is the way that each article seems to build on another without looking at the underlying research that was done.  It is incomprehensible to me that poking a woman’s brain with electrodes would lead to headlines that the brain is solely responsible for OBEs and NDEs.  Clearly the doctor and reporters have hidden agendas not supported by the evidence.

One of the most curious omissions by Blanke was that Penfield’s research showed that many of the memories were partially or totally nonfactual.  Penfield, and others at the time, assumed that these experiences were real and recalled.  It didn’t even occur to him to ask if these might be reconstructed events.  It turned out that later, when patients were questioned about their stories, many of the events never happened.  For instance, a patient heard her mother calling in a lumberyard.  This patient had never been close to a lumber yard in her entire life.  Another set of recollections turned out to be greatly influenced by the conversation between the doctor and patient right before the electrical stimulations began.[4]  Therefore, what Blanke’s patient said she saw, may not have been a real vision.  Or as suggested in Blanke’s findings, it could have been subject to reconstruction distortions based on failure to integrate complex somatosensory and vestibular information. 

Another problem is that this woman’s experience may not be valid or repeatable for an entire, healthy population.  Obviously, for ethical/moral reasons this research has not been readily duplicated or studied in the general population.  Even Blanke himself, said that in 5-6 years of his research that he had not seen any phenomena like this one woman. We have a website with hundreds of NDE and OBE experiences, not just one isolated experience from electrodes to the brain.  There is no correlation between the hundreds of web accounts and what was experienced by this one woman.

I found the CNN article comment by Dr. Kubu extremely helpful.  I also find it odd that if epileptics report cartoon characters that these hallucinations are tied to OBEs by the media.  However, that being said, I would not rule out that some physical conditions could be caused or signaled by a separation of consciousness from the body.   Moreover, most people who have had an OBE or NDE can very easily distinguish between what happened to them and an electrode stimulus response that occurred in this one woman. 

Interestingly, the first sentence defines an OBE as “usually brief sensations in which a person’s consciousness seems to become detached from the body and take up a remote viewing position.”  Even using this skewed definition, there are some large leaps in logic based on the evidence.  Blanke automatically assumes that his one patient experienced an OBE, and then states that by stimulating the angular gyrus, he can repeatedly induce OBEs.  He then states that OBEs and illusions can be artificially induced by electrical stimulation of the cortex.  Conveniently ignored and not reproduced in his studies are the evidential observations that OBErs report seeing while apart from their body.  Moreover, OBErs also report seeing their whole body as distinct from their astral body, and as viewed from outside of their physical body. 

Although there are contradictory statements, it appears that this patient was probably perceiving her real body from the vantage point of being inside of herself, a phenomena much closer to autoscopy (a psychological disorder) than to the OBEs experienced by NDErs and OBErs.  Her brain told her about her distorted perceptions of where her limbs were and what they were doing. 

I would also wonder that if the patient was truly above her body by the ceiling (as reported in one article) why didn’t they (the scientists) ask her about the particulars of the room or other things that she should reasonably be able to see from that vantage point?  That she saw her body is not evidential in light of the fact that they told her to focus on her leg and she saw a distorted leg which could possibly be seeing what the power of suggestion tells her she should see. (Like Penfield’s pre-surgery comments incorporated into the memory as actually happening to the patient)  It would also have been helpful to know what her vital signs were when she was out of her body.     

So all in all, the study does not say or prove what the media or Blanke suggests in his later interviews.  It simply has two good suggested findings consistent with the data: 1) changes in visual attention and/or current amplitude in the right angular gyrus could bring about the observed phenomenological modifications; and 2) that the experience of dissociation of self from the body is a result of failure to integrate complex somatosensory and vestibular information.  The next question would be how much of these findings is relevant only to epileptics and how much to the general public?  It is too far of a leap to make these suggestions relevant to OBEs and NDEs.


[1] Stimulating illusory own-body perceptions (The part of the brain that can induce out-of-body experiences has been located) by Olaf Blanke, et al, Nature, vol 419, p. 269 (2002).

[2] Penfield, W. J Ment Sci 101, 451-465 (1955).

[3] Electrodes trigger out-of-body experience, by Helen Pearson, September 19, 2002, Weird science column of the www.nature.com website.

[4] The Evolution of Consciousness, The Origins of the Way We Think, by Robert Ornstein, Touchstone, New York, NY (1991) p. 189