When Is an OBE Not an OBE? A New Look at Out-of-Body Experiences

By Cheyne, James Allan | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

When Is an OBE Not an OBE? A New Look at Out-of-Body Experiences


Cheyne, James Allan, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


IN 2002, A STUDY BY OLAF BLANKE AND colleagues drew wide-spread media attention. Reported in the journal Nature, it described the induction of an out-of-body experience (OBE) through electrical stimulation of the angular gyms of the right parietal lobe of the brain of a 43-year-old Swiss woman suffering from complex partial seizures attributed to right temporal-lobe epilepsy. In the course of brain mapping, direct stimulation of the surface of her brain induced vestibular responses including feelings that she reported as "sinking into the bed" and "falling from a height." Increased amplitude at the same site produced an OBE during which the patient reported; "I see myself lying in bed, from above, but I only see my legs and lower trunk." Two further stimulations reproduced this effect, and included feelings of "lightness" and "floating." During the OBE, the patient estimated that she was about two meters above the bed, just below the ceiling. (1)

The study undoubtedly attracted the attention it did not only because of the intrinsically fascinating phenomenon reported, but also because the findings suggested a naturalistic explanation for an experience that is frequently held to be strong evidence of the supernatural. As neuroscience increases In sophistication of both empirical analysis and theoretical treatment of anomalous experiences, the once rich tapestry of supernaturalism is being reduced to ever smaller and increasingly tattered fragments. In all but the most marginal groups, supernaturalism has even become a metaphysical position that dare not speak its name. It now appears merely as "anomalous" or "magical" science, struggling to retain the mystery of "something more" than mere naturalism can explain. One such tattered fragment is the OBE. Even the defense of one of the last bastions of mystery must rest upon ever more marginal and dubious arguments to forestall the final unraveling. One common stalling tactic is to attempt to discount naturalistic evidence by suggesting it is inauthentic; that is, to argue not that the naturalistic explanation fails, but that what it explains is not what it seems. Such authenticity arguments can be elusive and difficult to pin down because of their vagueness. With this in mind, I analyze several related arguments of this sort presented by J. M. Holden and colleagues in the Journal of Near-Death Experiences, where they argued that the OBEs studied by Blanke and colleagues were not "typical" OBEs and should not be confused with authentic OBEs. (2)

What is a Typical OBE?

In their critique of Blanke's OBE study, Holden et al. concede that the definition of an OBE used in the Nature study corresponds to widely accepted definitions employed by both European and North American researchers, noting that "by all of these definitions, the Swiss patient's experience qualified as an OBE" (p. 101). In fact, Blanke et al. discussed definitions of OBEs in considerable detail--using a number of peer-reviewed articles that employed numerous studies--in an attempt to ensure that they employed a dear, broadly agreed upon definition. They hold that OBEs consist of: (1) a feeling of separation from one's body, (2) viewing one's own body (3) from an elevated position. All three criteria are dearly met by the experiences reported in the Nature paper.

One might have thought this initial concession would have doomed their enterprise at the outset. But no. Holden and colleagues turn to a fuzzy form of argument that I call the "typicality argument." They begin by asking the reader to consider a single anecdote from C. E. Green's classic 1968 book, Out-of-Body Experiences:

 
   Before coming round I saw myself up in a corner of 
   the room and I was looking down upon the hospital 
   bed. The bedclothes were heaped up over a cradle 
   and my legs were exposed from the knees down. 
 
      Around the right ankle was a ring of plaster 
   and below the knee was a similar ring. … 

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