Nearly everyone is familiar with the out-of body experience that sometimes comes as death approaches. Going through a tunnel, being enveloped by "the light", and floating above one's body are so often portrayed in the media that near-death and out-of-body experiences are almost stereotypes.
It turns out that solid scientific evidence reveals that millions of Americans have had an out-of body experience, and it's probably safe to say that many consider these experiences evidence that an afterlife exists and that our consciousness or soul can separate from our body.
Yet if a neurologist, like myself, is going to examine how the brain works during spiritual experience then we must ask: Does this apparent parting of consciousness and brain always impart a spiritual essence?
Before we can probe that question we must first find out what is meant by spiritual, and for that we turn to the great American psychologist and philosopher, William James. In The Principles of Psychology, James helped lay the foundation of modern psychology and launch the study of the self. But it was in The Varieties of Religious Experience that James presented his comprehensive ideas that remain the starting point for neuroscientists today when they look into science and spirituality.
So what is it that makes an experience spiritual? For James this quality encompasses "the feelings, acts, and experiences" of people who in their solitude understand that they have touched "whatever they may consider the divine". This is a pliable definition lacking many specifics, so to flesh it out James studied case histories focusing on individual's "original experiences that were the pattern-setters" to rigorously define the features of spiritual experiences. Now lets take a look at a few case studies of our own and view out-of-body experience through the lens of modern neuroscience to see what these experiences can tell us.
Patrick was a patient of mine for many years before he told me of his out-of-body experience. While driving an ambulance as an emergency medical technician, he suffered a heart attack and was taken to the local emergency room where they knew him well. As his heart began to fail, he became paralyzed and slowly levitated above the gurney. Higher and higher he rose until he could survey the entire emergency room and his body below. It wasn't long until Patrick gently descended back onto the gurney. When I asked how he felt about levitating and seeing his body beneath his consciousness he said he was about to "meet my maker".
Undoubtedly James would agree that Patrick's experience was a spiritual one. Patrick considered his maker, whom he was about to greet, divine by any measure. But would James see Karen's experience in the same way?
Karen is my psychiatry colleague and shares the story of her out-of-body experience. She had just moved to rural Kentucky, when a state trooper living in the next apartment discharged his gun under suspicious circumstances, almost shooting his wife. That night feeling very unsettled, Karen lay in bed halfway between being awake and asleep. Without any premonition, she began floating a few feet above her bed, and turned to see herself and husband lying side by side beneath the quilt she crafted when a newlywed. After drifting about the room for a few astonishing moments, the next thing she remembers is waking up the next morning.
Karen had a much different take than Patrick. She felt this experience was simply odd. So odd, that she told very few people about it, after all "what would people think?" She didn't touch anything she considered divine or beyond herself. What would James think?
One crucial quality of Karen's brain she later told me about was her occasionally awakening from sleep completely paralyzed. Sleep paralysis as it is called, happens when the brain is caught in the borderlands between waking and REM consciousness. During the REM sleep we have each night and when we do most of our dreaming, spinal paralysis sets in so we can't act out our dreams-that would be hazardous. Features of REM, like the paralysis, can intrude into our fully awake brain. Visual hallucinations and probably out-of-body experiences are among the other aspects of REM that can come upon us while awake. And this brings us to Matt.
Matt is one of my research subjects who is twenty-seven years old and suffers from narcolepsy. In addition to sleep attacks, he has frequent sleep paralysis and near weekly out-of-body experiences while lying in bed. But things much eerier also come to him at night. During his sleep paralysis not only can he leave his body he can also have hallucinations like a basketball becoming "the head of a rotting corpse". Often shadowy presences lie down next to him when he is incapable of twitching the smallest muscle, and they whisper deathly threats into his ear. Matt does not consider these hallucinations or monsters divine in anyway, and it is only afterwards in the morning that he knows they are not real. His out-of-body experiences are so common they are now a mere curiosity to him. Imagine if he lived in medieval times!
There is no scientific debate that out-of-body experiences can come during REM consciousness. How does it come about? We know from the work of neurologist Olf Blanke in Switzerland that a flicker of electricity, one hundred times less than the current drawn by a sixty watt light bulb, in just the right part of the brain will cause out-of-body experiences at the flip of a switch. That part of brain is the temporoparietal region and the current that Dr. Blanke applies disrupts our sensations allowing us to know where we are in space. The temporoparietal region that helps bind our sensations to consciousness, is also turned off during REM. This explains why out-of-body experience so often happens during REM.
Patrick and many others show us that out-of-body experience can be spiritual, yet it is just as clear that the parting of mind and brain does not always speak to the holy. Understanding the neuroscience behind this parting tells us how the brain works during spiritual experience. Experiences outside the brain are an illusion created by the brain itself-but why? Certainly the person who feels out of their body understands this experience based on what prompted it as well as in terms of their own psychology, culture and life experiences.
This brings us to another important question: Are there other experiences that are always spiritual? Yes there are such things, and William James considered them the "root and center" for all spiritual experience. Next we will examine how the brain works during experiences that "founders of every church owed their power..."
Dr. Nelson is the author of the recently published book "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain". More information can be obtained at thespiritualdoorway.org. If you wish to confidentially share your spiritual experience, Dr. Nelson can be contacted by email; firstname.lastname@example.org.