Belgian neuroscientist Dr Dirk De Ridder and his team implanted electrodes in the brain of a patient to cure his tinnitus (the medical term for the spurious hearing of a continuous buzz). Upon the activation of this device the patient repeatedly experienced a so-called out-of-body experience. An out-of-body experience means that a person, whilst retaining his or her full consciousness, feels as if observing the world from a vantage point that is located outside the own body. This “displacement” of sensory activity often involves the impression of seeing oneself.
Every so often, out-of-body experiences are invoked to prove the existence of a soul that is only temporarily located in a human body; and, thereupon, to draw conclusions about afterlives, heaven, reincarnation, etc etc. The findings of Dr De Ridder allow to locate the origins of these experiences in the human brain.
The brain is a funny thing. You might think that at least a brain never makes mistakes and that it works identically in every human.Well, it doesn’t, and there are more examples than this out-of-body experience.
You know the brain is the centre of information. Eyes are the tool to see, but it’s the brain that stocks images and interprets what it is we’re actually seeing. If the connection between eye and brain is ‘broken’, you’re blind. But have you ever heard of ‘deafhearing’ and ‘blindseeing’? What’s broke there isn’t the connection between eye (or ear) and brain, but between two parts of the brain: the part that ‘stocks’ info and the part that ‘interprets’. You can actually see, but you’re not aware of it. You think of yourself as a totally blind person, but you won’t bump into walls and you can pick up a pen from a table when someone asks you to. Because you see it, but ‘you’ don’t know.
Another near mystical experience are “phantom limbs”.When a part of the brain gets damaged, another part of the brain tends to compensate by getting overactive. So, while your brain can’t receive stimuli from a missing limb, areas next to it in the brain get overactive and you feel a lot around a place in your body where there is little, … as if you still feel the part that’s gone.
Experiments do prove that no transcendental force need to be invoked to explain such accounts and thus, that they cannot serve as supportive evidence for the existence of transcendental states or beings. Whereas religion may not be reduced to the functioning of the brain, scientific knowledge, in this case about the brain’s functions, removes the ground under lots of hocus pocus argumentation.
When asked thorougly about a god-experience, people reveal they had the feeling of being one with the world, not alone, connected with everyone and everything. A closer look at the brain can explain this as well. In your brain there’s a part that ensures that you feel that whatever you do, it’s you doing it. Move your arm up, think something, … If this part that ‘keeps you in your body’ gets damaged and is not or less active, the ‘opposite’ part in your brain tends to be overactive. The part that thinks it’s not you doing something. The idea of ‘you’ becomes blurred. The line between you, your neighbour, everything, … fades. It’s like you and the rest of the world are the same thing. This can not be explained without something bigger? Or can it?
As we get to know more, at least we know what we can’t expect. To see heaven in a near-death experience for example, or god in a out-of-body experience. The reducibility of these supposedly religious encounters to neurological mechanisms does not allow to state that religion can be traced back to malfunctionings of the brain. Culture also has it’s say. For example, what near-death people usually see is a white light. Because it accords with our idea of entering heaven via a tunnel, we think that that’s where we almost were. So, when someone comes up with this kind of fanatastic argumentation, we can explain the story with neuroscience, but the why of the religious content will have to be sought elsewhere. Refuting that part can’t be too hard, though.
Kristel Van Mileghem
Humanistische Jongeren, Belgium