Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Out-of-Body Experiences as the Origin of the Concept of a "Soul" Part One - Thomas Metzinger

Philosopher Thomas Metzinger argues that out of body experiences are “the proto-concept of mind;…they are what led human beings to believe in a soul.” We have extracted his essay, originally published in the journal Mind and Matter in 2005, into two consecutive posts. This the first characterizes out of body experiences and explores their implications with respect to the experience of self. We have rearranged some of the material to fit our two post format. The numbers in parenthesis correspond to the page numbers in article. Metzinger is the head of the Theoretical Philosophy Group at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz Germany. His most recent book is The Ego Tunnel. (Reprinted with permission)


The bus to the train station had already been late. And now you have even queued up in a line at the wrong ticket counter! Nevertheless you manage to reach your train just in time, finding an empty compartment and, completely exhausted, drop into the seat. In a slightly unfocused and detached state of mind you are now observing the passengers sitting in the train on the other side of the platform. Suddenly you feel how your own train starts to move, very slowly at first, but accompanied by a continuous acceleration, which you can feel in your own body. Two or three seconds later, with the same degree of suddenness, your bodily sensation disappears and you become aware that it actually is the other train, which has now started to slowly leave the train station (see also Metzinger 1993, p. 185f). (65)

Such an experience is a very rudimentary form of an OBE, a hallucinated bodily self. The center of your global model of reality was briefly filled by a kinesthetic and proprioceptive hallucination, a non-veridical model of the weight and acceleration of your body, erroneously activated by your brain. The dominating visual model of your environment, largely formed by the input offered through the “picture frame“ of the train window, was underdetermined. In the special input configuration driving your visual system it allowed for two coherent interpretations: either it is the other train, or it is the train in which you are sitting, which has just started to move. The visual model of reality allowed for two equally consistent interpretations. At the same time there was a state of general physical and emotional arousal, accompanied by an unconscious state of expectancy about what is very likely going to happen next, and very soon. (61-62)

The information-processing system, which you are, selected one of the two possible interpretations in accordance with constraints imposed by a preexisting internal context and, as a system that always tries to maximize overall coherence, “decided” to simultaneously activate a suitable self-model, one that can be integrated into the new phenomenal model of the world without causing any major problems. Unfortunately, the chosen model of the world was wrong… A possibility was depicted as a reality. (61-62)

They frequently occur during extreme sports, for instance in high-altitude climbers or marathon runners (Alvarado 2000, p. 184):

A Scottish woman wrote that, when she was 32 years old, she had an OBE while training for a marathon. “After running approximately 12–13 miles . . . I started to feel as if I wasn’t looking through my eyes but from somewhere else. . . . I felt as if something was leaving my body, and although I was still running along looking at the scenery, I was looking at myself running as well. My ‘soul’ or whatever, was floating somewhere above my body high enough up to see the tops of the trees and the small hills.” (65)

They also frequently occur during sleep.

The process of detachment started at the fingertips, in a way that could be clearly felt, almost with a perceptible sound, a kind of crackling. It was precisely the movement which I actually intended to carryout with my physical hands. With this movement, I detached from my body and floated out of it with the head leading. I gained an upright position, as if I was now almost weightless. Nevertheless I had a body consisting of real limbs. You have certainly seen how elegantly a jellyfish moves through the water. I could now move around with the same ease. I lay down horizontally in the air and floated across the bed, like a swimmer, who has pushed himself from the edge of a swimming pool. A delightful feeling of liberation arose within me. But soon I was seized by the ancient fear common to all living creatures, the fear of losing my physical body. It sufficed to drive me back into my body.(64)

A 29-year-old woman has had absence seizures since the age of 12 years. The seizures occur five times a week without warning. They consist of a blank stare and brief interruption of ongoing behavior, sometimes with blinking. She had an autoscopic experience at age 19 years during the only generalized tonoclonic seizure she has ever had. While working in a department store she suddenly fell, and she said, “... the next thing I knew I was floating just below the ceiling. I could see myself lying there. I wasn’t scared; it was too interesting. I saw myself jerking and overheard my boss telling someone to ‘punch the timecard out’ and that she was going with me to the hospital. Next thing, I was in space and could see Earth. I felt a hand on my left shoulder, and when I went to turn around, I couldn’t. Then I looked down and I had no legs; I just saw stars. I stayed there for a while until some inner voice told me to go back to the body. I didn’t want to go because it was gorgeous up there, it was warm – not like heat, but security. Next thing, I woke up in the emergency room.” No abnormalities were found on the neurological examination. Skull CT scan was normal. The EEG demonstrated generalized bursts of 3/s spike-and-wave discharges. (66)

The prevalence of OBEs ranges from 10% in the general population to 25% in students, with extremely high incidences in particular subpopulations like, to take just one example, 42% in schizophrenics (Blackmore 1986; for an overview and further references see Alvarado 1986, 2000, p. 18p, and Irwin 1985, p. 174p). However, it would be false to assume that OBEs typically occur in people suffering from severe psychiatric disorders or neurological deficits. Quite the contrary, most OBE-reports come from ordinary people in everyday life situations. (64)

At present it is not clear whether the concept of an OBE possesses one clearly delineated set of necessary and sufficient conditions. The concept of an OBE may in the future turn out to be a cluster concept constituted by a whole range of diverging (possibly overlapping) subsets of phenomenological constraints, each forming a set of sufficient, but not necessary, conditions. On the other hand the OBE clearly is something like a phenomenological prototype. There is a core to the phenomenon, as can be seen from the simple fact that many readers will have already heard about in one way or another. (59)

One can offer a representationalist analysis of OBEs by introducing the concept of a “phenomenal self-model” (PSM; for more on the concept of a PSM, see Metzinger 2003a). APSM is an integrated, conscious representation of the organism as a whole, including not only its spatial features, but also those of its own psychological properties to which it has access. An important feature of the human PSM is that it is almost entirely transparent. This means that we, as the organisms activating the PSM in their own central nervous system, cannot recognize it as a model: We become naive realists with regard to its content, the transparent representational content of the PSM is simply what we experience and later refer to as “our” conscious self. (59-60)

Given this conceptual background, we can analyze OBEs a class of deviant self-models. On the level of conscious self-representation a prototypical feature of this class of deviant phenomenal self-models seems to be the coexistence of (a) a more or less vertical representation of the bodily self, from an external visual perspective, which does not function as the center of the global model of reality, and (b) a second self-model, which according to subjective experience largely integrates proprioceptive perceptions – although, interestingly, weight sensations only to a lesser degree – and which possesses special properties of shape and form that may or may not be veridical. Both models of the experiencing system are located within the same spatial frame of reference (this is why they are out-of -body-experiences). (60)

…You see your own body, and you recognize it as your own, but presently it is not the body as subject, the body as the locus of knowledge and of lived, conscious experience. (67) OBEs, phenomenologically, are not states of disembodiment. On the contrary, there always seems to be a spatially located phenomenal self, even if its embodiment is reduced to a pure spatial point of visuo-attentional agency. (68) In general it seems safe to say that prototypical OBEs are fully transparent states. The model of reality generated during the experience is not experienced as a model, although in experienced subjects and practitioners this fact may well be cognitively available during the episode. It is precisely the transparency of OBEs, which has led generations of experiencers and theoreticians in many cultures and for many centuries in the past to naive-realistic interpretations of this deviant form of phenomenal self-modeling. However, many OBE subjects also report a “dreamlike quality, as if being awake in a dream”. (68)

The physical body viewed from an external perspective is very rarely distorted or changed in shape and size. However, the subject component of the intentionality-relation modeled in these states may vary greatly (note how just the opposite principle holds for ordinary waking states). Some OBE subjects see or feel themselves in a weightless replica of their original body, others experience themselves as being in no body at all or in a kind of indeterminate form, such as a ball of light or an energy pattern (Alvarado 1997, p. 18; Green 1968) or even as “pure consciousness” (Alvarado 2000, p. 186). (70)

This may indicate that spatial content is not strictly necessary in realizing the function fulfilled by the second self-model for the system as a whole. In other words, those higher functions such as attention, cognition and agency, which are integrated by the “dissociated” self, now are only weakly embodied functions. In order to be carried out they do not need the integration into a spatially characterized, explicit body image. Arguably, attentional and cognitive agency can functionally be decoupled from the process of autonomic self-regulation and the spatial self-representation necessary for generating motor behavior. Conceptually, this is an important insight about the human mind. As it is plausible to assume that also non-cognitive creatures like animals could undergo the type of fully disembodied OBEs described above, we may conclude that attentional agency actually is one of the essential core properties underlying the conscious experience of selfhood. Spatial self-representation and cognitive self-reference are not necessary for selfhood. (70)

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