So here we go again; popular science media outlets are declaring the phenomena of Out-of-Body Experience to be solved, based on a study of what can only be described as a proximal experience in the laboratory.
I’m talking about the way science news journalists like to spin the results of any experiment involving OBE’s or NDE’s (near-death experience), so that the conclusions seem to fit the mainstream narrative that such experiences are simply illusory products of brain activity. To be perfectly clear, I’m not saying that they aren’t illusory experiences, nor am I saying that they’re factually genuine. What I am saying is that the quoted studies do not, cannot support that specific claim. This is an old complaint from me, but I’ll happily illustrate why yet again.
A group of neuroscientists from Sweden published a paper on April 30 in the journal Current Biology, which explains a set of experiments they undertook to image brain activity using an fMRI machine, of patients who were experiencing an induced out-of-body illusion. The stated goal of their research was to identify and study the areas in the brain that are responsible for or are related to body-ownership and spatial awareness. As they note in the abstract, no one has ever looked at how those concepts, and the brain structures involved with those concepts – parietal and medial temporal cortices – might be involved in experiences similar to OBE’s.
According to their paper, they were able to identify activity in certain structures, namely the hippocampus and intraparietal cortices, among others, that bears a strong correlation to our sense of body ownership, and spatial cognition. They specifically claim that the posterior cingulate cortex plays a key role in the integration of spatial awareness and body-ownership. This research could potentially be significant in the treatment of certain mental disorders such as schizophrenia and certain forms of epilepsy.
But there is a very important part of this study that’s being misrepresented by news outlets, specifically by Live Science.
In order to achieve a brain-state in their tests subjects that can be thought of as similar to that which is present during an OBE, the researchers had to create a perceptual illusion using cameras and mirrors, which caused the subject to perceive their body in abnormal spatial orientations. Admittedly, that seems logically similar to what OBE reporters claim to be their experience. However, these researchers, and those reporting their findings are glossing over the very real and very important assumption that lies at the heart of that similarity.
Is the brain activity associated with the induced illusion of an abnormal spatial orientation the same as the brain activity of someone who is undergoing an Out-of-Body Experience? It’s conceivable that they are, but that connection has not been proven by this paper.
To make matters worse, the Live Science writer in question didn’t even provide a direct link to the paper in question so that readers could, and would be encouraged to, go look at the results themselves, rather than taking that one writer’s word for it.
If you’ll recall last year, the science magazine Frontiers published a story about the “study” of a Canadian woman who claimed that she can, in the manner of an OBE, leave her body at will. The story painted the picture of a clinical trial involving fMRI scans of her brain while she thought she was out of her body. Though, as I pointed out in that case as well, the assumption that what she was experiencing, or claimed she was experiencing, was in fact the result of an OBE was completely overlooked in the story. To make matters worse in that case, the story was actually just a story. It was the anecdotal telling of how one researcher put this self-proclaimed OBE’er through a single fMRI scan and then interpreted the results of that scan as they saw fit, with no controls, methodology, or clear goals in mind. And, predictably, science news reporters lapped up the narrative and ran with it as though this is how science is done.
In light of these two cases and the clear bias they highlight in science reporting, is it really any wonder so many people don’t trust this entity, this persona called Science, any further than they can throw it? Don’t get me wrong, I loath science denial as much as unfounded science worship, but this kind of blatant bias, which at times seems to be calculated and deliberate, is almost enough for me to change sides, at least for a little while.