Thursday, August 23, 2007

the ambiguity of sensation

This caught my eye today:

Using virtual reality goggles, a camera and a stick, scientists have induced out-of-body experiences — the sensation of drifting outside of one’s own body — - in healthy people, according to experiments being published in the journal Science.

When people gaze at an illusory image of themselves through the goggles and are prodded in just the right way with the stick, they feel as if they have left their bodies.

The research reveals that “the sense of having a body, of being in a bodily self,” is actually constructed from multiple sensory streams, said Matthew Botvinick, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Princeton University, an expert on body and mind who was not involved in the experiments.

Usually these sensory streams, which include vision, touch, balance and the sense of where one’s body is positioned in space, work together seamlessly, Prof. Botvinick said. But when the information coming from the sensory sources does not match up, when they are thrown out of synchrony, the sense of being embodied as a whole comes apart.

The brain, which abhors ambiguity, then forces a decision that can, as the new experiments show, involve the sense of being in a different body.

The research provides a physical explanation for phenomena usually ascribed to other-worldly influences, said Peter Brugger, a neurologist at University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland. After severe and sudden injuries, people often report the sensation of floating over their body, looking down, hearing what is said, and then, just as suddenly, find themselves back inside their body. Out-of-body experiences have also been reported to occur during sleep paralysis, the exertion of extreme sports and intense meditation practices.
I remember one sunny afternoon as a preteen sitting in Sunday school listening rapt to my teacher recount a near death experience he’d had as a young man. He had been in some kind of accident and described in vivid detail how, while lying in the hospital bed, he left his body and temporarily entered another place, a beautiful place that must have been heaven. He was an amiable guy in his thirties, and though only 5’8” or so, could dunk the basketball, which meant that to us, he was God. Or at least God’s right hand man. We had a basketball court inside the church, that’s how seriously we took the sport. So the man had our respect.

Over the years of my indoctrination, I heard similar stories, always offered and received with a reverence and awe reserved for the most sacred topics. I always sensed, when these testimony-strengthening experiences were brought out, the familiar phrases lovingly retraced like a pencil scratching the lines of a name on the back of a pew, that we were getting to the core of faith, to the real nub of things. What set us apart, what gave us the hope and optimism that others lacked, was our knowledge of the hereafter. Knowledge that the future was good, that it stretched out like the ocean away from the limited scope of our present sight, and that each of us would be there in person to see it unfold.

The out-of-body stories were a source of comfort to me; they suggested that I, ever resistant to change, could continue on the path upon which I had been set. They suggested that all I had been taught, the ancient stories and the rules around which I structured my life, cohered into something powerful, real, and essential.

I remember in high school my mother, a clinical psychologist, talking about unwelcome doubts that had intruded on her faith, doubts spawned by her neuropsych studies. Questions about things I took for granted like consciousness, emotion, and agency. What if fundamentals like love or faith were dependent on chemical reactions in our brains, wholly contingent on the vagaries of our impermanent bodies? I thought her weak and immature at the time. She must have lacked discipline to have entertained those misgivings, or her mental clarity must have temporarily failed.

A couple years afterwards, I left the church. It’s been many years since then. Still I find that articles like the one excerpted above exert a pull on me; I feel the same fascination that I felt in Sunday school years ago. I feel this time, though, not as if routine things have been enshrouded with mystery, but as if previously obscure matters have become clearer.

I am reminded of the words of LDS authority Bruce McConkie in a different context:
We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

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