Greg Stevens, Science Correspondent, The Kernel,
You can have an out of body experience right now, and it isn’t even that hard. Some people can do it more easily than others, and it may take a little practice. But it is something that anybody can do, and it can be done scientifically.
Senses and the self
Let’s start with a question: Where do you feel like the center of your “self” is right now? Most people feel like the center of their consciousness—the vantage from which they are experiencing the world—is somewhere behind their eyes. This makes sense: Your eyes are there, your ears are there, and even your mouth and your nose are there. Four out of five of your senses are all focused in a single area, so it’s no surprise that you feel like the center of your self is “in your head.”
Although both philosophers and scientists are still developing theories about exactly what our sense of self is really for, they all agree that it plays a key role in organizing all of the information that comes in through our senses. We are getting nerve signals from our skin, from our ears, from our eyes, and from our noses. All of these signals contain different types of information, and yet somehow we end up putting them all together to form a single, at least somewhat coherent, picture of “the world around us.”
Thomas Metzinger, in his book Being No One, says that the whole reason we have a self in the first place is to build a single coherent mental model of the world. Or as he eloquently puts it: “One main function of conscious experience may be to construct a final phase in a process of reducing information, data, and uncertainty originating in the buzzing, blooming confusion of the external world.”
You will feel the center of your self becoming freed from that position “behind your eyes.”
To get rid of the feeling that you exist “behind your eyes,” you need to get your mind to build a mental model of the world that isn’t based on information coming into your head.
Lie on the floor and close your eyes. Try to do so where it’s quiet, so you are not distracted by sound, either. While you are lying on the ground, let your mind wander to different parts of your body: Focus on the way the floor feels against the back of your neck, against your shoulders, against your backside. Rub your hands against the floor, and feel the texture.
While you are focused on the way things feel, all of your attention is focused on a part of your body other than your head. Keep your attention completely focused on the sensation that you are getting from your hands, and that becomes your world. The center of your awareness will travel to the part of your body that you are focused on.
You may have also experienced something like this while getting a massage. Think about the last time you got one, or (even better) go out and get one as soon as you are finished reading this. While you are getting your massage, let your attention follow the movements of the person’s hands. Let your mind go blank, except for following every touch and sensation of those hands traveling over you. As the person’s hands travel down your back, so does your mind. When the hands move to your arms, your mind follows. Your attention is like a little spotlight that is traveling with the sensations over the surface of your body.
With this exercise, you will feel the center of your self becoming freed from that position “behind your eyes.” Instead, you are noticing that the location of your self travels around depending on what you are paying attention to. If you close your eyes, ignore your ears or any smells in the room, and focus entirely on (for example) a foot massage that you are getting, then you will experience the world with your feet at the “center” of your consciousness.
Where the body begins and ends
“Well, that’s all fine and good,” you might say, “But that’s hardly an out of body experience!”
It’s time for the next step. If you are in an apartment or a house, lying on the floor, there is a good chance that you can feel faint vibrations through the floor. Can you feel the hum of your refrigerator? Maybe you can feel the vibration of a car driving by outside?
Instead of focusing on the floor and the way it feels, focus on what things out in the world you can use the floor to feel. Feel a person walking around in the apartment next door. Feel the truck driving past, outside your window.
Back in the 1950s, when we were first discovering the basic fundamental principles of how the nervous system deals with signals from the outside world, philosopher and anthropologist Gregory Bateson began to think about what the implications are for the idea of “self.”
Your self is the way that your mind organizes a picture of the world
Bateson came to the startling conclusion that we are wrong to think that our self stops at the edge of our bodies at all. He found himself reasoning this way: When we use our arm to touch a wall, we think of the wall as something “outside” and our arm as part of our “self.” But the neurons in the arm are merely transmitting a signal to our brain.
If a blind man uses a stick to feel the sidewalk in front of him, that stick is serving exactly the same purpose as the neuron in your arm. So Bateson asks, “Where does the blindman’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point half way up the stick? These questions are nonsense.”
For Bateson, our feeling of a boundary between self and “other” is arbitrary, or at least an illusion that is created by whatever we are paying attention to. When you use your hand to feel the floor, you feel like your self stops at your skin. But when you use the floor to feel the traffic outside, your self becomes much larger.
Using the same exercise that you used to move your self around into different locations in your body, you can move your self to locations outside your body, as well. Remember that your self is the way that your mind organizes a picture of the world. If the part of the world that you are focusing on is the part of the world that is touching your skin, then your self will feel like it is bound to your skin. But if you use the floor to feel the world beyond, your self will become larger.
The embodied mind
None of this is going to give you the “out of body experience” that you have come to expect from science fiction and fantasy movies. You will not exist as some kind of ghost, still in human form, floating around the room and looking at things with some kind of inner eye. That, unfortunately, only happens in dreams, myths, and movies.
But with practice you will be able to get a very dramatic sensation of your self existing in locations outside your body. These are actually techniques that have been practiced by Buddhist monks for centuries, and now the intellectual descendents of neuroscientist-philosophers like Gregory Bateson are trying to discover exactly how it happens.
With research we are learning more all the time.
In Ottawa, Canada, researchers are scanning the brain of a student who is quite skilled at triggering out-of-body experiences whenever she wants to. The researchers hope that these brain scans will tell us more about what parts of the brain are involved in different types of experience of the self and where it is located.
We get other clues from rare brain disorders that disrupt a person’s awareness or sense of self. Anton-Babinski syndrome, more commonly known as “Anton’s Blindness,” is a condition where a person is blind but does not know they are blind: As far as their self-awareness is concerned, they think they can see perfectly.
Cotard’s syndrome is a condition where a person believes he doesn’t exist. In fact, he or she will tell you as much… and no amount of rational argument (“If you don’t exist, how can you be telling me this?”) will persuade him or her. The feeling of non-existence is deep and profound, and the emotional impact on these patients is severe, and very sad.
From disorders where the feeling of self gets corrupted or disappears, to exercises that allow us to manipulate our feeling of the location of our self, there are many signs that this thing that we call self is an extremely complex phenomenon. It is one we are only beginning to grasp, but with research we are learning more all the time.