22 July 2011

Out-of-the-body experiences

Some recent articles about out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs) in the Daily Mail demonstrate the usual confusions about the topic. Research allegedly shows that these experiences are not (A) ‘paranormal’, or evidence for survival, but (B) associated with brain malfunction. This simple dichotomy is supposed to cover all possibilities, and – the presumption seems to be – once we have satisfied ourselves that it is indeed a brain malfunction, by narrowing it down to a particular area of the brain or a particular brain process, we can stop regarding it as a question to be resolved by research, and relegate it to the realm of minor curiosities.

There has always been tremendous resistance to the concept of out-of-the-body experiences, so much so that before Dr Charles McCreery and I started to work on them in 1964, they were not accepted either by the Society of Psychical Research, who were supposedly ‘interested’ in experiences beyond the normal range, nor by the academic world outside of the SPR, which was already firmly reductionist.

It is therefore not surprising that the fear of any progress in the scientific understanding of them continues in the form of attempts to dismiss them as ‘imaginary’ in the sense of by-products of brain malfunction. Before we made our first appeals for cases, senior academics associated with the SPR told us that we should not do so; we would be destroying our academic reputations and branding ourselves as spiritualists. OBEs were, they asserted, imaginary.

Now that our first appeals have been followed up by other appeals, and OBEs have had to be accepted as an acceptable topic for academic theses and for work in laboratories by persons with salaried academic appointments, correlations with neurological events are seen as ways of restoring OBEs to the ‘imaginary’ category, which, as before, means ‘of no interest for further research’.

When my colleagues and I published our pioneering study on OBEs in 1968 (the first scientific examination of the topic) we looked at the detailed phenomenology of the experience, i.e. its subjective features, without trying to correlate it with some set of physical conditions, anomalous or otherwise. This was largely because of lack of funding, and absence of an institutional environment – if we had had both, we certainly would have looked first at the electrophysiological correlates. However anomalous or ‘pathological’ OBEs might be, their interest to us was not in classifying them as ‘pathologies’, but as shedding light on normal processes such as perception and consciousness, which could be done only by considering psychological and physiological correlations.

Four decades on, in spite of much ostensible research into these and other phenomena by people other than ourselves, to which we were prevented from contributing by a rigorous lack of financial support, understanding of neither OBEs, nor the normal processes I have mentioned, has advanced much. Merely being able to point out parts of the brain which may be involved does not get one very far.

Grasping the mechanics of waking vs sleeping consciousness, or of the top-down, hypothesis-forming processes of perception, calls for models of a kind which we are no nearer to having than we were forty years ago. Not surprising, given the continuing obsession with exclusively physicalist methods and explanations: those which refer only to things that can be directly measured with the apparatus of physics and chemistry. (I mean in contrast to explanations that involve analyses of subjective mental states.)

Many researchers have looked at OBEs, since our original study, in the attempt to explain them away. None have been able to provide a conclusive account – such as that they are always caused by lack of oxygen, or by failure of a particular cortical structure. None of them seem to have appreciated the more important feature of the phenomenon, namely their potential role in the elucidation of normal mental processes. It seems likely that this will continue to be the case.

Having placed the phenomenon of OBEs on a scientific footing, we should have been provided with finance to take the work further, leading to the possibility of important advances in our understanding of conscious experience and its relation to brain physiology. As we did not have an institutional environment with residential and laboratory facilities, we need funding to set this up in the first instance. Such funding should still be provided now, even more urgently, to prevent the continuing waste of our abilities which could and should be being used in making significant advances. This would be true even if people other than ourselves had shown any sign of adopting a sufficiently analytical and open-minded approach. In fact they have not. The resistance to the possibilities suggested by the phenomena, which had prevented their being recognised by academia before our book on them was published, continues to restrict and distort the work carried out, and the unsatisfactory conclusions drawn from it.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide support both for fund-raising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.