The Neuroscience of Paranormal Experiences

Written by: Corey Washington

Primary Source: Zero Ideology

Driving to work this morning I was surprised to hear a story on WKAR, the Lansing, MI, public radio station, on paranormal activity. Just another reminder that places that vote similarly may be very different. This is definitely not the kind of story you would hear  WNYC (New York City), WAMU (DC), WBUR (Boston), even in jest.

Playing it straight the announcer was interviewing Samantha Harris, noted “demonologist”, MSU alum, and author of the recent book Fighting Malevolent Spirits: A Demonologist’s Darkest Encounters. The book describes her most severe cases and offers a how-to description on conducting your own in home exorcisms. With her accent, a combination of strong Michigander and Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin,  the interview is a treat.

And they’ve actually proven that when you perform house blessings, say, for example, bringing white sage, it actually alters the environment and, specifically, the ions. We are starting to prove that there is scientific evidence behind these house blessings, that something is actually changing and improving the environment. 

The only comment on the story was from a hip looking young woman with the handle ‘idoubtit’, who wrote:

Demons are hot stuff in pop culture right now. Funny, they are still completely fictional. It seems the cure for demons is to have a scientific skeptical investigator visit. All trouble seems to just disappear.

Idoubtit doubts whether Ms. Harris’ investigations would be scientifically reproducible.

This got me thinking about two topics that have been in the news about neuroscience lately: the reproducibility of scientific publications and studies of what have traditionally been viewed as spiritual experiences.

A paper published last week in Frontiers of Neuroscience reported an fMRI study of a woman who could have out of body experiences at will.  What she described is not quite as dramatic as the one’s portrayed in movies, where a person is looking down at her own body, but is still pretty cool. She can will herself to have the experience of moving above where she knows her body actually is:

I feel myself moving, or, more accurately, can make myself feel as if I am moving. I know perfectly well that I am not actually moving. There is no duality of body and mind when this happens, not really. In fact, I am hyper-sensitive to my body at that point, because I am concentrating so hard on the sensation of moving. I am the one moving – me – my body. For example, if I ‘spin’ for long enough, I get dizzy. I do not see myself above my body. Rather, my whole body has moved up. I feel it as being above where I know it actually is. I usually also picture myself as moving up in my mind’s eye, but the mind is not substantive. It does not move unless the body does.

Here are the two images of her brain as she has this experience. The first shows brain regions with enhanced activity as she induces the experience, the second the areas with reduced activity.

Aside from her ability to have the experience of leaving her body at will the most fascinating part of this case is that she was surprised to learn that other people could not do this!

Another study published last year in PNAS investigated near death experiences in an animal model. People who come close to dying often report seeing a bright white light and passing through a tunnel. The UM researchers decided to study this phenomenon in the rat by fitting them with EEG electrodes,  inducing cardiac arrest and measuring the neural activity. They found that during cardiac arrest the brain was far from silent. There was an increase in the size and coherence of gamma wave activity. Is this the neural foundation of what people say they experience?

These papers are intriguing, but fMRI studies, and biomedical research in general, have faced problems with reproducibility. Let’s hope the results can be reproduced, that they are not just good old fashioned demonology.

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