I just read a very cool article that I thought some of you might find interesting.
You've probably heard of "phantom limbs" a phenomenon that happens when an arm or leg has been amputated. Patients report that they can still sort of experience some sensation of it as if it were still there. They might momentarily forget the limb isn't there and try to move it, for example, and are surprised when fingers that should be there don't actually grab onto the cup or whatever.
We understand that this is because the brain constructs a mental "virtual" representation of "self" in the environment. The brain "thinks" those fingers are still there, so unless you turn and look at the stump to remind yourself nothing is there, the brain still goes through all the motions and still expects to be grabbing a cup. So even if the limb is no longer there, the brain keeps trying to act as if it were, creating sensations it thinks it should be feeling, or trying to move nerves and muscles that no longer exist.
That's all well and good, it's been studied for years, but the new twist is a Swiss patient who reported that after a stroke rendered one of her arms paralyzed, she could actually see and manipulate a new, third, phantom arm. Her brain was generating a visual sensation of an arm in its mental construct of "self."
fMRI scans confirmed that her brain was functioning and behaving as if the arm were real. Imagining moving an arm lights up the brain differently than actually moving an arm, and when she "moved" this phantom limb, her brain acted as if it were actually moving a real arm, not simply imagining one.
The point of all this is that what our brain thinks is "self" can be different from what actually exists. It can generate sensations, feelings, even images, of what it thinks should be there.
And researchers have been playing with this knowledge about neurology to intentionally trick the brain into thinking that what it thinks as "self" is different from reality. Making you think you're, oh, say, hovering over your body.
Since we know that the brain is responsible for creating this mental construct of self, and since we know that the brain can be tricked about it, it quickly follows that supernatural ideas about souls, OBE's, etc. are most likely just misinterpretations of a different brain state. The only thing we need to do to recreate an OBE is get the brain to think that the "self" isn't in the body at all... in essence, to create more than just a phantom limb, but an entire phantom body.
The science article about the Swiss patient is here:
And a neurologist wrote a bit about it here:
He sums up with this:
"Further, this means that when people have bizarre experiences that are far outside what they are used to, especially when they involve features that are now known to be neurological, it must first be considered that their experiences result from altered brain states - not external reality. However, we seem to have evolved to make the opposite assumption - that whatever we experience is real. This disconnect is one of the primary fuels for belief in the paranormal."