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Altered States and The Brain
by Jeffrey Sax
October 9, 2002
This article was written in response to the publication of an article
Neuropsychology: Stimulating illusory own-body perceptions" in
the journal Nature. For a summary of the article,
There are several different modes of perception that need not all use the same
mechanism for the entire process. We have:
- our normal 'waking' perception through our physical senses.
- intuitive perception, imagination
- "out of body" perception
- dreams, perceptions of alternate realities
Let's say that dreams are indeed perceptions of alternate realities. The
information contained in the dream must somehow be 'downloaded' into the brain
to be processed there. They are processed using the same areas of the brain
used to process the physical senses. Both circuits pass through the
diencephalon, composed of thalamus and hypothalamus.
Note that we shut down our physical senses (we sleep) in order to receive these
'downloads.' We use either of two channels for input (or output) but not both.
Note also that schizophrenics do not seem to have this mutual block in place.
They live in a constant mixture of dreaming and waking reality. Some drugs can
more or less shut down the dream channel during waking hours.
When the diencephalon is tampered with, the person dies. It would seem then that
the main mind-brain connection, the 'seat of consciousness,' is situated there.
This would be a kind of transmitter/receiver of information that is relevant to
the personality. When the link is broken, the personality loses its connection
with the body, which becomes an empty shell.
The role of the brain is limited. Much like a computer loads files from disk
into fast RAM memory, important information, including patterns of behavior, is
downloaded into the brain, which has a limited capacity.
A response to an expected stimulus is very fast, because the pattern was already
present in the body. A response to an unexpected stimulus is slow because the
stimulus needs to be processed by the mind. Certain very complicated actions,
such as driving a car, can be performed 'unconsciously' ("How did I end up
here?") because, once again, the brain holds the complex patterns of behavior.
These observations are consistent with Libet's experiments on the timing of
conscious experience relative to the stimuli that produced them or their
Drugs that alter brain chemistry can have major effects, especially if the
communications link is affected. Problems can occur in two ways: the
information processing in the brain is altered, or mis-timings occur and, for
example, 'junk' may be downloaded into the brain, leading to a very bad trip.
I would speculate that out of body experiences may work as follows. While awake,
the mind is focused on receiving input from the body (through the physical
senses and possibly some other brain processes). When we go to sleep, the
physical senses are shut down, and the focus is shifted from receiving to
sending perceptions from (what we will, for the sake of convenience and
simplicity call) 'elsewhere.'
However, through conscious intent, the mind can be kept in the waking receptive
mode, even when the physical senses are being shut down. This leaves the mind
with a perception of the body through non-physical means. The environment,
which is a creation of the mind anyway, is faithfully recreated as if it
was percieved by the physical senses (using the same 'format') but no longer
requires the in-body perspective.
In my opinion, the 'out-of-body experience' reported in the article
that inspired this article was not an OBE in this sense, but rather
an attempt by the mind to make sense of an abnormal situation.