Altered States and The Brain

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, click here.

There are several different modes of perception that need not all use the same mechanism for the entire process. We have:

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 effects.

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.