My friend Danny is in agony. I hear his cries, whimpers and moans from the hallway. A morphine pill finally offers him relief for the excruciating pain in his leg. Danny’s brain had forgotten that he lost his lower right leg a year ago, and he was wracked with phantom pain in a part of his body that no longer exists.
Groggy from sleep, Sandra is shocked to discover a strange arm in bed with her. What criminal had broken into her house—and her bed?! Only after she tries to shove the arm out of the bed does Sandra realize it is her own.
Mind over matter? Or just mixed-messages? Sometimes our brain and body get crossed signals. Sometimes we just need a good cup of hot cocoa. But the connection between our bodies and the mush in our head is a lot more complicated than you might have imagined the last time you lost your keys. Amputees feel hands and feet they no longer have. Dreams seem real. And then there are out-of-body—or “near death“—experiences.
[OUTSIDE LOOKING ON]
A patient has suffered severe bodily trauma. She is on the edge of death and could go either way. Suddenly she seems to be looking down on herself. She sees what is happening to her, the doctors striving to save her, the loved ones in shock—all from above.
Millions have claimed such experiences. Close to death, they’ve seen bright lights, dead relatives and long tunnels. Is this evidence of life after death? Signs of the supernatural? What do these and similar experiences tell us about the relationship between mind and body?
The strange case of a Swedish epileptic patient, as reported by CNN and various scientific journals, may shed some light on the out-of-body experience. Lying in a hospital bed with up to 100 electrodes attached to different parts of her brain, the patient experienced a strange sensation. She described herself “floating above her own body and watching herself.” She reported the sensation only when doctors stimulated one particular part of her brain, the angular gyrus in the right cortex. And every time doctors stimulated the angular gyrus, she experienced it again.
Responding to the electrodes, the woman felt like she was falling or growing lighter. "I see myself lying in bed, from above,” she told doctors as they increased the intensity.
Scientists believe the angular gyrus is involved in spatial cognition, analyzing sensory input to help us perceive our bodies. Thus, the Swedish scientists suggest, neural misfiring in that area of the brain may partially explain out-of-body experiences.
The Swedish episode (which, due to its lack of scientific controls, cannot be classified a study) is not the first to stir speculation about out-of-body experiences. Other researchers have suggested that out-of-body experiences occur when lack of oxygen kills brain cells, or when the brain releases endorphins to counter bodily trauma.
In the mid-20th century, renowned neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield reported similar findings as the Swedish scientists. As he electrically stimulated the area around the Sylvian fissure, which divides the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes, patients sometimes would say, “I’m leaving my body now,” or even “I’m half in and half out.” Others reported hearing beautiful music, their life passing before their eyes and even “seeing God.”
[OUT ON A LIMB]
Though we think of ourselves as tasting with our tongues and feeling with our fingers, we actually experience the world through our brains. Sensory impressions go to our brain, where various areas translate the data into our perceptions. And that’s where reality can begin to bend, as the phantom limb phenomenon illustrates.
McGill University scientist Ronald Melzack studied 125 people who lacked a limb, including 76 who’d been born without one. An 11-year-old girl whose left arm ended at the elbow felt pain in her “fingers” when she hit her funny bone. A 14-year-old boy felt his missing arm when it rained. “You do not need the body to feel the body,” Melzack said. In the February 1998 issue of Discover magazine, Melzack suggested that connections form in the embryonic brain to respond to body parts that do not always form. “Even if we are missing a part of the body,” Melzack said, “the brain is able to generate the perception of the part.”
When doctors asked the Swedish epileptic patient to look at her raised arm, she thought it was coming to punch her. Dr. Olaf Blanke, a neurologist at Geneva University Hospital, believes this suggests that “alien hand syndrome” and “phantom” limbs are related to out-of-body experiences.
Popular books by such authors as Oliver Sacks (An Anthropologist on Mars, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) and Judith Hooper and Dick Teresi (The Three-Pound Universe) have explored the mind-body connection. They’ve demonstrated that, in the words of Dr. Barry Gordon, professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins, “The inner mind is more bizarrely constructed than we might think.”
So maybe we can truly say that it’s all in our heads. But what does this say about God? The supernatural? Eternal destiny? How should Christians relate to such knowledge of the brain’s inner working?
Realize the brain’s incredible intricacy and capabilities reflect its Creator. As science gets closer to describing the what and how of the universe and ourselves, it leaves wide open the deeper question of “To what ultimate purpose?”
Be careful about basing theology on experience alone. Experience doesn‘t always reflect reality. We’re susceptible to emotions, body chemicals, human persuasion and even demonic distraction.
The Bible is the last word on reality and truth. Any claims about life after death, the supernatural and related topics must be weighed against the clear—and sometimes fuzzy and hard to make out—word of Scripture. Be careful not to jump to or support outlandish conclusions that run counter to the word of God. Test everything by the Bible, comparing texts from throughout the book to ensure a full picture of truth.
Recognize the limitations of science. Science can tell us that falling in love releases one of the same chemicals in the brain (phenylethylamine, an amphetamine-like substance) as contained in chocolate, but falls far short of explaining the transforming power of love. While science can point to intricacies we’ve never imagined, such discoveries only deepen eternal mysteries. Yes, the universe is not as clear-cut as Christians once imagined—because it is much more wondrous.
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