Has science explained life after death?

The Temporal Parietal Junction and OBEs

Research shows that different parts of the brain are most likely responsible for out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences.
Research shows that different parts of the brain are most likely responsible for out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences.
Photo courtesy Dreamstme

While the REM intrusion theory for near-death experiences explains the apparent hallucinations that accompany NDEs, another aspect remains a mystery. How can a person watch his body after he dies? Though out-of-body experiences are sometimes reported as part of the near-death experience, they can also stand alone, indicating that they are a different animal than NDEs.

This is supported by a bit of accidental research. To find the cause of a 43-year-old epileptic patient's seizures, Swiss neurologist Dr. Olaf Blanke conducted a brain mapping test using electrodes planted on the brain to determine which area controls what function. As one region was being stimulated, the woman had a sudden out-of-body experience. She told Blanke that she could see herself from above [source: New York Times].

Blanke determined that by electrically stimulating the woman's angular gyrus, a part of the temporal parietal junction, he could induce her OBEs. What's remarkable is that the patient experienced an OBE each time her angular gyrus was arbitrarily stimulated.

At any given time, the brain is assaulted with information. As a result, we become desensitized to the sights and sounds around us, such as the buzz of a fluorescent light. The temporal parietal junction (TPJ) is responsible for sorting through this disparate information and putting it together into a coherent package.

The TPJ also happens to be the region that controls our comprehension of our own body and its situation in space. Blanke believes that a misfiring of this region is responsible for OBEs. If any of the information being sorted by the temporal parietal junction becomes crossed, like where we are in space, then we could seemingly be released from the confines of our body -- even if only for a moment.

Both Blanke's and the University of Kentucky theories explain OBEs and NDEs. But what about when you put the two together as an explanation for experiences like that of Pam Reynolds? This still does not resolve how Pam Reynolds and others like her view themselves outside of their bodies while they were brain-dead.

NDEs may be a result of REM intrusion, triggered in the brain stem. But OBEs are controlled by a region of the higher brain, which is clinically dead when NDEs occur. What's more, it seems logical to believe that the higher brain must still function in order to interpret the sensations produced by the REM intrusion triggered in the brain stem.

Even though combining the University of Kentucky and Blanke theories does not produce an explanation for NDEs, it does not mean that either theory is wrong. Research in one area often leads to a breakthrough in another. Perhaps we will find out that an organic function is indeed behind NDEs.

If neurology does come up with the definitive explanation for NDEs, the mystery may still remain. Science could explain the "how," while leaving the "why" unanswered. Discovering an explanation for NDEs may reveal a door to the metaphysical world, which could possibly be unlocked -- and explored -- by science.

As physician Dr. Melvin Morse wrote, "Simply because religious experiences are brain-based does not automatically lessen or demean their spiritual significance. Indeed, the findings of neurological substrates to religious experiences can be argued to provide evidence for their objective reality" [source: Morse].

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