The brain is an amazing organ, or collection of organs, depending on one’s point of view. It all seems to work together as one, but it is composed of many different subsystems. Neurologists have been able to map specific functions onto specific brain regions, such as so-called “speech centers” and parts associated with emotions, but the brain brings it all together to form one sense of self existing in one version of the world.
Our brains take whatever sensory information we are experiencing, combine that with our present state of awareness, and build an image of the world and our place in it many times per second. Our sense of touch is used to place us relative to other objects as well as to detect the orientation of our bodies. Hearing and vision allow us to know what else is out there beyond our sense of touch. But how do they do that?
The only information we have for vision is on our retinas, where light strikes them at the backs of our eyes. Similarly, everything we hear takes place at the bottoms of our ear canals. But we see and hear everything as if it was out there in the world, beyond our eyes and ears. How do we get from tiny spots of sensation to large, three dimensional representations of the world? Our amazing brains process the information and create a sense of self, separate from and embedded within a larger world.
That’s why no one should be surprised when they hear about people experiencing different representations of reality, such as out-of-body experiences and near death experiences. OBEs and NDEs are simply our brains gamely trying to do their job of presenting us with a continuous sense of our place in the world, when operating under less than ideal conditions.
NDEs, which often include OBEs, are the product of the brain doggedly struggling through oxygen deprivation, carbon dioxide intoxication and a chaotic flood of chemicals as it endures trauma. NDEs are usually associated with an actual near death event, and most often when a person has been declared “clinically dead,” a state not to be confused with death. The sensations can include a sense of floating, fear and/or serenity, detachment from the body and bright lights.
These unusual experiences are fascinating for us, in large part because we trust our amazing brains to give us an accurate account of what is happening to us. Even when they don’t, we’re inclined to believe they do.