Sunday, 28 October 2018


How can we understand out of body experiences? There on the divan lies Geoff, mid-psychotic episode, or whacked out on drugs, or just dreamy, or an 'astral projection' pundit, and he's taking himself to be floating on the ceiling looking down at his own body. What's going on? Is this pure hallucination? Is it some kind of projection?

My guess is that it's neither. So, I predict that it can't happen if your eyes are shut, and that you can't 'travel' to parts of the room that you haven't been able to see. If I'm right about that then I think that any simple hallucination theory is already scotched. As for projection: well, that's just a 'made up' explanation, since we don't have any clearer an idea of what is meant by 'projection' here than we do of what is meant by 'OBE'. Three more predictions: that what is seen in OBEs are static scenes (even as the 'perceiver' moves about them), and that who has OBEs are people (who are actually) lying still, and that the 'hovering perceiver' of the OBE is experienced not as static but as, even if but a little, moving ('flying') around the room as he 'looks down' on his own body and its environs.

So what are they? How can we understand OBEs within a purely naturalistic framework? I propose we think of it like this. Every perceptual act enacts a differentiation of a a body subject from a perceived object. Normally the lived body synthesises these so that the body subject pole remains self-same over a whole variety of transforms. The perceiving pole is therefore anchored in the body, and the perceived pole shifts depending on what is seen. This enactive differentiation of body-subject and its intentional object is at the very same time a perceptual act: the cat is constituted as object of my perception, I am constituted as body subject in this chair, the perceptual relation unfolds between the two of us, with the direction of the intentional perceptual relation manifesting in the content: it is, here, I who see the cat, and not the sleeping cat who sees me. What is it, for any experience, that determines which pole shall be which? Well presumably the brain's integrative function sorts out which are to be the variances and which the invariances amongst a whole bunch of ongoing sensorimotor enactions, at the same time over different senses, over time within the same sense, and so on. Presumably the simplest solution to the differential equations which the brain has, as it were, here to solve is usually the one which drops the body out of the content and relegates it to the transcendental from-where of the experience. But when you have an OBE the simplest solution changes. The sensorimotor body is no longer tightly self-integrating over time, so the only two options are for a shifting visual scene to be constituted despite the variety of cues that suggest its stasis, or instead for the subject pole and the intentional object to switch position in the constitution of the intentional arc. Usually we take for granted the constitution of the body subject and so imagine that the only sensorimotor task confronting the brain is determining whether an alteration is due either to the subject (Geoff moves his head) or to the object (the cat moves). But this ignores the need to also determine the polarity of the intentional arc.

Why is it hard to grasp this? I think it is because we are, even today, relentlessly attracted to representationalism in our theories of vision. So we think of perception as reception of information from the environment; we take for granted the constitution of the subject; we imagine that in perception visibilia are simply presented, re-presented even, to a pre-constituted body subject. Or we imagine that the fact that the constitution of the body subject is transcendental somehow makes it not a part of the world, not a co-constituted, constantly re-enacted, empirically ascertainable fact. We relentlessly take the constitution of the subject for granted. (This explains, too, why we are constantly drawn to misunderstand psychosis in merely epistemic terms - as if it were simply a matter of a self-same subject making mistakes in his perception and in his belief.)