Star Trek-like transporter could solve mysteries of brain disease and understand religious beliefs


The late astronomer and science communication champion Carl Sagan once proposed a very simple experiment to test the claims of religious people and new age types who claim to have “floated” outside their bodies in a death experience. imminent. His experience: simply place an obscure or unknown book on top of a shelf. If he or she claims the ability to experience what is called “astral projection,” ask the person for very specific things on the jacket of the book. If the person can’t produce the correct answer, then, well, the memory of floating wasn’t real. More than likely, it was a bizarre sensation produced by the semi-conscious mind, possibly after the person was revived.

Not so long ago, neuroscientists could only guess at the causes of such “out-of-body” experiences. But today technology is helping researchers see that such “experiences” are really “all in the brain” and nothing else. At the same time, a better understanding of the physical basis of our spatial perception can go a long way in helping us understand the variety of diseases that can shape our brains and behavior, including schizophrenia. It might even shed light on the origins of organized religion.

What’s the latest innovation in mental surveillance? Using a brain scanning technology known as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Swedish research was able to produce a Star Trek transporter effect in the minds of volunteers (reports in various media have used the term “teleportation” when speaking of Star Trek device, but the Star Trek series never used that term; it was always the “transporter”).

To be sure, no one actually teleported anyone anywhere. Instead, lying in an MRI chamber, subjects felt like they were beamed into a room. By connecting the volunteers with virtual reality to a mannequin with cameras and sensors on different parts of the body and passing over the cameras and sensors, and moving the mannequin, the researchers were able to observe how the activity in specific parts of the brain made a person feel like they were in one place or another.

“If we can understand how the brain constructs the body’s sense in space, it will give us clues as to what goes on in disorders such as schizophrenia,” said neuroscientist Arvid Guterstam, of the Karolinska Institute of Stockholm, where the experiment was carried out. conducted.

This is because schizophrenia includes disturbances in self-perception, not necessarily in the spatial sense, but erroneous spatial perceptions can be part of it. Additionally, a much rarer condition called asomatognosia is characterized by a lack of awareness of a certain part of the body. Usually, asomatognosia develops as a result of brain damage, and loss of consciousness in parts of the body corresponds to damage in particular areas of the brain.

By repeating the experiment with the dummy body in different parts of the room, the researchers were able to produce different illusions of body location; sometimes a subject felt like it was in one part of the room, and sometimes it felt like it was in another part. Using fMRI, they examined the activity of specific areas of the brain during and without illusions, looking for an area of ​​the brain controlling both an individual’s sense of self-localization and their feeling. ownership (the feeling of being inside your own body). The experiments revealed that there is one such part of the brain that controls these two sensations: the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), located in the lower part of the parietal lobes of the brain.

“It’s a very mysterious region [of the brain]Guterstam noted of the CCP. Most of the knowledge about how different parts of the brain work comes from observations of the effects of strokes. People who have strokes in an area of ​​the frontal lobe called Broca’s area, for example, have difficulty expressing themselves, even though they know what they mean. For this reason, neurologists have long known that Broca’s area is vital for expression. But since the CCP is not very prone to stroke, neuroscientists have been uncertain about its function.

On the other hand, moving away from its posterior end, the cingulate cortex in general has known links with memory and learning, but also with psychiatric disorders, in particular schizophrenia and depression. This, in turn, makes its newly discovered connection to body location and body property all the more interesting. In the study, the misperceptions are called illusions because research can create and remove them at will. In a sick state, however, we would call the effects hallucinations. In schizophrenia, the most notorious hallucinations are auditory – patients hear voices – but in psychiatry hallucinations can also be visual and involve all of the other senses.

Various metaphysical ideas promoted by religious “prophets” and founders of world religions, as well as people resurrected from clinical death, have involved out-of-body experiences and floating sensations. This makes it all the more interesting that the Swedish experiment found that a sensation of floating, and of being transported instantly from one place to another, involves the parietal lobe, as well as another area of ​​the brain called the premotor cortex. (in the frontal lobe). Considering everything that might turn on and off in the brain as one moves between consciousness of normal life, unconsciousness of sleep, unconsciousness of impending death, and the various states of semi-consciousness connecting these other states, it seems reasonable that a floating experience outside the body, including the commonly reported “astral projection”, should have a physical basis in the brain.

Given advances in fMRI and other brain experimentation technologies, it also seems reasonable that science is about to demonstrate precisely why people have such experiences. In the meantime, it’s probably not a bad idea to take Sagan’s advice and put some obscure book titles on the shelves in hospitals and other places.

David Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician and science writer. To follow @CosmicEvolution to read what he said on Twitter.

For more information on the Genetic Literacy Project, read BPL on Wikipedia.

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