Can we escape our body?

There’s a neuroscience parlor trick that goes like this: you stand in front of a mirror in such a way that one of your arms is hidden behind your back. You have a friend come up behind you and place their arm so that it looks like their arm is yours. Then you gently stroke your friend’s arm, creating the illusion that you are stroking your own arm. Many people will report feeling as if it is their arm (currently untouched behind their back) being stroked.

There are also variations of this trick using blindfolds and people petting your nose or you arranging mirrors in such a way that what appears in a mirror to be your figure is really one half of you combined with an inversion, but the gist is the same. I tried this sort of thing once and didn’t have much success though I also didn’t apply much gusto.

As I’ve mentioned before, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has utilized techniques like this to relieve amputees of phantom limb pain.

The point being that it seems like we can easily trick our body (or more accurately, our brain) into thinking it is feeling something that it is not.

This reminds me of an interesting experience I had. I was at a park and staring into the gently lapping water of a lake. I was in a pretentious spiritual mood and thought to myself that I should try and become the water. Water seems like a very zen state – devoid of boundaries, always moving, ever malleable. I was thinking this, watching the water and something happened. It hard to explain but all of a sudden I felt like I was the patch of water I was viewing. I felt… “floaty” and as if I had no obvious beginning or end (e.g. the edge of my body was gone.) It was not a really amazing or frightening sensation, more amusing. It lasted a few seconds and was over.

Now, I don’t think I had some sort of spiritual experience; I think this was probably related to the techniques described above. Just as people’s brains can be lured into thinking a foreign arm is not their own, my brain – fueled by a little willpower and fanciful thinking – came to believe that it was the water and so it adjusted its sensations accordingly. (I recognize this is weird and unusual, but I don’t think it’s impossible. It seems to be similar to what many people report during meditation.)

This may all tie in with mirror neurons; they are the somewhat controversial allegation that we have neurons in our brain that fire when we see other people doing things. For example, when you watch someone shoot a basketball there are neurons that fire that would also fire if you were shooting the basketball yourself. I’ve never heard of mirror neurons responding to actions by non living substances, such as water, but maybe mine, in fact, were at the moment described above.

UPDATE: There’s an additional element to consider here. Could this all tie in with people’s out of body experiences? Perhaps in those cases a person’s sense of their body shuts down all together and they get that “floating” sensation. It wouldn’t explain the visual aspects (e.g. people saying “I could see my body lying below”) but it’s worth noting that scientists have managed to trigger out of body experiences in people via a kind of brain stimulation.

2 Responses to “Can we escape our body?”

  1. john

    Yeah, whatever, Water Boy!

  2. john

    Let’s get some chick singer to record a Parody of “Someone To Watch Over Me” called “Someone To Blow A Shitload Of Cash Over Me” – Quick! I gotta make a shitload of cash REALLY FAST!!