“When Brain and Body Part Ways,” by Anil Anathaswamy. The Wall Street Journal, 8/29/2015.
About two months after his brother died, a man in his 50s got up from bed one morning and got a shock when he looked back and saw himself still sleeping. Had he died? he wondered, but he soon found himself sucked back into his sleeping body where they merged and he woke normally.
This is not unusual and is called by psychologists the “doppelganger experience.” It is not real, but a brain miscalculation of our sense of physical self: that we occupy a specific volume in space that feels like ours alone, where we reside and look out into the world. (see the Saul Steinberg cartoon in the posting of 2/11/2011, “The Origin of Consciousness.”
But this space is as perceived by the brain, which can sometimes become confused, as the doppelganger experience shows. The confusion can be forced. In one demonstration, a subject’s hand was hidden and stroked with a brush while simultaneously stroking a fake hand that he could see a short distance away. Within a couple of minutes the subject felt the brushing sensation as coming from the site of the fake hand. With some of the subjects, the fake hand could be removed and they could still feel the brushing as coming from the now-empty space.
As infants, we learn our bodies are something separate from the world by constructing a map from our sights and sensations. (“This orange blob I see passing rapidly in front of my eyes is part of me because I can control its motion, and I can feel sensations coming from it. Maybe that is my arm.”) This is what our brains finally anchor onto as “us.”
“The sense of bodily self is something that is constructed by the brain moment by moment.” Sometimes our brains have two equal images of our physical selves and must decide which one to anchor onto. Sometimes it picks the wrong one. Near death, we are not really hovering around the ceiling looking back on our silent, bedridden body. In our last moment, our brains formed two images, each seeming real, and picked the wrong one as the anchor point.
Sorry, that’s all it is, nothing of the occult.