Monday and Tuesday I attended Social Intelligence: from Brains to Culture at the Royal Society. Lots of interesting talks around the theme of social intelligence, but one tangental note popped up in a neuroanatomy talk by Vittorio Gallese (he of the mirror neurons or “monkey-see-monkey-do cells”).

I always love crazy paranormal “phenomena” being debunked, and this was a brain substrate explanation for “out of body” experiences. The brain area in question (the temporal-parietal junction) is to do with alternative-perspective taking – our ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes and see the world from that angle.

This study by Blanke et al demonstrated that the TPJ was activated when people imagined themselves in typical OBE states, and that the ability to do so was impaired when transcranial magnetic stimulation was aimed at the same area. They also report an epileptic patient who experienced OBE’s when the focus of her seizures was in the TPJ.

More on the speakers at the RoySoc event later.


  • […] How the trillions of connections in the human brain are formed must be one of the most intriguing questions in neuroscience. Dan looks at the role of corridor cells in guiding the extension of neocortical cell processes. Fiona delights in a talk at the Royal Society which debunks claims of out-of-body experiences. I’m all for this, as long as we’re clear that what is being debunked is the claim that the soul actually leaves the body, and not the phenomenological  change in consciousness that occurs during this, and other, anomalous psychological experiences. […]

  • In my mind, there is no doubt that OBEs and similar phenomena can be explained by brain activity.

    For example, there are various neuropsychiatric conditions in which exosomasthaesia (the displacement of bodily sensations into extrapersonal space) is experienced.

    I’m in the process of writing a post about the neurobiological bases of some of the so-called ‘paranormal’ phenomena.

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