The Science Behind Your Out of Body Experience

What do epilepsy, an out of body experience and your personal space bubble share in common? Mother-and-son science writers Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee explain the connection in their book, The Body has a Mind of its Own.

Team Blakeslee begin their story in an unlikely place: the region of your brain behind your right ear. It’s known as your Right Angular Gyrus (RAG).

Before an epilepsy operation, the surgeon’s standard procedure is to open up the skull and poke around a little to identify the various functional brain areas.

Even though human brains share the same essential architecture, each brain is wired slightly differently. A quick round of poking and prodding is the best way to get a sense of the layout, and thus to know what not to cut.

Since the brain doesn’t feel pain, this recon mission is done with the patient awake. The surgeon probes a given area, and the patient reports back what they are feeling. For example, a gentle touch on one area of your brain might register as if someone is tickling the big toe on your left foot. You get the idea.

One day, a neurosurgeon enacting this procedure happened to probe the patient’s right angular gyrus. Much to the surgeon’s surprise, the patient excitedly explained that they had the sensation of hovering above the operating table and looking down on their own body. The same thing has since happened to others as well. It turns out that at least some of the time, the classic out-of-body experience is as simple as knowing where to poke.

So what’s going on? In trying to predict and understand its environment, the brain constructs maps of the real world. This is how we can remember the floor plan in our house or apartment, or find our way back to the grocery store again and again.

In a very literal way, your sense of self reaches beyond your own skin.

In fact, your brain annexes and maps the area around you as if it were an extension of your body, albeit a virtual one. Scientists call this zone “peripersonal space.” The out-of-body experience, from the brain’s point of view is not so ‘out of body’, it’s just working from a different definition of where your body begins and ends.

This makes the use of tools in our lives much more meaningful. When a baseball player picks up a bat, his brain treats the bat as a logical extension of his own arm and hand. In the same way, an experienced backhoe operator’s command of the machine’s joystick turns the machines bucket into his own giant robot arm, thus extending his reach in an entirely literal way.

The Blakeslees also point out that your peripersonal space is not static, but “morphs” based on your movement and intentions. This is why a sight-impaired person can learn to navigate so well with a cane.

And as they make the way down the street, even though they are holding onto nothing but a glorified stick, their extended brain mapping allows them to feel the texture of the pavement, and extract a very real sense of the ground they are traversing.

So the next time you’re riding on a subway or find yourself crammed into a crowded elevator, keep in mind that you’re encroaching on some stranger’s peripersonal space, and from the brain’s perspective, you’ve just shared a very intimate moment.

The Lowdown on Luck

“Good luck!”

It’s a common expression in our lexicon. Obviously, on a gut level we have some sense of the importance of luck—that is, until things go our way. Suddenly, we relegate luck to the cheap seats as we bask in the spotlight, prepared to take full credit for our superior decision-making.

Take the Quaker Oats Corporation, for example.

In 1983, the CEO of Quaker Oats, William Smithburg, sampled some of an up-and-coming sports drink and decided to acquire the company. That beverage was Gatorade, and it was the beginning of a goldmine for Quaker Oats.

So when Smithburg decided to buy Snapple in 1994 for $1.8 billion, he was unchallenged from within his organization. This was the Gatorade guy, after all; surely he knew what he was talking about. Media pundits disagreed, lambasting the decision before the deal was even struck.

Did Smithburg’s superior decision-making prove them wrong? Well, no.

Fast forward 3 years and Quaker Oats was desperately unloading Snapple at a loss of $1.5 billion dollars. To this day, it is widely seen as one of the worst decisions in business history— quite a legacy.

So how could Smithburg screw up so badly? How should we understand what happened at Quaker Oats, polar opposite results from the same CEO?

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has the answer. And for that answer, we must turn to the Israeli Air Force.

For a long time, the Israeli Air Force trained its pilots with the assumption that negative feedback trumped positive. After all, when a trainee pilot was punished for a botched maneuver, the next attempt tended to go better. When that same trainee executed a maneuver perfectly and received praise, their next attempt was generally not as good.

Kahneman was the first to realize that this wasn’t a case of the stick working better than the carrot. It was simple statistics at play.

We all love those magic moments where we outshine our normal capabilities. But there’s a reason your average is your average. So chances are that a better-than-usual outcome is almost certainly going to be followed by something lackluster. The opposite is true as well; if you find yourself performing much worse than usual, the odds favor an eventual upswing.

It’s an old concept in statistics. In the 19th century, Sir Frances Galton found that the children of unusually tall people tended to be a little shorter than their parents, and unusually short parents tended to have children taller than themselves. He referred to this phenomenon as “regression to the mean.”

Kahneman takes this concept beyond height and into the messier real world.

No matter how well you prepare, most enterprises involve a degree of chance. A brilliant business idea may still fail in a lousy economy. An untalented singer might still net a record deal by happening to charm the right person at the right time.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman repeatedly demonstrates that much of our lives are shaped by random events beyond our understanding or control.

Was William Smithburg’s gut decision to buy Gatorade a stroke of leadership genius? Or did he happen to taste the right stuff at the right time?

Kahneman was once asked about his definition of success. He famously replied, “Success = talent + luck, and great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck.”

In other words, luck is not some bit player. It’s an integral part of the human experience, whether we chose to acknowledge it or not. Kahneman showed luck, good or bad, pretty much guarantees that regression to the mean is always waiting to take center stage.

The Intersection: Where Bacon Meets Chocolate, and Creativity Meets Genius

Want to radically ramp up your creativity? In his new book The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson believes he can help you. If you’re a fan of the Renaissance, you are probably familiar with the House of Medici. This powerful political dynasty bankrolled generations of thinkers, poets, philosophers, sculptors, painters, architects, and scientists. It is no exaggeration to say that in the 15th century, the Medicis were a driving force behind making Florence, well, Florence.

We still enjoy their legacy; Medici sponsorships enabled the work of heavy hitters like Galileo and Botticelli, as well as Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo and Da Vinci. (The artists, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Although that would be an amazing show…)

According to Johansson, the Medici genius was creating conditions that fostered the intersection of diverse disciplines. This co-mingling ultimately led to extraordinary leaps in innovation.

Johansson argues you can create your own little Medici effect if you correctly set up your environment. First, you must harness the way your brain picks up information. The brain’s strategy for learning is associative. It uses an elaborate sorting system, constantly looking for connections between arenas of knowledge.

Take music, for example.

I might begin with understanding that music is built on single entities called notes, and these notes combined in chunks of three or more make up basic structures called chords. As I learn the chord formations, I begin to understand their place in a larger system called a scale, and pretty soon I’m immersed in the study and playing of these scales. When we let these associations run wild, the result is a genre called jazz.

So this is how we build out our mental library, with each of these associations bridging out to other associations. It’s a very efficient way to take on and store information.

But the real power lies in the brain’s ability to combine domains. For instance, philosophy and specifically logic rest at the intersection of language and math. And it is at this nexus point you can spark some surprising insights.

One of the central themes of Johansson’s book is to immerse yourself in as much experience as possible with an eye towards seemingly unrelated connection.

If you frame your world in this way and you go deep with your exploration (a key to creativity, according to Johansson), you begin to see new possibilities. A young Steve Jobs’s fascination with calligraphy leads him to make a variety of fonts available on the early Apple computers, a distinct and winning differentiator from his competitors.

Kirby Ferguson’s creative model follows the process of “copy, combine and transform.” Johansson suggests that the key to novel ideas is keeping an aggressively open mind in the combination phase, bringing together elements that might, on the surface, seem out of place.

In your culinary adventures, you might not think mixing chocolate with bacon, but many people swear by it. Paul Simon’s Graceland melds traditional American roots rock with Cajun zydeco and South African mbaqanga, among others. Henry Ford’s revolutionary automotive assembly line took its cues from the meatpacking industry.

As Johansson says, “The world is connected and there is a place where those connections are made—a place called the Intersection. All we have to do is find it… and dare to step in.”

The Science of Epiphany

You know the sweet satisfaction when you suddenly have an epiphany? I’m talking about that “Aha!” moment when the circuits suddenly connect and, seemingly out of nowhere, you are struck with an insight.

Today, using fMRI technology, neuroscientists can watch the revelation unfold on a cellular level. Neurons begin to cluster and activity speeds up, eventually giving way to burst of energy not unlike a mini fireworks show. All this can be witnessed by the fMRI technician about eight seconds before the subject is aware of their impending moment of truth.

So how does this all work?

First, it’s important to differentiate between an actual Eureka moment and a more mundane retrieval of information from your hippocampus, that general purpose library of memories.

Insights are not merely rediscovering misplaced data, like suddenly remembering where your car keys are. They are combinations or reinterpretations of information, creating something entirely different or new. They are the embodiment of what it means to “think outside the box.”

It starts with consciously trying to solve a problem. Then there is the required period of struggle, hitting the proverbial brick wall with no solution in sight. Take the classic father and son riddle:

A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son is rushed to the hospital. At the hospital, the surgeon takes one look at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this child, he’s my son.” How can this be???

This brainteaser plays on the fact that some readers will automatically assume the surgeon is male.

Suppose you are one of those people whose gender bias prevented you from seeing the answer right away. Even though your prefrontal cortex might be stumped, unbeknownst to you, your subconscious brain is still working overtime trying to figure it out.

Interestingly, it seems that when your prefrontal cortex hits an impasse, it triggers other brain functions to kick into gear. This sets up the opportunity for free association by bypassing your analytical train of thought in favor of the hippocampus’s vast storage of information, feeling, and experience.

Your subconscious brain essentially goes into improvisational mode, and what we call daydreaming is actually this freewheeling engine hard at work. This is a critical aspect of the epiphany process for every one of us, from the average Joe or Jane in the street to Albert Einstein. (Einstein called his daydreaming “thought experiments.”)

Because all this business is going on below your awareness, when the solution floats up into your rational mind fully formulated, it feels as if it came out of nowhere.

Only the conscious brain has language. This is probably a good thing because if your subconscious brain could talk, it might very well demand a thank you, or at the very least an “I told you so”.

Robbing a bank with your wristwatch

As you stand in the check-out line, you may find yourself wondering why two minutes in a loud, crowded store can feel like an hour, or why an hour of relaxing with a good book can flit by in what feels like seconds. Why are we so bad as a species at tracking lengths of time?

In neuroscience, the prevailing strategy for understanding the “why” of any brain behavior is to think of it in terms of evolutionary advantage. What was life like back when humans were just starting to become humans? A lot of seemingly negative or unhelpful traits make sense in this context. There is a school of thought that the species might have benefited from some members of the tribe having ADHD, for instance. A dose of extra alertness or hyperactivity might hobble a desk worker, but it can be a godsend if you’re hunting antelope.

So why are our internal clocks so terrible? To a people consumed by foraging, hunting, and gathering, the passing of 90 seconds or an hour was just not that important. Most of human history has not been counted in minutes. Luckily, the Swiss came along to help us out.

December 18, 2013 marks the 91st anniversary of the Denver Mint robbery. To be precise, it marks the robbing of a bank truck fresh from the Mint. From end to end, the crime took just 90 seconds, which, even in today’s fast-paced world of modern bank robbing, is still impressive.

Who was the mastermind? Herman “the Baron” Lamm, a German immigrant and former Prussian soldier who was kicked out of the Army for cheating at cards. He is also often credited as the father of modern bank robbery. In 1917, Lamm was rotting away in the Utah State Penitentiary for a failed bank robbery attempt. The Baron could have used this time to contemplate “going straight.” Instead, he did something remarkable: he went pro.

Lamm spent his incarceration engineering a whole new kind of bank robbery: multiple getaway routes, specialized roles (point man, lookout, vault man, driver, backup driver), and meticulous planning. He would case a perspective bank for hours, detailing the comings and goings of bank employees and deliveries. (Later, John Dillinger, public enemy #1, would cite Lamm as his inspiration.)

After he got out of the Utah Pen, he carefully recruited a crack team of experts, and they practiced various scenarios, sometimes using a mock-up bank they constructed in an abandoned warehouse. They practiced until their operation ran with the precision of a Swiss watch—or a Prussian military exercise.

Lamm’s rule was simple: 90 seconds was the absolute maximum length of time they could spend on any caper. No matter what stage the robbery was in, when a minute and a half ticked by, his team exited the bank. Their success or failure was determined by Lamm’s wristwatch.

This served him well in the Denver Mint robbery and a string of other robberies across the US. Lamm finally met his demise following a bank heist in Indiana, where no amount of rehearsal could prepare his team for their run of slapstick-level bad luck.

First, the high-powered getaway car blew a tire when their driver cut a U-turn dodging an armed vigilante. So Lamm’s crew seized another automobile, put the pedal to the metal—and discovered that this particular car had been rigged to go no faster than 35 miles an hour. (The owner had been worried about his elderly father’s reckless driving.)

The solution was simple: steal another vehicle. So they nabbed a truck. When the truck turned out to have a hole in the radiator, they were forced to abandon it in favor of stealing a third car. Unfortunately, this car was filled with killer bees.

Just kidding: it was simply more or less out of gas.

Lamm and his team sputtered to a standstill near Sidell, Illinois, surrounded by 200 Indiana state police officers and vigilantes. What happened next is a matter of controversy. The police swore that Lamm, rather than face more prison time, took his own life. Needless to say, the autopsy reportedly showed the Baron’s body riddled with bullets, making his “suicide” all the more spectacular.

A dead bank robber might not seem like the most natural role model. But after an hour of holiday shopping drags into an afternoon, many of us can appreciate the bare-bones efficiency of Lamm’s 90 second rule.

Still, how much good did it do Lamm in the end? Maybe our ancestors were onto something, feeling no need to parse time into such finite increments. Has our desire to control and measure every second of our modern day lives really improved our situation?

The Swiss gave us watches and chocolate. At least one of those was a great invention.