In The Rise of Superman, New York Times–bestselling author Steven Kotler decodes the mystery of ultimate human performance.
Some of the most impactful studies on out-of-body and near-death experiences were done by the U.S. Air Force when it purposefully induced the conditions on fighter pilots. The results of the experiments have shed light on how the brain functions during what have always been mysterious states of consciousness: observing yourself from the outside, seeing tunnel vision, having extrasensory perception, and so on. Yet some mysteries remain, explains Steven Kotler.
Some of the most interesting studies into near death and out of body experiences were run by the Air Force, right. As airplanes got faster and faster and faster over the past 20 years, right, pilots kept flying themselves into GILOC, gravity induced loss of consciousness, right. And they kept crashing. So a guy named James Winnery was a guy kind of charged with solving this problem. And what he did down in Texas he spun like 1,000 pilots in a giant centrifuge into GILOC, right. And as he was doing it he noticed something interesting. GILOC means you pass out and if you’ve experienced it what actually happens is your vision forms into a tunnel. It looks like – if you’re watching it it looks like an old television set turning off where it goes down into one point and then disappears, right. So it looks experientially a lot like you’re walking down a long dark tunnel which is kind of one of the classic near death experience phenomena. What he discovered along the way is that as he started spinning people towards GILOC kind of the longer he spun them people started reporting out of body experiences.
And after they were out of their body if he kept spinning them it would turn into a near death experience, right. So he’s the person – the U.S. Air Force is the person – the U.S. Air Force discovered that out of body experiences and near death experiences are actually on the same continuum. They’re part of the same chain of effect. Now a lot of it has to do with the right temporal lobe. There’s other things going on as well. And there are, of course, certain mysteries, right. There are unsolved things and near death experiences we’ve got lots and lots and lots of research that shows people report things when they were supposedly dead that they should not have known about at all. So there are people who died on operating tables, right in research studies came back, were brought back. They had near death experiences and while they were dead the nurse would take their glasses off and put them in a drawer. And later when everybody was running around looking around for their glasses the person who was on the operating table at the time, the patient, was dead at the time said oh yeah, they’re in the bottom drawer over there. This is Pim van Lommel study that was actually done in the Netherlands. This is where that actually happened but there’s lots and lots of experiences like that. So somewhere along the line information is getting through, right. We don’t know that yet. That’s still the mystery but a lot of the other stuff we understand the biology behind it now.