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Martial arts: Strange sensations

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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People experience weird sensations at various points in their lives. When this occurs, some people may think there is something wrong with them, while others think something supernatural has occurred. Since these sensations are out of the ordinary, people may think that they are the only ones who experience them. However, these sensations are fairly common and happen to most everyone at some point in their lives; some may experience them more than others may. Frauds, charlatans, and pseudo masters exploit these sensations and try to make them into something supernatural, when in fact they are just normal body sensations caused in response to abnormal sensory feedback. Some of these sensations are explained below.

Out of body experience

This is the disorienting sensation of being outside your body and looking down upon it. To process information properly, the brain needs to receive coordinated feedback from its senses. If one sense is reporting on one sensation while another sense is reporting on a different sensation, the brain gets confused and is unable to process the incongruity.

Neuroscientist Eric Altschuler noticed the following effect while eating in a McDonald’s restaurant and he later published his finding in the journal Perception. To experience a feeling of transcendence, set up two mirrors so that they face each other to form an infinite set of images. Step between them and tilt your head so that, in every other image, you cannot see your eyes. Now stoke your cheek. You will feel as though there is a stranger in front of you who is stroking his or her cheek. Since in every other image you cannot recognize your own face, the brain thinks it is seeing the image of another person.

Déjà vu

When you get the feeling that what you are currently experiencing has happened before, you are experiencing déjà vu. This is not some type of psychic experience; it is a common sensation.

Biologist Susumu Tonegawa of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently located the specific receptors in the hippocampus (a pair of neuronal clusters in the center of the brain) that work to tell similar but different places apart. The hippocampus is the part of your brain responsible for both your sense of direction and the formation of new memories. In mice lacking these receptors, a room they have never seen before evokes the same response as a slightly different room they have seen a lot, a sensation that may be similar to déjà vu. Déjà vu could be simply a temporary disorientation rooted there as your brain confuses a new location with a remembered one. Others have hypostasized that déjà vu is merely a minute delay in communication between the two hemispheres of the brain.

Feeling of being watched

This is the eerie sense that someone is lurking behind you and watching you. It makes you turn around to see if someone is there.

Neurologist Olaf Blanke and his group at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne were studying an epileptic patient's brain when they stimulated her left temporoparietal junction. Suddenly the subject felt someone just behind her. The apparition mirrored her movements; sometimes it sat silently while other times it wrapped its arms around her. This part of the brain may explain schizophrenics who blame their actions on illusory companions and, as the study authors note, may help us understand "psychiatric manifestations such as paranoia, persecution, and alien control."

Mirror-touch synesthesia

Mirror-touch synesthetes feel sensations that they see from a distance, such as a pleasant caress when a couple hugs on the street corner, or pain the hero in a movie is shot.

A study by psychologist Jamie Ward, then at University College London, revealed that although mirror-touch synesthetes are emotionally empathetic, they feel sad when they see others feeling sad, they are not any better than normal people at understanding other people's problems. Their visual empathy is reflexive, not conscious. Sensations perceived by the brain are just neurons firing. For mirror-touch synesthetes, their neurons fire in response not only to touch but also to visual triggers.

Seeing sounds

Aural vision is when people “see” by using their hearing. The blind can learn to "see" with the help of voice software that represents an object's height with pitch and its brightness with volume. There is more to vision than raw visual data about an object's brightness and height. Our brains also have to be able to discern an object's depth and position. For example, your eyes naturally interpret a bright, tall object as being nearby. Vision does not have to come from just your eyes. If you train your brain to relate specific sensory information, such as sound, to physical surroundings, those inputs can activate the brain's sight centers.

Neurologist Amir Amedi of Harvard Medical School demonstrated that the brain can learn to interpret sound in the same way it interprets light. He exposed subjects to a variety of objects and their corresponding sounds. With practice, they could "see" a grayscale world and the height, brightness, depth and position of objects simply by listening to the software's version of their surroundings.


  • Greenwood, V. (2007). Mind Tricks Explained. Popular Science, October 2007.