The Sci­ence Be­hind Out-Of-Body Ex­pe­ri­ences

Out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ences have pre­vi­ously been dis­missed as fan­tasy, or hailed as ev­i­dence of the hu­man soul. But new re­search sug­gests they could be the key to un­lock­ing the mys­ter­ies of con­scious­ness…

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents - WORDS BY PROF SU­SAN BLACKMORE

New re­search sug­gests that out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ences could be the key to un­lock­ing mys­ter­ies of con­sious­ness

Have you ever felt as though you were lift­ing up out of your body, float­ing near the ceil­ing and look­ing down on the world and your own body be­low? If so, by def­i­ni­tion, you’ve had an out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence, or OBE. This def­i­ni­tion is im­por­tant be­cause it de­scribes the OBE purely as an ex­pe­ri­ence. This opens the ques­tion: does any­thing ac­tu­ally leave the body in an OBE? If it doesn’t, we have to find out why OBEs hap­pen and what’s go­ing on in the brain when one takes place. If it does, the im­pli­ca­tions are pro­found. If some­one could truly leave their body, then mind or con­scious­ness must be able to ex­ist be­yond the brain and even po­ten­tially sur­vive death. If this were the case, much of sci­ence as we know it would have to be over­thrown. Let’s take a look at OBEs and the re­search sur­round­ing them.

Most peo­ple who have OBEs are, at least briefly, con­vinced that their soul, spirit or as­tral body has re­ally gone trav­el­ling, thanks to the re­al­is­tic na­ture of the

ex­pe­ri­ence. About 12 to 20 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion in many dif­fer­ent coun­tries have had the ex­pe­ri­ence at least once, with a few able to in­duce it at will.

Although the ex­pe­ri­ence can hap­pen at any time, when walk­ing, wash­ing-up, or even rid­ing a bike, most OBEs oc­cur when peo­ple are re­laxed and ly­ing down. Some hap­pen on the verge of sleep, espe­cially in com­bi­na­tion with sleep paral­y­sis – an un­pleas­ant feel­ing of wak­ing up and find­ing your­self un­able to move. Oth­ers hap­pen as part of a near-death ex­pe­ri­ence. But why?

Un­til re­cently the most com­mon ex­pla­na­tion was ‘as­tral pro­jec­tion’. This idea de­vel­oped in the 19th Cen­tury as part of Theos­o­phy, a scheme loosely based on Hindu and Bud­dhist teach­ings that in­volved seven ‘bod­ies of man’, rang­ing from the phys­i­cal body right up to higher spir­i­tual bod­ies. In be­tween is sup­posed to be the ‘as­tral body’, a sub­tle ve­hi­cle of con­scious­ness that can sep­a­rate tem­po­rar­ily dur­ing life and per­ma­nently at death, lead­ing to life after death.

In the 20th Cen­tury, psy­chi­cal re­searchers and para­psy­chol­o­gists tried, but failed, to de­tect as­tral bod­ies us­ing psy­chic medi­ums or a va­ri­ety of phys­i­cal in­stru­ments. They set up ex­trasen­sory per­cep­tion (ESP) ex­per­i­ments to test whether OBErs could see tar­gets placed in dis­tant rooms, but no con­vinc­ing re­sults were ever ob­tained and OBEs re­mained a du­bi­ous topic of re­search on the fringes of the para­nor­mal.

“Although the ex­pe­ri­ence can hap­pen at any time, when walk­ing, wash­ing-up, or even rid­ing a bike, most OBEs oc­cur when peo­ple are re­laxed and ly­ing down”


But with the turn of the cen­tury, ev­ery­thing changed. In a hospi­tal in Switzer­land, neu­ro­sur­geon Prof Olaf Blanke was car­ry­ing out a tricky op­er­a­tion on a woman whose se­vere epilepsy could not be treated un­less the fo­cus of her fre­quent seizures was found. To lo­cate it, an ar­ray of electrodes were po­si­tioned un­der the dura, the strong mem­brane sur­round­ing her brain, so that dif­fer­ent spots could be elec­tri­cally stim­u­lated. She re­mained awake through­out be­cause there are no pain re­cep­tors in the brain it­self. To the sur­geon’s im­mense sur­prise, when he gen­tly stim­u­lated a spot near the right tem­poropari­etal junc­tion (TPJ) his pa­tient de­scribed sen­sa­tions of fall­ing and sink­ing, as well as bod­ily dis­tor­tions. With stronger stim­u­la­tion, she felt as if she was float­ing near the ceil­ing. By re­peat­ing the process, her OBEs could be re­peat­edly elicited and con­trolled. As the fa­mous pa­per in the jour­nal

Na­ture de­clared: “The part of the brain that can in­duce out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ences has been lo­cated”.

You might think this proves that an OBE is a per­fectly nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non, re­quir­ing no spir­its, souls or as­tral bod­ies. Yet some peo­ple dis­agree, ar­gu­ing that this spe­cial spot is the place from where the as­tral body leaves, or through which God com­mu­ni­cates with our con­scious­ness. To pro­vide a bet­ter ex­pla­na­tion, we need to un­der­stand a bit more about the TPJ. This re­gion, lo­cated at the part of the brain where the tem­po­ral and pari­etal lobes meet, con­structs our sense of self and main­tains our ‘body schema’. This is a con­stantly up­dated model of our whole body that is es­sen­tial for us, as for any other an­i­mal, to keep track of where we are and what we are do­ing. Closely re­lated to the body schema is our body im­age – our sense of per­son­al­ity and ap­pear­ance. At the TPJ, in­for­ma­tion flows in from the senses and the mem­ory to con­struct a rich im­pres­sion of who we are, in­clud­ing our sense of in­hab­it­ing our own body, and be­ing able to con­trol it.

Now the sur­geon’s dis­cov­ery begins to make sense. If the body schema is dis­rupted by elec­tri­cal stim­u­la­tion, it would fail to prop­erly track what the body is do­ing and so might drift from the body’s ac­tual lo­ca­tion. This would ex­plain the dis­tor­tions, like get­ting larger or smaller, or limbs grow­ing and shrink­ing. Th­ese sen­sa­tions oc­cur with di­rect in­ter­ven­tion in the brain, but also hap­pen on the verge of sleep, with the use of cer­tain drugs and be­fore spon­ta­neous OBEs. With se­ri­ous dis­rup­tion the body schema might split in two and this, re­searchers have sug­gested, is the cause of the OBE.


This gives a rather bleak ac­count of OBEs, at­tribut­ing them to ‘failed in­te­gra­tion at the TPJ’ or a ‘break-down of body pro­cess­ing’. So are the ex­pe­ri­ences a sign of some­thing wrong, or even of men­tal ill­ness? Although there are some links with pathol­ogy, the ev­i­dence says no. US re­searchers gave an ex­ten­sive ques­tion­naire called the ‘Pro­file of adap­ta­tion to life’ to sev­eral hun­dred OBErs and found them to be as healthy as, or even more healthy than, the av­er­age Amer­i­can; a study in the UK com­pared a small

BE­LOW: Olaf Blanke in­duced an out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence in a pa­tient

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