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…
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”
ELECTRODES AND EPILEPSY
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.
FAILURE OR SKILL
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