Beside Myself: The Science of Out-of-Body Experiences

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Out of body experiences are elusive phenomena that are as much a part of the paranormal as the normal, Aoife Muckian reveals.

 

An out of body experience (OBE) is a phenomenon that prompts philosophical questions about the conception of a ‘soul,’ but also neuroscientific ones about the way in which the brain operates. The scientific evidence instead of suggesting evidence for a soul or a spirit, suggests a role for the brain in these mystical experiences.

Susan Blackmore, a visiting Professor at Plymouth University, has carried out extensive research in the field of out of body experiences, and defines the phenomenon as “an experience in which a person seems to perceive the world from a location outside his physical body.” The term “out of body experience” was first coined by George Tyrrell in 1943, who himself considered the phenomenon halluctionary in nature. It had been previously believed by some scientists that OBEs were a form of psychosis, but it has been shown that participants who do not suffer from psychosis can also experience them.

“The term “out of body experience” was first coined by George Tyrrell in 1943, who himself considered the phenomenon halluctionary in nature.”

OBEs have been documented for centuries. In the 19th century, theoretical approaches looked at the phenomenon as a way for a soul to exist independently of the physical form of a human being. Some were skeptical of such a concept, such as Charles Richet, a French physiologist who believed these phenomena could be explained by disruptions in memory or imagination. Few experiments were carried out to support any of these approaches, but this period marked the first efforts to investigate OBEs. Conceptual discussions continued in the early 20th century, though by the late 20th century, the focus shifted to analysing a psychological basis for the phenomenon.

“OBEs have been documented for centuries.”

More recently, there have been experiments in which scientists have been able to induce an out of body experience in their patients. One of the first of these experiments was in 2002 by Olaf Blanke, a neuroscientist in Switzerland. In an isolated case, a woman experienced out of body sensations when an area in the brain which integrates visual and vestibular information was stimulated by electrodes. They gradually increased the intensity of the stimulation, so at first the woman reported feeling lighter but eventually, she told them, “I see myself, lying in bed from above.” Terence Hines, a Professor of Psychology at Pace University considered this explanation “reasonable,” given the vestibular system’s functions to balance and align the body. Further studies conducted by Blanke and others on patients have also shown evidence for the ability to induce an out of body experience.

“In an isolated case, a woman experienced out of body sensations when an area in the brain which integrates visual and vestibular information was stimulated by electrodes.”

In 2007, Blanke and others conducted a study that is similar to the “rubber hand illusion,” using virtual reality. The rubber hand illusion is a trick in which a person mistakenly believes a rubber hand is actually their own hand. The way in which this is achieved is if the hand of the person is hidden in a drawer, and above the drawer is a rubber hand which aligns with the person’s shoulder (in this case if the left hand is being used, it would be the left shoulder). Experimenters then stroke both the real hand of the participant and the rubber hand. In the confusion of processing both the visual and sensory information, the brain believes that the rubber hand is a part of the person’s body.

In a study examining this, researchers note that electric signals to the real hand would decrease dramatically, as the brain seems to believe it is not the real hand and seems not to be inclined to use it. In Blanke’s study, the participants were shown a virtual body through the headset. Both bodies were stroked, and similar to the rubber hand illusion, the conflicting visual and sensory information caused the participants to mistakenly localise themselves within the virtual body. Though it should be noted that the experiment only produces some aspects of the phenomenon, and not the entire out of body experience.

These scientific discoveries help neuroscientists understand the way in which the brain understands the body, the areas which evoke such phenomena, and the reasons they occur. They also garner significant philosophical interest due to raising questions about consciousness, agency, and selfhood. Studies in the future may reveal more about out of body experiences and shed the mystery behind them.

 

 

 

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