The Science on Out-of-Body Experiences

In “Awakening Mind” we always try to give you a balanced view, both from the spiritual and scientific perspective. Out-of-body experience is one of the most intriguing among “paranormal” phenomena, and it is also one of the most studied by the scientific community. The reason being its close association with near death experience (NDE). With new modern brain cooling and freezing techniques doctors are able to recover people who have been clinically dead for almost an hour. Many of these people report having an out-of-body experience when they were under. This article presents an explanation of OBE from the neuroscience perspective.     

People who describe having an “out-of-body” experience (OBE), usually say they left their body and found themselves floating above and looking down upon their human self. Often they attribute this experience to paranormal forces.

However there has been work in this area by neuroscientists recently who have found that an out-of-body experience can be triggered by stimulating a certain area of the brain called the angular gyrus with a mild electric current. One woman involved in this experiment was zapped in this region of the brain and the result was that she felt she was actually hanging down from the ceiling, looking at her body.  When another woman was similarly stimulated she experienced an uncanny sense that somebody was standing behind her with the intent of interfering with what she was doing.

At the time these two women were under evaluation for epilepsy surgery on their brains and the surgeons had implanted dozens of electrodes to pinpoint the exact brain tissue that was causing the seizures. They also needed to accurately identify nearby areas involved in hearing, language or other important functions that needed to be avoided during surgery. As the surgeons activated each electrode to stimulate a different area of brain tissue, the patient verbalized her experience.

The neurologist involved in these procedures, observed and reported that both women had normal psychiatric histories and were shocked by the bizarre outcome of the brain stimulation.

The Science on Out-of-Body Experiences

Neuroscientist Peter Brugger claims there is nothing at all mystical about these out-of-body experiences. He equates this on the experience of phantom limbs, an area in which he’s an expert. People who have lost a limb still have feelings in the amputated limb, a “mind-bending phenomena” he calls it.

Dr. Brugger claims research has shown that the “self” can detach from the body and has the ability to live a “phantom existence” on its very own, such as an out-of-body experience. He claims that the self can be felt outside of one’s personal space, like an outside “presence”.

As scientists learn more about brain function and how it works, they have acquired a new understanding of the various oddities in bodily sensations. Researchers have found that certain areas of the brain can combine information derived from several senses. Vision, hearing and the sense of touch are processed initially in our primary sensory regions of the brain. But after that they seem to flow together like on ramps to a freeway. This is how the brain integrates the person’s different perceptions. A dog is recognized much more quickly if his bark is heard at the time he’s spotted.

The areas of the brain doing the multisensory processing accumulate perceptions of the body while it moves about the environment and the world at large. Skin sensors inform the brain of pain, pressure, hot, cold and other sensations. Various sensors in the bones, joints and tendons report to the brain where the body is in space and how it’s positioned. The ears have sensors that keep track of the person’s sense of balance. The internal organs, which include the heart, intestines and liver, have sensors that tell the brain what emotional state the person is in at the time.

Multisensory regions of the brain also process information in real-time from the body with regard to the area around the person’s body and their subjective feelings. If these multisensory regions of the brain are stimulated directly by a mild electric current, the integrity of what the person is truly experiencing can be altered.

The sense of having a shadowy presence can also happen without being stimulated by an electrical current in the brain. The same feeling has been related by those who have undergone sensory deprivation such as mountain climbers trekking at very high altitudes or by sailors out in the ocean all alone, and by those who have suffered disruptions in blood flowing to the brain, or from minor strokes.

As was discussed above, the electrical current stimulating the angular gyrus area of the brain, which is a multisensory area blending vision and bodily senses, caused the woman to feel like she was having an out-of-body experience.

As the current was flowing, the woman said that she was “at the ceiling” and was “looking down” at her legs.

When the electrical current was turned off she said she was “back on the table now” and asked, “What happened?”

When the current was turned back on the woman returned to the ceiling, which gave her that out-of-body experience again, of floating above with her legs dangling below. When she was asked to close her eyes, she related that she felt like she was doing sit-ups, with her upper body moving up and towards her legs.

Since the woman felt her position in space was different than her actual position, her mind tried to make sense of the confusion and came to the conclusion that she was floating up over her body while looking down upon it.

Some patients with schizophrenia have paranoid delusions and always have the feeling that they’re being followed and watched. They also get confused sometimes between their own actions and those of other people. While the specific cause of these symptoms isn’t yet known, it might be that the multisensory processing areas of the brain are involved.

When perfectly normal people have delusions about their body, they are often shocked and confused. The sensations they feel in their body are so familiar, so seamless that no one realizes that it’s the brain creating all of this, even when something goes haywire and the brain is disturbed.

In a nutshell, the neuroscientists’ explanation for the OBE is that the brain is attempting to make sense of diverse and conflicting information. Yet, brain researchers are unable to reproduce this behaviour in lab conditions, so the OBE remains in the “shadow area” between science and supernatural.

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