It may sound like the plot of the Twilight Zone, but a psychology graduate student at the University of Ottawa says she can voluntarily enter an out-of-body experience. This was a lucky break for scientists, who were able to scan her brain during the episode.
Usually out-of-body experiences are a part of, say, a near-death experience. A patient may float above their own body as surgeons work on them. These experiences are usually attributed to the drugs in a patient's system, or the hormones released into their system by trauma.
A unique experience
The study — which only involved this one person — was published Feb. 10 in the journal Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, a peer-reviewed open access publication. The researchers are members of the School Of Psychology at the University of Ottawa.
According to the paper, this woman enters her out-of-body state right before sleeping, visualizing herself from above. She started doing so during naptime in preschool, they write. She currently only does it sometimes.
The researchers wrote in the paper:
She was able to see herself rotating in the air above her body, lying flat, and rolling along with the horizontal plane. She reported sometimes watching herself move from above but remained aware of her unmoving "real" body...
She told the researchers:
I feel myself moving, or, more accurately, can make myself feel as if I am moving. I know perfectly well that I am not actually moving. There is no duality of body and mind when this happens, not really. In fact, I am hyper-sensitive to my body at that point, because I am concentrating so hard on the sensation of moving. I am the one moving – me – my body. For example, if I ‘spin’ for long enough, I get dizzy. I do not see myself above my body. Rather, my whole body has moved up. I feel it as being above where I know it actually is. I usually also picture myself as moving up in my mind’s eye, but the mind is not substantive. It does not move unless the body does.
The brain out of the body
The researchers did a fMRI before and after asking her to enter her out-of-body state to find out what that looked like in the brain. They compared these to when she was imagining, but not actually entering, the state.
Interestingly, the pathway that seemed to be activated during her out-of-body experience is also involved in the mental representation of movements.
Brain regions activated by the out-of-body experience include the supplementary motor area, the cerebellum, the supramarginal gyrus, the inferior temporal gyrus, the middle and superior orbitofrontal gyri.
Some parts of her brain involved in interpreting vision were turned down in activity, as shown below:
Brain regions inhibited by the out-of-body experience include the visual cortex.
She didn't have any specific emotions surrounding this experience, and i t seems to be a kind of hallucination she can turn on at will.
Even if there is no soul stuck in our bodies, this woman isn't making this up. There's obviously something happening in her brain that is making her experience the world in a different way — but researchers can't yet say exactly what it is. Plus, this study was about one woman's out-of-body experience, not all out-of-body experiences.
Still, the changes they observed could be similar to how the brain can be trained using meditation. The researchers even suggested that this could be something many kids can do, but that with practice could be carried into adulthood.
Interestingly, the researchers suggested that this kind of experience may be much more common than we thought. The woman in question actually "appeared surprised that not everyone could experience this," the researchers wrote.
They compared it to synesthesia — the condition in which people hear colors or smell sounds — which was thought of as "out there" but has become widely accepted in the last few decades.
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