Explaining out-of-body experiences

Once dismissed as a product of the imagination, out-of-body experiences can now be explained through cutting-edge neurological and psychological research. These findings pose momentous questions to our understanding of the self.

The soul leaving the body, 1808. Credit: Chroma Collection / Alamy Stock Photo.
The soul leaving the body, 1808. Credit: Chroma Collection / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared in ‘The Return of Consciousness: A New Science on Old Questions’ published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2016.

Out of the body?

I was just 19, and a first-year psychology student at Oxford, when a brief experience changed my life. Indeed what happened in those two or three hours subsequently drove both my intellectual and spiritual lives. I do not, to this day, know what caused it. Perhaps it was extreme tiredness from having too much late-night fun and getting up for early lectures, perhaps it was the Ouija board session we had just finished, perhaps it was the small amount of cannabis we were smoking or perhaps it was something else altogether.

Whatever the cause, I was sitting on the floor listening to music with my friends, Kevin and Victoria, when I found myself rushing down an imaginary tunnel of trees towards a bright light. I was beginning to drift and float, wondering what was happening, when Kevin asked: ‘Where are you, Sue?’ As I struggled to reply, my vision cleared and there I was, looking down on the room, seeing myself and my two friends from above. ‘I’m on the ceiling,’ I said, as I watched my own mouth open and close below me.

From what I know now, I guess the experience would have ended as quickly as it had begun had it not been for Kevin continually asking me questions: ‘What can you see now? … Have you got a silver cord? … Can you go further?’ I had no time to panic or worry; I just tried to answer. I zoomed up through the ceiling, out into the night and began to fly across Oxford, across the countryside, over the sea and to many other wonderful places. The scenes were vivid and glorious, the light exceptionally clear and bright. I felt vividly alive and well.

Twice I tried to come back, but it was hard. The first time, I was dismayed to find the room looking far from normal and my own body now headless and distorted. So I set off again into more adventures in ever stranger seeming worlds. The second time, I tried to get back to normal and to go inside the body, but found it impossible. First I was too small, then too large. Then I began expanding and expanding until space and time themselves seemed to lose all meaning. I was no longer a separate ‘me’. Indeed ‘I’ and the vivid, glowing universe were one. There was just this and this was perfect and right and there was nothing to be done ever.

There seemed to be a decision to be made: to stay in this bliss forever or to go back to ‘normal’ life. I came back. Eventually, and with a great struggle, I emerged from oneness into separation again. I persuaded myself that I had to go back inside the body and take it with me wherever I went, which seemed a horrible thing to have to do. But I eventually succeeded and after another two days felt relatively normal again.

So what happened to me? Kevin said I had experienced ‘astral projection’: that my astral body had left its physical shell and gone travelling on the astral planes. It was the only idea we had. I had never heard of tunnel experiences or out-of-body experiences and although I had been through almost every aspect of the now classic ‘near-death experience’, that term was not invented until five years later.

It is not surprising, then, that I jumped to false conclusions. As Thomas Metzinger puts it, after such an experience ‘it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist‘ – and I did. I immediately became convinced of the existence of spirits or souls that can leave the body and survive death, even though my body was clearly alive and well during the whole experience. Despite this conviction, I could see that this kind of dualism made no sense in the context of the physiology and psychology I was learning in my course. So the experience created a great challenge and I grasped it. Quite illogically (it now seems) I became convinced of such paranormal powers as telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition. So I decided to become a parapsychologist and prove all my closed-minded, materialistic lecturers wrong.

A body of evidence

That decision led to a PhD documenting years of fruitless research. I did dozens of lab experiments, investigated local poltergeists and slept in haunted houses, trained as a witch and sat with mediums, learned to read Tarot cards and throw the I-Ching. But I never found the slightest evidence of any paranormal powers.

So what about that experience? If there were no paranormal powers or ghosts or spirits, how was I to explain it? I could still remember the visions and feelings vividly but could still not understand what had happened. By then I had learned that it was called an out-of-body experience (OBE) and was related to, though different from, ‘autoscopy‘ – a usually pathological experience in which people see a duplicate self, or Doppelganger, but remain within their own physical body. Pulling together what I could of the classic astral-projection literature and the small amount of available research, I wrote Beyond the Body and later Seeing Myself: What out-of-body experiences tell us about life, death and the mind. From the 1960s to the 1980s very few parapsychologists were researching OBEs from a scientific rather than an occult or theosophical perspective. Celia Green, John Palmer and Harvey Irwin studied the phenomenology and psychology of the experience and defined it purely as an experience. My preferred definition is ‘an experience in which you seem to see the world from a location outside of your physical body’. As Palmer pointed out, this means that if someone describes such an experience, then, by definition, they have had an OBE. The question of whether anything actually leaves the body or not remains open for investigation. And that is, indeed, the big question.

If something leaves, then this soul, spirit or astral body ought to be able to see at a distance and some, including the parapsychologists Charles Tart and Karlis Osis, tried to find evidence of such paranormal vision during OBEs but their results were far from convincing. I tried myself. For several years I kept a target word, object and five-digit number on my kitchen wall so that people who claimed to have frequent OBEs could visit at their leisure and send me the answers. No one succeeded. I became ever more sceptical and, along with others, including Palmer and Irwin, developed a psychological theory of the OBE. But none of us had sufficient knowledge to make this work.

Then finally, in 2002, everything changed when, quite by accident, the Swiss neurosurgeon Olaf Blanke discovered a spot in the brain which, when stimulated, produced an OBE. He had inserted subdural electrodes on the brain of a patient with severe epilepsy, so that by stimulating different areas very precisely he could locate the epileptic focus. When he tried a spot in the right temporoparietal junction (TPJ), she reported seeming to leave her body, and by increasing or decreasing the stimulation he could control the OBEs and create various bodily distortions of size or shape. The critical brain area had been found.

The relevance of the TPJ to OBEs has been confirmed in many other ways. For example, Blanke and his colleagues scanned six neurological patients who had experiences of OBEs or autoscopy, as well as floating, flying or bodily distortions. In five of the six patients the brain damage was located in the TPJ. Another Swiss group studied patients with brain damage or epilepsy, comparing the precise location of the damage or lesions in nine patients who reported OBEs, compared with eight others who did not. In eight out of the nine OBE patients the damage was in the right temporal and/or parietal cortex and most often at the TPJ.

An OBE was even captured as it happened to a ten-year old boy with epilepsy who had a seizure in hospital. He described flying up to the ceiling and looking down on the room and his mother from above. Throughout the seizure, his brain activity was measured in several ways. The EEG (electroencephalogram) suggested a focus in the right temporal lobe and an MRI scan revealed a lesion in the right angular gyrus – the same place that Blanke had identified before.

For many scientists this discovery was enough. If stimulating a particular spot on the brain could induce an OBE, this proved that it was a perfectly natural, brain-based phenomenon and they did not need to know any more. But believers in an astral world or an afterlife were not convinced.

The arguments are reminiscent of those over the so-called God spot. When brain scans were used to show that spiritual experiences have a basis in brain activity, the media were quick to proclaim that the ‘God spot’ had been found, but opinion quickly polarised into two opposing interpretations of the same evidence. One group took the findings to show that there is no God while others claimed quite the opposite: that there is a God and he uses this spot in the brain to make his presence felt. The latter claimed, for example, that we use our brains to contact the divine, that God works through this special part of the brain to inspire us, that the seat of the soul has been found or that this is the place where the material and spiritual worlds meet.

Returning to OBEs, finding the spot that induces the experience is clearly not sufficient. Against those happy to have discovered a natural foundation, others could just as easily argue that this is the special spot that when stimulated releases the soul from its prison in the brain or causes the astral body to separate from its physical home. If we are to find out which interpretation is correct, we need to understand why stimulating the TPJ induces the sense of leaving the body rather than any other experience.

The answer lies in the functions of the TPJ, one of which is to construct the body schema. This is a detailed, accurate and constantly updated model that keeps track, all the time, of where our body is and what it is doing. This is needed for all animals, not just us, to control movements accurately and the TPJ is ideally placed for this task, as it can bring together information from many neighbouring areas of the brain. This includes information from the emotions, memory and the senses via the thalamus and limbic system, and from the visual, auditory and som- atosensory systems.

Among experiments to explore this further are some that have used the ‘own body transformation task’, which involves mentally rotating a drawing of a body as it might be rotated during an OBE. When people are monitored while doing this task it is found that the TPJ is selectively activated. Also, their ability to carry out the rotation task is disrupted by applying TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) to the TPJ to interfere with its normal operation.

It has also been found that the TPJ, with its central position between the temporal and parietal lobes, brings together further information to construct our body image (the way we imagine ourselves to look) and our self-image (including our memories and all the stories we tell about ourselves). In other words, what goes on in the TPJ and all its associated connections makes up our sense of self. We are not a separate conscious agent living inside a physical body but a model of a conscious agent living inside a physical body.

The body self-model

All this suggests that our ‘self’ is not the unified, thinking and acting entity we often assume it to be. Indeed there are at least four distinct aspects to our model of self:

1. Embodiment or self-location: the position where I seem to be.
2. Body ownership or self-identification: the knowledge that this body is mine.
3. First-person perspective: the position from which I am seeing the world.
4. Agency: the sense that I am in control of the body’s actions.

These four aspects of self are normally coincident. We feel ourselves to be inside our own body, looking out through our eyes and in control of what we do. But this is only a useful illusion. There is no simple soul, spirit or astral body to account for this sense of unity. Instead there are complex integrative processes inside a brain that bring diverse aspects of self together to provide the convincing model of a unified, conscious ‘me’.

Some simple tricks can tease these aspects of self apart. For example, in the well-known ‘rubber hand illusion’ a person sits with one hand concealed in a box or behind a screen while looking at a rubber hand lying to one side of their hidden real hand. The experimenter then strokes both the real and rubber hands in precise synchrony. After some time, many people come to feel the touch as though it is on the rubber hand and even to feel that their own hand has moved towards the rubber hand – an effect called proprioceptive drift. In other words, the senses of both self-location and ownership can be moved for just one part of the body while the first-person perspective remains unchanged. In this multisensory conflict between vision and proprioception, between where the brushing is seen to happen and where it is felt to be, vision wins and a small part of the sense of self shifts.

Could a similar trick produce a full-body illusion, one in which the whole body seems to move to a different position? With modern virtual-reality technology, it can. The neuropsychologist Bigna Lenggenhager and her colleagues in Zurich asked volunteers to stand two metres in front of a video camera. The view from the camera was then projected onto a 3D video, head-mounted display (HMD). You can try to imagine what you would see in this situation – that is, you would see your own back standing two metres in front of you. Now imagine that someone strokes your back up and down. You would feel the sensation on your back but see the stroking happening to the back projected in front of you. So what would happen?

The volunteers had the strange impression that the touch they felt was on the virtual body rather than on their own back. When asked to pin-point their own position they chose a spot closer to the virtual body and this happened only when the stroking was synchronous, and not when a block of wood was filmed instead of their own back. Once again the multisensory conflict led to vision overruling touch, which is why the authors called their paper ‘Video ergo sum’: ‘I see, therefore I am’.

This is certainly a dramatic demonstration. Yet none of the participants actually had an OBE or even reported feeling disembodied. They did not fly around the room or float above themselves. But another experiment brought the illusions closer to a real OBE.

Henrik Ehrsson and his team at the Brain, Body and Self Laboratory at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden claim to be able to induce OBEs using virtual reality but with a method different from Lenggenhager’s. In their first experiment, the volunteer sat in a chair wearing a pair of head-mounted displays. Two metres behind the chair were two video cameras which sent images that would appear as though he was looking at himself from behind his own back. But this time the experimenter did not stroke his back. Instead he stroked the person’s chest with a plastic rod and at the same time stroked the air just below the cameras.

If you look straight ahead and stroke your own chest with a pen or pencil, you can imagine what this looks like. You see the pen going up and down, in and out of your lower field of vision. In a similar way, the display showed what the person would see if he were looking from the camera’s position. After just two minutes the participants began to feel they were not inside their own body but were sitting at the position of the camera, behind their own body and looking at its back – a convincing ‘out-of-body illusion’.

As a next step, Lenggenhager’s team tried to produce both effects in one go. They designed a special table for participants to lie on, with a slot through which their chest could be automatically stroked. In this way either their back or chest could be touched. Cameras were fixed two metres above the table and projected images to the HMD as before. In both cases powerful illusions were created. When the men’s backs were stroked, they seemed to remain lying on the table looking down at a body beneath them, and with synchronous stroking they seemed to move down closer to the seen body and to identify with it. When their chest was stroked, they seemed to be up nearer the cameras, looking down on their physical body and feeling the stroking on an imaginary, floating body. As one volunteer reported, it was ‘as if the self and the body were in different locations’.

Many further studies have followed. For example, to test how far people had really disidentified with their physical bodies, the experimenters threatened their real body with a knife, making a slow stabbing motion towards their upper back. The stress reaction was measured using electrodes on the skin and this was found to be reduced when the out-of-body illusion was created. Other studies have shown that body temperature can drop during synchronous stroking and pain is less strongly felt when people identify with a virtual body rather than their real body. This all suggests that when embodiment shifts to an imagined body, this is not just a high-level cognitive impression but feels real and involves physiological changes throughout the body. This is important because we know that OBEs are sometimes experienced by abused children, rape victims and people in traffic accidents. These results suggest that having an OBE may really be a way of escaping, or at least reducing, intolerable pain.

Is there still a link to the TPJ? Yes. In technically demanding experiments, Silvio Ionta and his colleagues in Switzerland induced illusions in more than twenty volunteers who lay on their backs in an fMRI scanner and were stroked by a robotic device while watching a video of someone lying face down with their back being stroked. As before, many reported that the stroking seemed to be happening to the virtual body rather than to their own and some found themselves flipping over and looking down on the other body, which is much more like a typical OBE. One said: ‘ felt as if I were “rising” in a strange way towards the roof.’ Another ‘had the impression of being in two places at the same time as if I had two bodies’. Some sounded very much like OBEs: ‘I was ‘watching’ myself, “my real me”, from above.’; ‘I had the impression of being two people at the same time. One myself was flying, and was watching the other (real) myself being touched by the stick.’ Data from the scanner revealed that seven different cortical regions were involved but only one showed changes in activity that reflected the changes in self-location. That was once again the TPJ.

Many questions remain. In these illusions, the world as seen is created by video, whereas in an OBE it is not. Where does the realistic and convincing OB world come from? Presumably it has to come from the person’s own imagination and there are various theories of how this comes about. For example, I long ago proposed a psychological theory of the OBE, in which a bird’s-eye view takes over when sensory input is reduced or absent and the brain is struggling to find an adequate model of reality. Evidence to back this up includes the finding that people who regularly dream in bird’s-eye views are more likely to have had an OBE.

The Australian psychologist Harvey Irwin proposed that synaesthesia accounts for the creation of the OB world. Synaesthesia is the tendency to mix up the senses, for example, hearing shapes as sounds or seeing particular letters or numerals as a certain colour. It has been found that being mildly synaesthetic correlates with having OBEs. But why can the OB world seem even more real than ordinary life and what accounts for the various positions people take up, the way they seem to leave their bodies and all the other little details we know about typical OBEs? Now that serious research has started, we will surely find the answers.

Science and spirituality

For the moment, these experiments have given us an entirely new way of understanding the nature of the OBE. Blanke concludes that OBEs reflect a ‘failure by the brain to integrate complex somatosensory and vestibular information’, ‘disturbed self-processing at the TPJ’ or ‘discrepant central representations by the different sensory systems’. Such descriptions sound so dismissive! And sometimes I look back on my own dramatic experience and am a little sad that it wasn’t an excursion of my soul into another realm but an example of ‘deviant phenomenal self-modelling’ or ‘impressive transient deviations of intact bodily self- integration’.

Yet, realistically, it is far better to understand the truth about the experience than to cling to the unworkable dualist notion of a soul or spirit that leaves the body. Indeed, when I throw off that slight feeling of disap- pointment, I find the recent research thrilling in two completely different ways. The first concerns science and the second spirituality.

Back in the 1970s, the OBE was barely accepted by scientists as happening at all and if any research was done it was by a handful of parapsychologists. Now the OBE seems to interest both scientists and philosophers because it is helping us to understand the nature of our very self and consciousness – those big mysteries of our times.

Great thinkers have long doubted the validity of our ordinary, unitary sense of self. These include mystics and meditators from the Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta, the Christian mystical tradition and the Buddhist notion of Annata or ‘no-self’, as well as philosophers and psychologists. One of my great heroes, the ‘founding father of American psychology’, William James, claimed that ‘thought is itself the thinker, and psychology need not look beyond’ and that ‘[t]he same brain may subserve many conscious selves’.

In Buddha’s Brain, the American psychologist and meditation teacher Rick Hanson brings these insights together with the modern idea that the powerful experience of being a self exists only as patterns in the mind and brain. So the question we should ask is not whether those patterns exist.

Rather, ‘does that which those patterns seem to stand for – an “I” who is the unified, ongoing owner of experiences and agent of actions – truly exist? Or is the self like a unicorn, a mythical being whose representations exist but who is actually imaginary?’ In this sense the self is an illusion. It does exist, but is not the way it seems.

Science, including the study of OBEs, is now throwing light on how this illusion is created and maintained, and philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett and Thomas Metzinger, are exploring the implications. Popular books are appearing with such titles as The Self Illusion: Why There is No ‘You’ Inside Your Head.

Metzinger asserts: ‘Nobody ever was or had a self.’ He argues that selves just seem to be real and continuous because we confuse our ‘phenomenal self-model’ (PSM) with what it represents. No wonder we so easily fall into believing in spirits and souls, and OBEs just add to the illusion. The soul, he says, is the OBE-PSM. His ‘self-model theory of subjectivity’ comes close to my own conclusions about the self and consciousness: that it is not physical human beings or cats, dogs or bats that have subjective experiences, but only the models they create of themselves. It is models of selves that are conscious. It is models of self that experience being out of the body.

So does something leave the body during an OBE? No, because there is not and never was anything that could leave.

The second exciting implication of recent research concerns spirituality. This might seem odd if one thinks these scientific ideas imply the very opposite of a ‘spiritual’ view of the self. Indeed, a popular attitude seems to be that being ‘spiritual’ requires believing in a conscious, independent spirit which dwells temporarily in a gross physical body and can leave it during an OBE and then go on to survive after death. By contrast, I believe that any true spirituality has to accept what science tells us about human nature, even if it is not what we would like to believe. What this new research on OBEs tells us is that our model of self can be split into its constituent parts, giving rise to OBEs, autoscopy and many other illusions. So we are not a spirit or soul or astral body or any kind of persisting self. We are a model or representation of a persisting self.

Once we see this, we have a completely different idea of our self as an ephemeral construction which arises and falls away. This self, like everything else, is impermanent and seeing this makes it easier to let go. This, I believe, is a better foundation for a spiritual life. It means throwing off our self-centred illusions and learning, however difficult it is, to accept our true nature.

I am grateful for having had that extraordinary experience in the first place, grateful that I was able to work on trying to understand it, and especially grateful to all the recent researchers who are finally beginning to make sense of the out-of-body experience.


Susan Blackmore