Out-of-Body Experience? You’re Not Alone.

While most survivors of a sudden cardiac arrest remember nothing about their experience, some survivors report detaching from their body and viewing themselves and their surroundings from that external perspective, often from above. This is commonly referred to as an out-of-body experience. Some SCA survivors are reluctant to share their experience, for fear of judgment and ridicule due to its hard-to-believe nature. That’s a shame. These experiences are very believable, and not that uncommon.

Photograph: The Science of Near-Death Experiences by Gideon Lichfield, The Atlantic, April 2015 issue

People who survived a sudden cardiac arrest are not alone in recalling out-of-body experiences: people with migraine headaches, epilepsy, vestibular (inner ear) disorders and schizophrenia report such experiences while conscious. But anyone can have these experiences – the psychologist and parapsychology investigator, Susan Blackmore, estimates 15% of the population have had an out-of-body experience. That’s a lot of people! And that’s a lot of people keeping quiet about it.

In the 1930s, while trying to reduce the severity of a patient’s epileptic seizures, the pioneering Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield stimulated the right temporal lobe in her brain, and she cried out: “Oh my God. I’m leaving my body.” More recently, Olaf Blanke (2002) induced an out-of-body experience in an epileptic patient during surgery, who exclaimed: “I see myself lying in bed, from above” and felt she was floating near the ceiling. Since then, Blanke and others have now identified the temporoparietal junction or TPJ in the brain, where the temporal lobe and the parietal lobe meet, as the source of the out-of-body experience.

Here’s the technical detail. If you close your eyes right now, you have a sense of where and how your arms and legs are positioned, how they are angled, and on what they are resting or touching. You know where your body is. That’s called your body schema and, for most of the time, you are unconscious of it. But because of it, you can easily reach and grab the cup of coffee beside you, without looking. At the TPJ in the brain, body schema information is integrated with the information provided by your senses and vestibular system (balance), as well as with your thoughts, imagination and memory, and intentions and control functions. If you decide to grab the coffee (intent), your hand moves in the direction of the coffee cup (body schema guiding motor control) until it senses the cup (touch) and clasps it.

What we perceive, and how we perceive ourselves, is mediated by and in our brain. If something disturbs the temporoparietal junction, an effective or accurate body schema cannot be maintained – there’s a conflict between sensory signals indicating how the body and the surrounding environment are oriented. When our body schema is disturbed, instead of seeing the world from behind our eyes, we can see ourselves outside of our own body. That is nothing less than amazing. When people report out-of-body experiences, we should treat their reports with the seriousness they deserve.

An out-of-body experience is a profound experience, and its impact can be long-lasting and powerful. The psychologist Susan Blackmore had such an experience in her youth, and it has driven her career and research since then. Out-of-body experiences, while profound and powerful and quite frankly incredible, are nothing to be ashamed about. An error in self-location and visuospatial perspective, they are a hiccup – a profound hiccup – of the brain trying to make sense of an unfamiliar situation.

For more information:

Blackmore, Susan. 2017 Seeing Myself: The new science of out-of-body experiences, London, Robinson

Blanke, O., Mohr, C., Michel, C. M., Pascual-Leone, A., Brugger, P., Seeck, M., & Thut, G. 2005. Linking out-of-body experience and self processing to mental own-body imagery at the temporoparietal junction. The Journal of Neuroscience, 25:3, 550-557.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *