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What Is An Out of Body Experience?

 
Many other people have described having an out of body experience. In fact surveys have shown that it can occur in around 10% of the population. The out of body experience is described as a sensation of separating from the body and being able to watch oneself and events that are taking place from a point above. Once in an out of body state, people typically describe feeling very 'light' and 'peaceful'. Interestingly often inadvertently they describe themselves as the part that had separated from the body. For example, they may say, 'I was at the corner of the ceiling, looking down at my body. While at the ceiling I thought to myself, What is my body doing down there?' The 'I' part was always the part at the ceiling and not the other way round. Many people have recalled very specific details about events that had actually taken place during their experience. One woman explained:

'...during my operation I was floating around the operating theatre. I could see the surgeon and nurses working on my body, although I cannot now remember how many people there were. I could also hear their conversation . the surgeon said he would leave the wound open to let it drain as the appendix had burst. He then visited me on the ward afterwards to explain what he had done and I already knew as I had heard him. He said I couldn't possibly have heard him and suggested that a nurse had been to my bedside and told me. I did not tell him I had seen the operation being performed...'

Although out of body experiences also occur during near death experiences, they can also occur in isolation and under a variety of stimuli.

Explanations For The Occurrence Of Out of Body Experiences

In 2002, a group of Swiss doctors carried out a procedure that is often performed on patients with intractable epilepsy. Electrodes were implanted in the brain and used to stimulate different portions of the brain. The aim was to find an abnormal brain circuit that may have been causing the recurrent seizures. In this case, as the doctors had been doing this, quite unexpectedly the patient had reported seeing herself 'lying in bed, from above' and also 'floating' near the ceiling. However, she had not had a full out of body experience, as she had only been able to see her legs and lower trunk (for details see BBC report).

Despite the fact that this wasn't quite like other out of body experiences that had been reported, it seemed that the Swiss doctors had been able to induce an out of body-like experience in someone. This seemed to suggest that the reported sensation of leaving the body during a brush with death might simply be an illusion created by abnormal stimulation of a specific area of the right side of the brain called the angular gyrus. The Swiss researchers had concluded that out of body and near death experiences might be influenced by a portion of the brain misfiring under stress. Although it is far from clear whether this area of the brain actually mediates out of body experiences, it is interesting to note. Although undoubtedly there is an area of the brain that mediates out of body and near death experiences, discovering that area will not necessarily mean whether the experience is real or not. 

Many researchers have come across many cases of people who have described in tremendous detail events that had taken place during a critical illness or clinical death (cardiac arrest). Sometimes the details have been astonishing. Despite this level of anecdotal evidence from a scientific viewpoint, at this point most researchers still agree that these experiences may simply be illusions. On the other hand it may be that people can somehow open their eyes and recall things during clinical death and then a trickery of the brain makes them think they were out of body. The other possibility is that somehow the human mind can separate from the brain and continue to function during clinical death. At this point we do not know, however, in order to be objective we also need to test this alternative explanation - that maybe the human mind and consciousness can somehow separate from the brain. Today, this is something that is not considered possible through our current neurobiological theories, however some physicists argue that if we consider things at the subatomic level rather than the large scale molecular level of the brain, this may be possible.

The current data from cardiac arrest, has shown that in general the cortical brain (and most likely the other brain areas also) cease electrical activity and that despite the best efforts of doctors at resuscitation we are unable to per fuse the brain with blood adequately. Thus there is a non functioning brain as far as doctors are able to measure. Therefore the occurrence of lucid well structured thought processes and consciousness is a paradox. The brain in such a disordered state cannot support such lucid activity of the mind. There are of course other explanations (such as do the thoughts occur just before or after the brain stops functioning etc...) and therefore what is needed is to accurately time the experience and attempt some objective measure of brain function to determine whether those who have conscious awareness (i.e near death and out of body experiences) actually somehow have a better functioning brain or do they have it despite little or no brain activity. Either way the answers will be fascinating.

Looking again at the point regarding the conclusions made by some researchers such as Professor Blanke and co workers that out of body experiences are simply illusions brought about by an abnormally functioning brain, it must be pointed out that at this point this exciting work is very new. To many researchers, the cases that have been described actually do not resemble out of body experiences and so they are still highly debatable. In the case mentioned above (from the well known medical journal Nature in 2002, the lady actually described a sensation of seeing her herself up to the trunk. During out of body experiences people actually describe floating at the ceiling and being able to watch specific details of events that were taking place below. In many times these cases have been confirmed (for one example see Dr Van Lommel's published scientific article). There have also been another series of studies carried out recently by Dr Ehrsson and also Professor Blanke and his coworkers and the results of these studies were published in the well known scientific journal Science (24 August 2007). The description was actually not an out of body experience as has traditionally been described in the literature. In these studies, the investigators simply recreated an illusion of seeing a double of the self using video technology. This method is described in a recent BBC report and simply highlighted the limitations of human visual processing. Nevertheless, despite this most would agree that out of body experiences are mediated by the brain and the exciting work by Professor Blanke and others may help identify the areas of the brain that mediate it.

Nevertheless such a discovery says nothing of the reality or nature of the experience. It cannot tell us if the experience is real or not and so for this we still need an objective study to examine the nature of the experience. For more information see the section about the Human Consciousness Project. 

Some people have also attempted to explain the 'out of body experiences' as a psychological phenomenon. It has been suggested that the brain may simply be constructing and creating the experience from previously stored memories such as those obtained from medical programs on television. Most people are now more familiar with what happens in hospitals through the many medical programs on television and so it has been argued that although the subject may appear unconscious to the doctors and nurses he or she may actually only be partly unconscious. Therefore if this is the case they may still be able to gather information through their ordinary senses such as hearing, while actually appearing to be unconscious to the outside world. This is thought to be similar to the well-recognized phenomenon called 'consciousness during anesthesia' that has been extensively described in the surgical and anesthetic literature. In this condition patients who have been inadequately anesthetized have sometimes reported being aware of events that had occurred during surgical operations as well as hearing conversations. The difference between this and out of body experiences is, however that those with this condition have simply not had adequate anesthesia, which is very different to people who have reported being able to 'see' things that have been verified by medical and nursing staff during a deep coma or even during times when the brain had not been functioning.

As discussed above the main problem for science is always going to be that even if the part of the brain that mediates out of body experiences is discovered it still doesn't say anything about the nature of the experience. For this an objective study is needed to test the claims of being able to see from a vantage point above.


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