It's an otherworldly experience usually reserved for those with paranormal abilities, substance abuse problems or returning roles on "Star Trek." But now European scientists say they have induced out-of-body experiences in healthy people in a laboratory setting.
In two separate studies published simultaneously in the American journal Science this week, neuroscientists working in London and Geneva report making volunteers feel like they have left their bodies using virtual reality goggles, cameras and a plastic rod.
"I wanted to understand how we recognize our own body and how we know where in space our body is located," said Henrik Ehrsson, an assistant professor of neurology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and a researcher at University College London. Ehrsson designed one of the studies.
The central question Ehrsson wanted answered was: Why do we feel ourselves located inside the physical body?
Participants in Ehrsson's study wore goggles connected to two cameras mounted to a wall about 6½ feet behind their backs. With the cameras working like "a robot's eyes," Ehrsson said, researchers pointed a plastic stick to a point just below the cameras' field of vision. At the same time, test subjects felt another rod touch their actual chests.
Together, these elements gave volunteers the illusion they had left their bodies and were watching themselves from behind.
"They started to giggle," Ehrsson told ABC News of his volunteers' reactions. "Like, 'Wow, this is cool,' or 'Weird!' It's obvious they were experiencing something quite out of the ordinary."
"They know it's a visual trick," Ehrsson said, "but they can't think it away. It's not like they're imagining something. It's a perceptual illusion."
Ehrsson said a person's eyes, muscles and skin all work together to create a sense of self in space. When the information coming in from those senses conflicts, the brain no longer knows where it is.
"My idea is that the brain combines all sensory information to make up a model of the world and your body in that world," Ehrsson told ABC News. "If there's a breakdown in that integration, you might experience that you are in the wrong place."
The second team of researchers, led by Olaf Blanke of the University Hospital in Geneva, used a similar setup and reached the same conclusion.
Other neuroscientists expressed excitement at the studies' results.
"When you hear 'out-of-body experience' you might think of a seance or something supernatural," said Hal Blumenfeld, associate professor of neurology and neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine. "To be able to have a normal person experience that in a controlled way is very powerful."
As many as one in 10 people report having had a spontaneous out-of-body experience at some point in their lives, according to the studies' authors. Most of those occurred when the person's brain function was somehow impaired, either through injury or drug use.
Some people also claim to have left their bodies after a sudden and traumatic incident, like a car crash.
But if that sounds unpleasant, there are some who will do anything to escape their physical shells — if only temporarily.