You don't have to be crazy to have an out-of-body experience, viewing yourself floating above your own body lying on a premature deathbed, according to a new study showing that many persons can see themselves from afar, outside their own self, and yet be "normal" in every sense of the word.
It can be as vivid as the real world, a terrifying, yet sometimes comforting, and always perplexing, phenomenon.
Scientists have struggled for decades to understand the surreal experience, usually in a clinical setting. A person suffering from stroke, epilepsy, migraines or drug abuse is particularly susceptible.
But most of us probably know someone who is not pathologically crippled who knows with absolute certainty that he, or she, had an experience that seems absurd to the rest of us. It's not always looking down at oneself. It can be an extreme religious transformation, or an abduction by space aliens, or any event that projects one's self beyond the tangible world.
A close relative of mine who was an intelligent, thoughtful, rock-solid woman well into her eighties, was convinced she had seen an angel. It was as real to her as her own children.
But it, like all the others, was a hallucination.
Most research has involved persons with serious psychological problems, but in recent years, a number of scientists have tried to move on to "normal" people, folks like you and me. It's a really tough challenge, because the difference between "normal" and pathological can be a very fine line indeed.
But cognitive scientist Jason Braithwaite of the University of Birmingham in England thinks he and several colleagues have succeeded. They conducted multi-year experiments with 102 college students, all judged to be "normal," including 28 who reported "feeling as if one is no longer in one's body and experiencing the environment from outside of oneself" on at least one occasion.
Their study, published in the current issue of the journal Cortex, asserts that all 28 were as "normal" as the other participants, with one exception: they all scored "significantly" higher on tests designed to measure their "hallucination proneness." It's a subtle level of "proneness," not like an excruciating vision from an epileptic seizure, but it's revealed in how they answered a series of questions, and how strongly they felt about their answers.
A sample of statements with which they were asked to agree or disagree:
"Sometimes my thoughts seem as real as actual events in my life."
"The people in my daydreams seem so true to life that sometimes I think they are."
"On occasions I have seen a person's face in front of me when no one was in fact there."
"I have heard the voice of the devil."
How the participants answered those and other questions, and how strongly they felt about their answers, allowed the scientists to determine the instabilities in the brain's temporal lobes - the part of the brain associated with spiritualism, emotionalism, and a wide range of other experiences, including hallucinations. As they had expected, the researchers found that the participants who had at least one out-of-body experience scored higher for temporal lobe instabilities, and thus were more prone to hallucinations.
In a separate experiment, those who had an out-of-body experience were also more likely to have trouble using their own body to mimic the orientation of a figure on a computer screen than those who had never had such an experience. The scientists believe that shows a weaker grasp of the concept of "self," also an important part of hallucinations.
But the overall difference between those who had an out-of-body experience and those who hadn't was not all that great. There is very little research in this area that is focused on "normal" persons, so there are few other studies to bounce off of this one.
Other scientists in England were able to induce out-of-body experiences in healthy participants, but they used virtual reality goggles that convinced some subjects that their "self" had left their own body and taken up residence in a virtual body. Others have shown that a weak magnetic field can also do the trick. But that type of research has been criticized because the out-of-body experience was artificially induced.
Braithwaite's research at least drew conclusions based on non-artificial inducement. If he and his colleagues are right, it all boils down to is this: Some persons are more prone to hallucinations than others, and thus more likely to have an out-of-body experience, but their "proneness" is not different enough to remove them from the ranks of normal.
In other words, they are just like the rest of us, but their temporal lobes are a little less stable. They weren't really abducted by aliens. It just seemed so at the time.