At one point she felt she was "sinking into the bed." Later she said, "I see myself lying in bed, from above …"
Reports of out-of-body sensations have been common throughout history. The Greek philosopher Plato was among the first to suggest that when the body dies and disintegrates, the soul migrates outside the body and continues to live. Characters in countless paranormal dramas have been resuscitated back to life and then speak about how they rose above their own bodies and watched others working feverishly to save them.
But rarely has the sensation been captured in the controlled setting of a laboratory — until now.
In a new study released today in the journal Nature, Swiss scientists describe how they were able to trigger bizarre, out-of-body experiences in a 43-year-old female epileptic patient while analyzing her brain with electrodes.
Olaf Blanke, a neurosurgeon at University Hospitals of Geneva and Lausanne, wasn't trying to set off the sensations in his patient but was using electrical stimulation to map the activity of her brain in preparation for surgical treatment. But by recording the patient's reactions and matching them with specific electrodes, Blanke was able to pinpoint the region where out-of-body experiences seem to originate.
"We wanted [and needed] to be sure that what the patient experienced and told us was related to the actual stimulation," says Blanke.
When Blanke and colleagues activated electrodes placed just above the patient's right ear — a region known as the right angular gyrus — the woman began to have the strange sensations. Depending on the amplitude of the stimulation and the current position of the patient's body, her experience varied. Each of the patient's four episodes lasted about two seconds.
After one stimulation, the patient said she felt as though she were sinking into her bed and then she felt as though she were "falling from a height." After another stimulation she said felt like she was "floating" about 6½ feet above her bed, close to the ceiling. When she was asked to watch her legs during the stimulation, the patient said she saw her legs "becoming shorter."
Scientists have long tried to explain how people might have such sensations. Last December a British journal described a Dutch study that estimated 12 percent of cardiac patients resuscitated from clinical death experience out-of-body sensations such as seeing a bright light or their own dead bodies. In 1995, Michael Persinger, a psychologist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, found he was able to trigger out-of-body and other paranormal experiences in people by exposing the right sides of their brains to a series of electromagnetic pulses.
Severe migraines, small strokes and epilepsy have also been known to trigger the condition and previous work has located the cause to the brain's right lobe.
Right Brain Condition
Blanke says his study shows the right angular gyrus has a specific role in triggering the feeling. This region is the part of the brain that scientists believe integrates visual information, including how the body is seen, and touch and balance sensations that all work together to create the mind's representation of the body.
He says out-of-body experiences "may reflect a failure by the angular gyrus" to integrate these different channels of information. Physical stress, or a lack of oxygen to the brain, he says, might trigger the kind of brain misfiring he induced in his patient.
Vilayanur Ramachandran, a professor of neurosciences and psychology at the University of California in San Diego, says Blanke's study makes sense since damage to the same region of the brain has been known to cause a confused physical sense of the body. But, he adds, it's rare to be able to induce the sensation.
"This is exciting because it shows this technology can be used to produce reversible lesions," he says. "This can be a powerful tool to study the condition."
But Robert Peterson, a person who regularly experiences out-of-body experiences and who has written about them in two books, argues no study can prove the sensations are just the result of a quirk in the brain.
"People who have these experiences are nearly always extremely firm in their convictions," he says. "No amount of evidence can convince the subjects that it wasn't 'real.'"
Persinger of Laurentian University argues it only illuminates how much is left to learn about the human brain.
"This is more evidence," he says, "that that great raveled knot — our brain — still has a lot of mysteries to unfold."