Scientists unlock mystery of out-of-body experiences (aka astral trips)

Some people claim that they have experienced out-of-body experiences—aka "astral trips"—floating outside of their bodies and watching themselves from the outside. A team of scientists found someone who says she can do this at will and put her into a brain scanner. What they discovered was surprisingly strange.

Andra M. Smith and Claude Messierwere from the University of Ottawa described this subject's ability in their paper, published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience:

She was able to see herself rotating in the air above her body, lying flat, and rolling along with the horizontal plane. She reported sometimes watching herself move from above but remained aware of her unmoving "real" body. The participant reported no particular emotions linked to the experience.

How the hell is this possible? Can it be real? The researchers found that something dramatic, and consistent with her account, was happening in her brain: The fMRI showed a "strong deactivation of the visual cortex" while "activating the left side of several areas associated with kinesthetic imagery," which includes mental imagery of bodily movement. This is the part of the brain that makes it possible for us to interact with the world. It's what makes you feel where your body is in relation to the world.

This is the very first time that this type of experience has been analyzed and documented scientifically. Researchers know that out-of-body experiences can be induced "by brain traumas, sensory deprivation, near-death experiences, dissociative and psychedelic drugs, dehydration, sleep, and electrical stimulation of the brain, among others. It can also be deliberately induced by some." But this may be the first documented case of someone who can get into this state at will.

So is it real or not?

It is real in the sense that she's actually experiencing it. The brain scans show that she's going through what she's claiming. But that doesn't mean that her "soul" is getting out of her body. This is not an astral trip, like those described by mystics. There's no paranormal activity of any kind.

The fact is that, even while there aren't a lot of solid experiments on this subject except this research paper and a few others, scientists believe that these out-of-body experiences are a type of hallucination triggered by some neurological mechanism. The researchers of this paper speculate that this neurological mechanism may be present in other people too and that some people—like this woman—may train themselves to activate it. She told them that she first noticed this happening when she was a little kid, while taking naps.

Perhaps out-of-body experiences may end up being like synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that was largely ignored during the mid-20th century. Synesthesia—which makes some people to automatically see colors in their brain when they read or hear letters, numbers and words—is now accepted, studied and understood.


Top image: Significantly activated regions of the brain while the participant was having extra-corporeal experiences. Most significantly activated regions are lateralized to the left side and include the supplementary motor area (F), the cerebellum (B,D,E), the supramarginal gyrus (D,F), the inferior temporal gyrus (B,D,F), the middle and superior orbitofrontal gyri (A,C,D,E).


SPLOID is a new blog about awesome stuff. Join us on Facebook