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Pinpointing the Source of the Out-of-Body Experience

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November 1, 2007

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Credit: René Magritte

A 63-year-old Belgian patient suffering from tinnitus–ringing in the ears–has brought the out-of-body experience back down to earth. In a common treatment for the disorder, doctors implanted an electrode into part of his brain in an attempt to stop the ringing. When they sent small jolts of electricity through the electrode, the ringing unfortunately remained. But the patient reported feeling as though he was outside his body–about 20 inches backward and to the left, to be precise.

The case isn’t the first to link the out-of-body experience with abnormal brain activity. Patients with epilepsy, migraines, and tinnitus have occasionally reported spontaneous out-of-body experiences. And two previous studies report inducing feelings of disembodiment by electrically stimulating the brain.

The newest study does help pinpoint the neural culprit. Using a form of brain imaging called PET, doctors found a spike in activity in two spots near the implanted electrode every time the patient reported feeling disembodied.

Lead scientist Dirk De Ridder, of the neurosurgical department at Antwerp University, explains his concept of the out-of-body experience to HealthDay News:

“Self-perception is nothing else but a creation of your brain,” explained study lead author and neurosurgeon Dr. Dirk De Ridder, of the neurosurgical department at Antwerp University. “We found a key spot in the brain in which different areas are normally activated whenever stimulus comes in, so you can relate that stimulus to yourself, which helps create a unified perception of ourselves.”

“The ‘total perception of self,’ ” he added, “is built out of different parts. And one of these parts is that your consciousness belongs within your body.”

“But when something goes wrong in that brain area so that the integration of all the incoming information–sight, sound, smell, the senses–is not happening as it should, then you can feel that you’re not in your body,” De Ridder said. “You can get an out-of-body experience. You’re perfectly conscious. But you just feel as if you’re not actually sitting in your body.”

The findings may disappoint some whose lives have been changed after out-of-body experiences triggered at the brink of death. Perhaps one scientist I heard speak several years ago at a science conference in the United Kingdom is especially disappointed. To test whether people who report out-of-body experiences are truly outside their body, the scientist suggested putting cards on the ceiling of an emergency room, with symbols posted on the side facing up. If the person really was floating above him- or herself, he or she would be able to read the cards. Genius.

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