It may not happen to everyone in their lifetime, but for some, the strange sensation of being on the verge of sleep and waking, and feeling ‘disconnected’ from their body but conscious of their surroundings, coined as “Out-of-Body-Experience,” can happen, and scientists are just beginning to look into what the brain does when it seems to go awry.
Also called “astral projection,” people commonly describe the sensation as being able to float, and seeing themselves asleep but being keenly aware they are awake.
Different cultures also interpret the phenomenon as your soul leaving the body, and with enough practice, you can even ‘control’ where the soul can go.
However, science is looking into out of body experiences as a study into the brain and how it interprets consciousness.
This report has scientists theorizing that out-of-body-experiences may have to do with a specific way the brain tries to make sense of a space.
Scientists say this means that your brain can automatically build a “bird’s-eye view” of the space around you.
Usually, you see things from your own perspective, but when something perturbs the brain, as in the case of patients under anesthesia; and it can’t make sense of different streams of sensory information, this bird’s-eye model of the world may take over; leading to the sensation that you can see yourself and your surroundings.
Neuroscientists from Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet tested this theory by creating an out-of-body illusion when they placed study participants in a brain scanner, and used an illusion to ‘teleport’ the individuals to different locations in a room.
The participants wore head mounted displays and viewed themselves and the brain scanner from another part of the room.
On the display, the individuals could see the body of a stranger in the foreground and themselves in the background, protruding from the brain scanner.
The scientists would then prod the participants with an object and they would see the strangers’ body being prodded on the display at the same time.
Arvid Guterstam, lead author of the present study, said: “In a matter of seconds, the brain merges the sensation of touch and visual input from the new perspective, resulting in the illusion of owning the stranger’s body and being located in that body’s position in the room, outside the participant’s physical body.”
Different accounts from people who have experienced it say they were able to ‘wake’ themselves up, while some required external intervention before they had the feeling of being back in their bodies again.
Out-of-body experience can vary person to person, and for neuroscientists, the phenomenon is a puzzle and an opportunity: Understanding how the brain goes awry can also illuminate how it is supposed to work.