Science Interviews


Sun, 2nd Sep 2007

Out of Body Experiences - On Demand!

Henrik Ehrsson, Olaf Blanke & Thomas Metsinger, UCL

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Question and Answer Catch up!

Meera -   An Out of Body experience…An experience that typically involves a sensation of floating outside ones own body and, in some cases, seeing ones physical body from a place outside ones body.

This is probably something you would normally only associate with stories from people who have just come off the operating table or enjoy their share of psychedelic drugs but now, for the first time, two scientific teams have been able to induce Out of Body Experiences, or OBE’s as they are known, in healthy volunteers.

But now, two teams led by Professor Olaf Blanke from Ecole Polytechnique in Switzerland, and Dr Henrik Ehrsson from UCL, have managed to create the eerie effect of an out of body experience in normal awake people - just with the aid of a virtual reality headset and a back rub! And they think the discovery might help, amongst other things, to train better surgeons.

But how did they do it? Well, volunteers were rigged up with goggles containing miniature screens onto which the researchers could project images from a video camera.

The camera was positioned behind the volunteers so that they could see themselves from behind on the screens in their goggles.

The researchers then took a rod and rubbed the subjects on the back, which they could also see on the images from the camera.

This fooled the subjects' brains into thinking that the projected images they were seeing on the screen was them outside of their own body, as Dr Henrik Ehrsson explained, when the discovery was announced recently at a meeting in London...

Henrik Ehrsson:  The idea is to manipulate, to change, the visual input or its relation to the tactile information. If we change it in the right way, we should be able to change the feeling of where yourself is located in space. We should be able to move it to a point outside your physical body. Even induce out of body experiences.

Meera -   Surely nobody would fall for this would they? I managed to speak to Olaf himself to find out what happened.

Olaf Blanke:  We tried to manipulate where you see being touched and where you fell being touched. We were interested in learning whether by doing such a procedure and later asking subjects where they really believed they were, whether we could displace them or make them insecure about where they really are. This is what we have hopefully accomplished, at least the first step, with this.

People were filmed from the back, a camera was standing 2 metres behind them, and their back was stroken with large pen. This was filmed in the realtime and projected to a head-mounted display (goggles). So they would see their own bodies being stroked 2 metres in front of them. What then happens after a while is that you really start localising and feeling the touch, where you actually see it. So what this then suggested to us is that the partial phenomenon of an out-of-body experience can be reproduced in completely healthy subjects.

Meera -   I have to admit I’m quite upset that we didn’t get to have a go on it today. I know you actually had a go yourself so can you explain how you actually felt when you had a go?

Olaf Blanke:  A lot of subjects thought it was kind of strange and weird. What I had was a really strange sensation that you feel the touch where you actually see the touch, although as a subject you know that this is absolutely not the case, you have partial insight into the experiment. Even as the person who set up the experiment I should be even more aware that this shouldn’t work! But actually it does work, so I think it’s a nice finding because it seems to be so automatic, based on brain mechanisms that you cannot control by higher mechanisms; language, memory, thought.

Meera -   I know that some of the application that have been discussed have been gaming which is an obvious one, but also you mentioned surgey? I don’t really understand how that could happen.

Olaf Blanke:  It needs to be tested and I’m sure a lot of surgeons would be immediately hesitant to even try it but a lot of people who don’t operate actually but who want to learn to operate; I think for them it could be interesting that they are somehow linked to the motor inputs and tactile inputs from the real surgeon. That might be much more actively perceived than just watching the operation.

Meera -   So, ambitious medics could soon feel the dexterity of their awesome supervisors…and forget about the new generation of motion sensitive consoles, soon you could fight monsters head on in the world of gaming! All by causing confusion between your senses.

These studies looks like the beginning of a lot more research into this OBE’s, tricking further volunteers into believing they’re somewhere else. But self-consciousness is a principle pondered not only by scientists….but philosophers as well. I’ll leave you with Thomas Metsingers insight…

Thomas Metsinger:  What we have created really is what philosophers call non-conceptual self-consciousness on a bodily level with only two sensory modalities. You just stand or sir there, but still you get this externalised self-location and this seems also to show that it is very old, very low level brain mechanisms that are responsible for our everyday experience of being an embodied self.


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