Out of body experiences

We examine the science behind out-of-body experiences, and even induce one in an unsuspecting audience member!
03 November 2014

Interview with 

Dr Jane Aspell, Anglia Ruskin University.


Out-of-body experiences commonly occur when people are very ill or suffer severe injuries. They are often reported as a feeling of the 'self' being outside the body, looking down on it. But what actually is an out-of-body experience, and what causes them? Out of Body ExperienceJane Aspell is a senior lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University where she investigates this phenomenon and what is going on in the brain when people experience it. She even induces these experiences in healthy people, something we thought we would like to try on an unsuspecting member of the audience, as she explained to Chris Smith...

Jane -  People commonly associate them with near death experiences.  You have the idea that somebody is - that their self or their soul is leaving their body when they're on their death bed or in a hospital bed.  But scientists have looked at many people who've had out-of-body experiences to see if there's anything that unites them, if they have anything in common.  What they found is that there's a particular part of the brain which is not working properly in people who have out-of-body experiences.  It's a part of the brain which receives information from lots of different senses, about your body, and integrates them together.  So because that part of the brain is not functioning properly, you experience yourself outside of your body.

Chris -  There's a piece of research that was published a few years ago, a researcher in Switzerland called Olaf Blanke and I was fortunate when he discovered this to be able to talk to him.  He could induce these sensations in people by deactivating a certain region in their brain and he asked them, because they were doing this in people who were having brain surgery but were awake at the time.  All of the people said that they experienced a sort of shadow person who was themselves but a little bit behind into the side of themselves.  When he gave them something to take, they would say, "they're trying to get hold of it".  They couldn't really grapple with the fact that it was them who was reaching out to take something.  They experienced this other person trying to get hold of whatever he was offering them.

Jane -  Sounds really spooky, doesn't it?  I worked in Professor Blanke's lab for 4 years before coming to Cambridge and I met a patient who'd had this experience.  It's called feeling of a presence.  It sounds really spooky.  They feel like somebody is constantly behind them and always around about 1 metre behind them and usually, they can't see them.  It's just a feeling.  So, you might have had it if you walk down a street on your own in the night and you just sort of feel that someone is behind you, even though you can't hear it or see it.  So, these patients have this feeling all of the time.  And again, it's caused by a particular part of the brain which receives information from our body.  What seems to be happening is that usually, your brain should create a model of just one of you.  But what's happening in these patients is the brain is sort of duplicating that.  So, it's as though there are two of you and that other you is experienced as this presence.

Chris -  It's quite common though isn't it, when you get people actually describing these experiences, it's a very consistent and it's a very common description that they give.

Jane -  It's very consistent, yeah.  There's always the feeling of, the self is outside of the body, which is really hard to imagine. We take it for granted that we experience our self in our bodies, usually in our heads.  It might feel like your self is sort of behind your eyes.  But in these people, the self is always outside of the body and always above the body as well.  So, there's always an experience of elevation.  So yeah, exactly, the reports are very consistent across different people which is in keeping with this idea that it's the same brain region, it's the same abnormality which causes the problem in all people.

Chris -  Haven't some researchers like you attempted to find out whether or not people really are going out of their body by hiding things in operating theatres for example, in places you could only see if you were really having an out-of-body experience and then questioning people afterwards to see if they've spotted that you'd written, "Hello.  You're a liar" on the top of the light?  So that unless they had floated up to the ceiling and were looking down then they wouldn't report the words were there.

Jane -  Yes, exactly.  I think some scientists in South Hampton are involved in this.  So, they've got some people in an accident and emergency hospital to collaborate with them and they put these cards or pictures right very high up in the room where people are having a cardiac arrest, their heart is stopping, to see if they do go up there and they're able to report back what the picture was.  They started that a few years ago.  I haven't heard of any positive reports yet.  But you never know.

Chris -  Any questions from the audience.

Catherine -  My name is Catherine from Newmarket.  You laugh about a cardiac arrest having these out-of-body experiences, but I have experience as a patient, I have many experiences as a nurse and if this room was full of nurses, 80% of them would be able to tell you a story.  But going back to the cardiac arrests, sometimes they're successful believe it or not.  The people say that they were up in a corner, looking over themselves and there's no way they could make up what we did to them.  But they will tell you in detail what has happened to them.

Jane -  I'm sure it can be difficult to explain these cases.

Catherine -  I can't explain it.  I don't know.

Jane -  I imagine they're telling you something like, "While my heart had stopped, you pressed this button on that machine and then another person came in.." or whatever.  What's happening in an out-of-body experience is your brain is receiving this information about what's going on in the world and then it's somehow reconstructing it in a way so that you experience the room from a different perspective.  So, it could be that they hear a machine being switched on, they hear somebody walking into the room, and then that is integrated into their out-of-body experience.  And that's why they say that they saw those things, but actually, it could've been that they only heard them and then they experience them as though they saw them.  That's how I would try and explain it in a scientific way.

Chris -  Chris French...

Chris F. -  There's a lot of research on out-of-body experiences and a lot of research on near death experiences.  One of the kind of question that I would always raise here is that there are some people who claim that they can have out-of-body experiences more or less at will, by doing various kinds of mental exercises, meditation, etc.  Now, that would be very, very easy to test.  Nobody is doubting the experiences.  The experience of a near death experience can be incredibly profound.  It can be life transforming.  The experience definitely happens.  The question is, what is it?  Is it really a glimpse of some kind of afterlife or is it a very, very rich and powerful hallucination.  I would say the evidence very strongly supports the latter rather than the former.

Chris -  Has anyone else got any questions or experiences?

Naomi -  Naomi from Cambridge.  I've seen two different members of my family have hallucinations.  One was visual hallucinations - my sister when she had malaria.  Another one was my daughter when she was sleep-deprived and she had auditory hallucinations.  Having seen those both, I can believe anything.  Both people were completely convinced that something was happening, but it was obvious to the rest of us that it was just a hallucination.

Chris -  Chris French...

Chris F. -  There's a strong tendency for people to react very defensively.  If you say, "Well, maybe you were hallucinating" because what they equate that with is "you're saying I'm crazy!" and that's just not true at all.  We can all hallucinate under the right conditions.  Surveys show that typically, around about 20% of the population, people who don't need any kind of psychiatric care whatsoever will report having hallucinations of various kinds.

Chris -  Well, let's see if we can demonstrate some abnormal perceptions.  Ginny and Hannah, over to you...

Hannah -  So, Ginny is just prepping up our experimental table here.  And what she's got, is a white piece of cardboard that's standing up vertically on the table.  It's going to act as a barrier.  We've also got on the table a fake hand.  Now, who can be our little volunteer for this experiment?  There's a lot of keenness.  What's your name and how old are you?

Lottie -  I'm Lottie and I'm 11.

Ginny -  What I need you to do is sit down on that stool and then we're going to put both your hands on the table for me.  Now, we're going to make sure your left hand is behind the screen so you can't see it.  In the place where it kind of should be, I'm going to put the fake hand.  Then we're going to drape this shirt over you.

Hannah -  You can't see your left hand at the moment, can you?

Lottie -  No.

Hannah -  No and what's Ginny doing to your hand at the moment?

Lottie -  She's got some wooden sticks and is running them down my fingers.

Hannah -  You're looking now at the fake hand where she's also rubbing the chopsticks across the fingers.  So, she's doing exactly, she's mirroring the action on the fake and prosthetic hand and also, the guinea pig's real hand.  How is it starting to feel because you're just staring at the prosthetic hand now?  Is it quite mesmerizing?

Lottie -  It is.  It kind of feels like the prosthetic hand is my actual hand.

Hannah -  Really?  So, it's almost like your brain is starting to represent the fake hand as your own hand.  Ginny, in that case, do we want to do something else to the fake hand rather than just tickle it gently with chopsticks?  So, Ginny is now going to get a giant hammer!  Lottie's face there was priceless.  Lottie, how did that feel?  Have you recovered?

Lottie -  No.

Hannah -  What do you think just happened?

Lottie -  I kind of snapped back into reality.

Hannah -  Did you think that your hand was being hit by a hammer at some point?

Lottie -  Yes.

Hannah -  But you now realised...

Lottie -  It wasn't.  It was the prosthetic hand.

Hannah -  A big round of applause for Lottie.


Hannah -  So, what on Earth was going on in Lottie's brain there, Ginny?

Ginny -  Our brains have to work out all the time, what is our body and what is not our body, what's the microphone you're holding, and all of that sort of thing.  What it does to do that is it combines different information it's getting from its senses.  So, most of the time, we can see our hands and we can also feel them.  So, if you see something being prodded and feel roughly the same thing, it's a pretty good guess that that's your hand that's being prodded.  So, what we were doing here is we were really confusing Lottie's brain by having her get the same feelings as what she could see happening on a hand that wasn't really hers.  That was tricking her brain.  It was making her brain think that that rubber hand was probably her hand because she could feel what was happening to it or at least that's what it seemed.  So then when I got out my large, heavy metal hammer, and thumped it down on this hand that she'd started having the feeling that it belonged to her, of course, poor Lottie jumped back, thinking I was about to hit her with a hammer.  I wasn't and it didn't hurt at all, did it?

Lottie -  Nope.

Ginny -  No.  So, it didn't actually hurt her but it gives you that moment of panic that something big and heavy is coming towards your body and it feels like it was her body even though it actually wasn't.  Jane, is that something similar that you do to induce these experiences in people?

Jane -  Yes.  So instead of having just a hand, what you could do is have a whole mannequin ,because you want people to experience that their self is somewhat different to their body.  So, the experiences I generate are not as strong as an out-of-body experience.  But usually, I would have somebody standing in a room.  They'd be wearing sort of virtual reality goggles like Oculus Rift or something.  A video camera would film them from behind.  The virtual reality goggles are connected to the video camera so then they suddenly see their double standing in front of them which is quite spooky.  Somebody has a long stick like you were using on the hand and then you tap the person's back with the stick so they can feel the tapping on their back and see the tapping on their double in front of them.  People start to experience then, that their body is actually over there where the virtual body is and that their self is outside of their physical body.  So, that's how I try and create out-of-body experiences in healthy people.  It's a little bit similar but it does...

Chris -  Did you hit them with a hammer?

Jane -  What some other researcher does is get a knife and it looks as though they're stabbing it and they also get a big fright like Lottie did.

Chris -  So, what do you learn by doing this?  It is exciting.  I have done that and it really is very strange to experience when you feel you're not in your own body, but why is this important, us understanding this?

Jane -  It's interesting to understand how an out-of-body experience works to start with, but my research in general is looking at how the brain creates a sense of self.  How on Earth does it generate a feeling of who you are, all these things that we take for granted that our self seems to be inside our body, inside our head, that we know this body is ours, we don't experience somebody else's body as ours?  So, how does a brain create this thing which is the most important thing in the world to us, our self?  So, it relates to that really and it's only by manipulating your sense of self in these kinds of experiments that you can try and work out how the brain creates the normal sense of self that we sort of take for granted.

Chris -  From Anglia Ruskin University, ladies and gentlemen, thank you, Jane Aspell.


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