Seeing Myself: The new science of out-of-body experiences

In Western Morning News, 15 July 2017

This is my original text and may have been edited before publishing.

Have you ever felt as though you left your body and were floating above it, or perhaps even flying across the world like a bird? If so, you are not alone. Nearly fifteen per cent of Britons have had an out-of-body experience (OBE) and few of us know what to make of it. The most obvious conclusion is that we have a spirit or soul or astral body, and that is precisely what I concluded when it happened to me – but it turns out that I was wrong.

As a young student back in 1970, I was enjoying my first term at university – perhaps enjoying it too much because I was not getting enough sleep. One evening, after dabbling with the Ouija board (which I wouldn’t recommend), I sat with two friends listening to music and when I smoked a little hash I began rushing down a tunnel, then floating on the ceiling, and then travelling, as it seemed, all over the world. Trying to return to my body I instead found myself first shrinking and then growing to enormous size, so much so that I lost all sense of being a separate self and became one with everything else – it was a classic mystical experience, although I knew nothing about such things at the time.

There were many bizarre irregularities in what I saw in my travels, yet everything seemed so utterly vivid and real, and I felt so very alive and alert, that I was convinced my soul had left my body – and even that I would survive physical death. I became convinced of ghosts and poltergeists, witchcraft and magic, clairvoyance and psychic phenomena. I decided then and there to become a parapsychologist and prove to all the “closed-minded” scientists that they were wrong.

It was tough finding out that I was wrong. For my PhD in parapsychology, I did numerous experiments looking for ESP, telepathy and clairvoyance. But never found any – not to mention the ghosts I failed to see, the poltergeists that turned out to be faulty clocks and TV sets, or the mediums who cheated. I gave up my Tarot cards, my magical training and my crystal ball, but I still wanted to understand what had happened to me. Yet the science simply wasn’t there – until everything changed.

In 2002 a Swiss neurosurgeon, Olaf Blanke, placed an array of electrodes on the surface of a woman’s brain, trying to find the focus of her epileptic seizures, when he hit upon a special spot at the right temporo-parietal junction (where the brain’s temporal and parietal lobes meet). When he gently stimulated with the electrodes she reported odd sensations of floating and bodily distortions. With stronger stimulation she seemed to leave her body altogether. By manipulating the precise position and strength of stimulation he could manipulate her experiences. As the now-famous 2002 paper in the prestigious scientific journal Nature proclaimed, “The part of the brain that can induce out-of-body experiences has been located.”

How exciting! Further research confirmed that patients with brain damage to this specific area often report OBEs. And in another lucky hospital event a young epileptic boy was actually being monitored during a seizure. Before losing consciousness his arm seemed to move by itself and later he told doctors that he’d been floating, had the vivid sensation of looking down from the ceiling, and then went flying high above the hospital. The brain scans revealed a lesion in the very same place that Blanke had found.

But what does this mean? You might think it’s obvious that this means the OBE is a natural brain-based phenomenon. Or you might think the very opposite – that this spot is the “seat of the soul” or “the place where the material and the spiritual worlds meet”, as some researchers have claimed. How can we find out which is right?

One clue is the total lack of convincing evidence for floating souls – the sort of evidence I spent so long looking for. But the really important discovery is that this area is part of the brain’s self-system and maintains the ‘body schema’. This is a constantly updated image of our whole body that tracks our position and movements, relying on our muscles, joints and the vestibular system that helps us keep our balance. This is why when it’s slightly disturbed we feel floating and flying sensations, and if it’s seriously disturbed the body schema splits in two.

Since this discovery, research on OBEs has gone steaming ahead. Scientists have created OB-illusions using virtual reality, tricking people into thinking they are outside their own body or that the body is not their own. This has even been done inside an fMRI scanner, revealing the same brain areas at work. Others are researching what kinds of people have OBEs and the effect OBEs have on people’s lives. As for me, I know how dramatically mine affected my life. Had it not been for my OBE all those decades ago I would never have become a parapsychologist, done all that research, or written this book.

Susan Blackmore is a Visiting Professor in Psychology at the University of Plymouth.