The new science of out-of-body experiences

Susan Blackmore, University of Plymouth, England.

Abstract for MetaFizz, University College, Dublin. October 2015

An out-of-body experience (OBE) is defined as one in which a person seems to perceive the world from a location outside their physical body. This neutral definition means that if you seem to be out of your body then, by definition, you are having an OBE. This leaves open the big question – does something leave the body or not? If so, what? If not, how can these vivid, realistic and compelling experiences be explained?

My own experience in 1970 inspired a lifetime of trying to understand the OBE. Aside from popular ideas about astral projection, spirit and souls, there was research on OBEs in nineteenth century psychical research, in parapsychology in the 1970s and 80s, and more recently in connection with near-death experiences. Yet the popular media always seem to trivialise the ideas into two camps. Either OBEs are ‘real’ and are actual journeys of the conscious self, or they are ‘just illusions’, ‘only hallucinations’, the ‘meaningless twitchings’ of neurons and so of no real interest at all.

The truth is far more interesting. Since 2002, when Olaf Blanke induced an OBE by stimulating the right temporoparietal junction, research has leapt ahead. He attributes OBEs to “disturbed self-processing at the TPJ” because this area constructs our body schema, a detailed and constantly updated model of our body oriented in space. Brain damage or direct stimulation at the TPJ can induce mystical and religious experiences, OBEs, autoscopy and other dissociations. In addition, three aspects of self-modelling – point of view, embodiment and ownership – have been independently manipulated using virtual reality techniques that induce cleverly constructed full body illusions, and these share many features of naturally occurring OBEs.

At last the OBE has gone from being a weird, fringe topic shunned by serious scientists, to one that is contributing to our understanding of the nature of self and consciousness.