What Out-of-Body Experiences Teach About Our Sense of Self

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Levitation girls over the field.
Photo: Kladyk

You get the feeling that Anil Ananthaswamy, a contributor at New Scientist and the author of the recently published book The Man Who Wasn’t There, must hear a lot of mind-bending personal stories from his friends and family. Writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, Ananthaswamy recounts one such tale told to him by his friend Chris, who had an eerily vivid out-of-body experience. One morning, Chris woke early, got out of bed, and turned around — only to see his very own body, still nestled there in the bed behind him.

The shock was electric,” Chris told Ananthaswamy. “Because I was still lying in the bed sleeping, and it was very clearly me lying there sleeping, my first thought was that I had died.” From there, the story ends not with a bang but a slurp. “[T]here was this enormous sucking sensation,” Chris told his science-writer friend. “I felt like I was dragged, almost thrown, back into the bed, smack into myself.” He screamed himself awake, Ananthaswamy writes. 

Scientists who study hallucinations like these now believe that these kinds of experiences can help us understand how the brain constructs a sense of self. This is something that can even be manipulated in the lab —  take the famous rubber hand illusion, for example, by which scientists are able to convince people that a rubber hand is actually their own. The experimenter will simultaneously stroke the person’s left hand and a rubber hand in exactly the same way; after about a minute of this, most people will start to feel as if the rubber hand belonged to them, too. “These experiments show us that, to create the bodily self, the brain has to integrate various sensations — such as touch, vision and many other types of internal and external information,” Ananthaswamy writes.

This sensory confusion can happen in everyday situations, too, and this may be what is happening when someone has an out-of-body experience. “If the brain’s processes are working correctly, there should be just one representation of the body in the brain,” Ananthaswamy continues. “But sometimes the process goes awry, leading to two representations, and the brain has to choose the representation in which to anchor the self — and sometimes it chooses one, sometimes the other.” Eerie.