AAAS: Out-of-body experiences are just the product of a confused mind
Out-of-body experiences are not “spiritual” phenomenon but tricks played by a confused mind, claim scientists who fooled people into thinking they inhabited the body of a virtual human.
By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent in Washington
Throughout history people have described how they have floated from their bodies and looked back at themselves, often when close to death or on the operating table.
The accounts have been so vivid that they are often cited as proof of the existence of the soul or Heaven.
But scientists now claim they have dispelled this myth by artificially creating an out-of-body experience using computers and cameras.
They believe the feeling of detachment occurs when the brain becomes confused by conflict between the senses – and is not proof of any “spiritual dimension” to existence.
Professor Olaf Blanke and his team at University of Geneva said they had “immersed” volunteers into the body of an avatar – a computer generated version of themselves.
Volunteers were asked to wear virtual reality goggles and then stand in front of a camera.
The subjects saw the cameras view of their back on screens in the goggles, computer enhanced to create a 3D virtual version or avatar.
When their back was stroked with a pen so was the virtual avatar in front of them, making them think that the virtual body was in fact their own.
In this way people became confused about their real and the virtual self – even though they were effectively two metres apart from each other.
Prof Blanke, who presented his findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Washington, said: “Through vision and touch they lost themselves.
“They start thinking that the avatar is their own body. We created a partial out-of-body experience.
“We were able to dissociate touch and vision and make people think that their body was two metres in front of them.”
He said by inducing the out-of-body experience it proved it was more like a brain malfunction when sight, touch and balance become confused.
Dr Blanke said: “Instead of it being a spiritual thing, it is the brain being confused. Why do we think that it is spiritual when we don’t think a phantom limb when one is lost is an example of the paranormal.”
To take the research further they used sensors connected to the skull to find the areas of the brain most involved in deciding where it belongs.
These were found to be temporo-parietal and frontal regions – parts at the front and right side of the brain responsible for integrating touch and vision.
If these were damaged or somehow short-circuited it could account for the feeling of floating above your body often associated with an out-of-body experiences.
Aside from explaining out-of-body experiences, the work could have more commercial applications, said the researcher.
The technique could be used to make computer games even more exciting or projecting people into robot soldiers or surgeons.
They could even be used to treat eating disorders linked with a flawed body image, such as anorexia.
Out-of-body experiences most often occur during sleep or waking as well as through drug use, trauma and under anaesthetic.
They effect around one in 10 of the population.