By Zara Herskovits, published on January 1, 2003 - last reviewed on October 21, 2008
For centuries, people who described floating out of their bodies
were dismissed as being out of their minds. A case study offers
insight into this phenomenon, in the first clinical description of an
out-of-body experience that was induced in a controlled setting.
The experience occurred a few years ago as Swiss researchers prepared a
43-year-old woman for surgery to combat epilepsy. When electrical
stimulations were applied to the woman's right angular gyrus, an area of
the brain responsible for spatial cognition, she reported that she was
floating over her hospital bed.
An out-of-body experience (OBE) describes the sensation that a
person's consciousness has relocated to a position external to his or her
physical body. This phenomenon is often associated with near-death
experiences, which can also involve the sensation of separating from
one's body. While OBEs are commonly described in religious and mystical
literature, scientific investigation of the phenomenon yields few
empirical facts. This case study, published in the journal
Nature, is significant because it suggests that the
right angular gyrus may be important in the generation of OBEs. According
to lead author Olaf Blanke, M.D., professor of medicine at the University
of Geneva, the findings suggest that repetitive OBEs may be a brain
dysfunction. "They also occur in healthy subjects, but only
spontaneously, mostly once in a lifetime," says Blanke.
Blanke cautions that it is difficult to establish whether the
sensation of bodily displacement caused by electrical stimulation is
equivalent to that of a spontaneous OBE. States Kenneth Pelletier, M.D.,
a professor of medicine at Stanford University, "This is a fascinating
single observation, but it is rather premature to conclude that OBEs are
reducible to electrical stimulation."