The Out-of-Body Mindset

Research connects a part of the brain to so-called "out-of-body experiences."

By Zara Herskovits, published January 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

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."