Out-of-body experiences are real, and we’re beginning to learn more about what may cause them. It’s estimated that about 10 percent of all people have had at least one. They usually are described as the feeling of floating above your body and looking down on it or being divided into two beings. Historically, these experiences have been regarded as symptoms of a psychiatric disorder, but new research from France suggests that many are due to problems with the vestibular system, the series of sensory apparatus in the inner ear that governs our sense of balance and orients us as to where we are in space. Researchers have speculated for some time that the vestibular system is involved in out-of-body experiences, but the French investigation is the first to demonstrate the association.
The study included 210 patients who had been treated for various inner ear problems, including recurring vertigo, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and infection, all of which can cause dizziness or a floating sensation. Another 210 individuals who had no inner ear disorders and had not experienced dizziness acted as controls. Of the 210 study participants who had inner ear problems and dizziness, 14 percent reported having out-of-body experiences compared to only five percent of those in the control group. Most of the study participants described having out-of-body experiences only after they first experienced dizziness. Earlier research from Switzerland found that an out-of-body illusion can be triggered by electrically stimulating the brain area that integrates vestibular and visual information.
While the vestibular explanation makes sense, we still don’t know why people who have no inner ear problems report having out-of-body experiences. However, after surveying patients about their mental states, study leader Christopher Lopez, a neuroscientist at Aix-Marseille Université, reported that those with a history of migraine headache, anxiety or depression were more likely to have had them.
Dr. Lopez acknowledged that it isn’t unusual to experience floating or sinking sensations while you are falling asleep, dreaming or waking, but he didn’t include these in the study since they aren’t related to the vestibular system. He also excluded out-of-body experiences associated with drug and alcohol use.
Researchers at the University of Ottawa have reported the unusual case of a former graduate student who was able to generate out-of-body experiences at will and thought everybody could. The student described these as seeing herself from above, as well as watching her body spin like a propeller or rise and fall. Using functional MRI scans, the researchers were able to identify changes in brain activity correlated with the woman’s experiences.
I would add that out-of-body experiences often occur in near-death situations and mystical states and that people who have them frequently take them as evidence that consciousness is independent of brain activity and exists apart from it.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Christopher Lopez et al, “Out-of-body experience in vestibular disorders – A prospective study of 210 patients with dizziness.” Cortex, June 8, 2017, doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2017.05.026