Out-of-body experience clues may hide in mind
Scientists: Misfiring brain behind bizarre sensation
By Marsha Walton (CNN)
(CNN) -- Over the years, many people have described having "out-of-body" experiences, but there's not much solid scientific data on what causes them. Now, a chance event may shed some light on what produces the feeling.
Neurology researchers in Switzerland report the case of a woman who described "floating above her own body and watching herself" while she was undergoing testing and treatment for epilepsy. The strange experience only occurred when one particular part of her brain, the angular gyrus in the right cortex, was stimulated with an electrode. And it happened every time the angular gyrus was stimulated.
"Of course it was a big surprise when she told us," said Dr. Olaf Blanke, a neurologist at Geneva University Hospital, and author of the findings in this week's edition of the British journal Nature.
"You hear strange reports sometimes, but in five or six years of doing this I've never gotten that sort of response before," said Blanke.
He says the patient wasn't really frightened, but she did say it was a very strange sensation.
Blanke said it would have been difficult for the patient to fake such an experience. She had up to 100 electrodes implanted in her brain for these sessions, and had no idea which electrode would be stimulated, or when. The stimulations each took 2 seconds or less.
At other times during the same session, Blanke said, the patient screamed, because she "saw" her legs shortening, and "saw" her knees about to hit her face.
Electrodes and brain 'mapping'
The unidentified 43-year-old patient had suffered from epileptic seizures for 11 years. Doctors were using electrodes to try to pinpoint the origin of her seizures. Such brain "mapping" is also used to help doctors identify critical areas of the brain, like those responsible for speech or movement, so they aren't damaged during surgery.
While the electrodes are implanted under full anesthesia, patients are fully awake during the testing procedure, so their comfort, language skills, and responses can be constantly monitored.
This case is a little unusual for researchers, since the out-of-body experience was a surprise to both the patient and the doctors. Since nothing was planned, as it would have been in standard research, there were no control groups or other measures, like perhaps videotaping the session.
Others in the field say these serendipitous findings sound plausible, and intriguing for further study.
"It does fit in with a body of work on how we perceive our bodies and space," said Dr. Barry Gordon, professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.
He says similar descriptions have come from other people with epilepsy, and from stroke victims and others who have had seizures. This region of the brain may also tie in to the well-documented descriptions of "phantom limbs" by amputees.
"Our brains are not built the way we think; the inner mind is more bizarrely constructed than we might think," said Gordon.
As an example, Gordon said, when you look at an apple, you might see red and round and shiny and think of the word, "apple." But the brain may see the red in one place, the round and shiny in another, and process the word "apple" in yet another. We count on our brains to sort it all out and combine it into something we understand, he said.
An out-of-body experience may be a slight disconnect or misfiring of the processing of information. And, said both Blanke and Gordon, the trauma of having electrodes implanted in one's skull, plus the fear and uncertainty that go along with a complex clinical procedure, could possibly help trigger such a misfiring of information, such as the case of the Geneva patient.
"Sometimes patients describe looking down on their own bodies, and that experience is actually an aura or a warning that a seizure is about to occur," said Dr. Cindy Kubu, a neuropsychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. She has worked with patients with epilepsy for more than a decade.
She said some patients see lights flashing, others see cartoon characters, others have feelings of deja vu, or its opposite, jamais vu (when what is really a very familiar experience seems to be happening for the first time). All of these events can be precursors to a seizure.
Neuroscience and the paranormal
The angular gyrus is a complex part of the brain, responsible for things like body and space awareness, and logical sequencing.
If something is awry there, said Kubu, a patient might put on his pants first, and then his underwear, and not understand that there's a problem. Or the patient might feel like a hand or arm is not connected to the rest of the body, and he can't make it function.
The next step in learning more about out-of-body experiences will likely be efforts to try and replicate the results in other patients who agree to take part in such tests.
"This is fun, fascinating stuff," said Kubu. "And it could help our patients get better," she said.
As for Blanke's patient in Geneva, she is doing much better, he says, and her seizures are under control.
Dr. Blanke is hopeful that many different experts will be able to work together in using this unexpected information from his patient. He says there's even some value in what's often viewed as the "paranormal."
"Lots of people try to explain something away which is for many people, an amazing experience that has transformed their lives. I hope we can add some precise neuroscience and try to collaborate with people in many fields," said Blanke.