Psychology of Out of Body Experiences

By Lucy Wyndham

The idea of an out of body experience, also known as astral projection, has its roots in ancient civilizations. There are records dating back as far as 5,000 years to the ancient Egyptians who illustrated this phenomenon in hieroglyphics as a glowing light leaving the body. From then onwards, there is evidence from the ancient Greek philosophers in the from of stories and fables, and in the present day, we can find movements and spiritual teachings such as shamanism and transcendental meditation of which astral projection is a central component.

For centuries then, many civilisations have given accounts of these experiences, but what is actually going on during this phenomenon? While we can build up a picture of what this experience entails from the descriptions of people’s subjective experiences, science cannot definitively account for this phenomenon, due to a lack of empirical knowledge. This is similar to the consciousness problem, after decades of research and brain science, we are still fundamentally unable to give a single conclusive working definition of what consciousness is exactly. Its inherently subjective nature makes it largely unamenable to scientific investigation, the same goes for astral projection.

What is an out of body experience?

An out of body experience is described as the sensation that consciousness has temporarily abandoned the body and relocated to a position external to it. This has similarities to accounts of near-death experiences, where the person feels as if for a brief period they have separated from their physical body and they are outside looking in as it were.

While these experiences are often described in religious and mystical literature, due to the subjective and unquantifiable nature of them, scientific investigation has proven challenging and for a long time it has been difficult to yield any facts or empirical evidence. As a result, it is an ongoing debate among medical experts as to whether this phenomenon is real. However more recently, brain pattern recognition technology has found some interesting results.

What does the research say?

Scientists who conducted a study in Sweden were able to make the study participants inside a brain scanner think that they were on the other side of the room. The participants were wearing a type of headgear which projected the image of the body of a stranger in front of them. The scientists would then poke the participants with a rod at the same time as they could see the projected image of the stranger being poked with a rod. The brain automatically merges its own sensation of touch and visual input with that of the stranger’s body, which creates the illusion in the participant of owning the strangers body and therefore being located in a different part of the room.

One of the scientists from the experiment, Mr Guterstam stated that “”The sense of being a body located somewhere in space is essential for our interactions with the outside world and constitutes a fundamental aspect of human self-consciousness.” This fact about human consciousness however has been known for some time, for example, the famous phantom limb experiment conducted in the 1990’s shows this to be true.

What we can conclude form this

It would appear that the brains automatic sense of spatial location and awareness can indeed give rise to these types of experiences under the right conditions. On this basis, we have evidence to suggest that this sensation experienced by many people has been demonstrated to be a function of the brain. The idea however that it could be a separate entity leaving the body, such as a soul or the idea of consciousness as separate from the body, while an attractive notion for some, it is ultimately just a subjective, human interpretation or fantasy with no scientific backing.

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