Thursday, March 6, 2014

Studying Out of Body Experiences

Here's a fascinating case study, a Canadian graduate student who claims to be able to induce out-of-body experiences at will. One of the biggest problems with studying OOBE's is that usually it's hard to predict when they will occur. Therefore, controlled scientific experiments on this phenomenon pretty much require at least a small population of such subjects. Experimenters are hopeful that more will be found, as the woman only brought it up during a psychology class that discussed how rare such experiences actually are. She thought everybody could just do it.

The 24-year-old "continued to perform this experience as she grew up assuming, as mentioned, that 'everyone could do it.'" This is how she described her out-of-body experiences: "She was able to see herself rotating in the air above her body, lying flat, and rolling along with the horizontal plane. She reported sometimes watching herself move from above but remained aware of her unmoving “real” body. The participant reported no particular emotions linked to the experience."

An unusual find, wrote the scientists, University of Ottawa researchers Andra M. Smith and Claude Messier--this is the first person to be studied able to have this type of experience on demand, and without any brain abnormalities. Instead of an "out-of-body" experience, however, the researchers termed it a "extra-corporeal experience" (ECE), in part because it lacks the strong emotions that often go hand-in-hand (such as shock & awe, for example).

To better understand what was going on, the researchers conducted a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study of her brain. They found that it surprisingly involved a "strong deactivation of the visual cortex." Instead, the experience "activated the left side of several areas associated with kinesthetic imagery," such as mental representations of bodily movement.

Even without the strong emotions, I think it's likely that what the subject is experiencing could very well be the same process. Those strong emotions could be the result of cognitive dissonance stemming from the surprise of such an unusual experience, whereas the intensity just won't be the same for someone who does it all the time. The cognitive dissonance would also imprint the memory of a singular experience much more strongly.

While it's fascinating to see the brain activity during an OOBE, I'm hoping that researchers will take the next step and see if the woman can actually obtain new information while "out of her body." With a subject who can do it at will, that's extremely easy to test - just write down an unknown word and put it someplace where she could only see it by floating or something similar. It would really be a shame for no such tests to be conducted just because researchers assume that nothing paranormal is going on.

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