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Brain scans of a self-reported out-of-body experience

author

Janet Fang

Staff Writer

clockMar 8 2014, 02:30 UTC
398 Brain scans of a self-reported out-of-body experience
activated regions of the brain while the participant claimed to have extra-corporeal experiences / A.M. Smith & C. Messier, Front. Hum. Neurosci. 2014
 
To be clear, this was a type of hallucination. This was not a bona fide out-of-body experience the likes of paranormal activity or the astral projection powers of Shannen Doherty’s character on Charmed. But it’s still cool because it’s the first attempt to scientifically analyze and document a non-pathological, self-elicited out-of-body experience. 
 
Using an fMRI, which images blood flow to detect brain activity, researchers from the University of Ottawa scanned the brain of a woman who claims that she can produce, at will, extra-corporeal experiences -- during one of her self-reported experiences. They write in their case study
 
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. 
 
Crazy, yes? But according to the researchers, something was happening in her brain that was consistent with her report. Gizmodo explains
 
The fMRI showed a "strong deactivation of the visual cortex" while "activating the left side of several areas associated with kinesthetic imagery," which includes mental imagery of bodily movement. This is the part of the brain that makes it possible for us to interact with the world. It's what makes you feel where your body is in relation to the world.
 
In other words, the brain scans show that she feels she’s going through what she’s claiming. But this was no astral trip -- it was a type of hallucination triggered by some neurological mechanism. 
 
The particulars of the above brain scan, for your neuroscience nomenclature pleasure:
 
- Activations were mainly left-sided and involved the left supplementary motor area (F), supramarginal gyrus (D,F), and posterior superior temporal gyrus. The last two overlap with the temporal parietal junction that has been associated with out-of-body experiences. 
- The cerebellum (B,D,E) also showed activation that is consistent with the participant’s report of the impression of movement during the extra-corporeal experiences. 
- There was also activity in the left middle and superior orbital frontal gyri (A,C,D,E) regions often associated with action monitoring. 
 
Clearly, replication is required to say for sure if this pattern is the same for other people claiming to initiate extra-corporeal experiences. The researchers speculate that there may be many more unreported cases. 
 
The findings were published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience last month. 
 
 
Image: A.M. Smith & C. Messier, Front. Hum. Neurosci. 2014
 

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  • extra-corporeal experience,

  • fMRI