Out-of-body experiences (OBE) were once the domain of spirituality and mysticism, but now science has moved in to investigate. Oddly enough, researchers found that this vivid hallucinatory experience could actually be caused by damage to people's ears.
A new study by Aix-Marseille Université in France, published in the journal Cortex, suggests that people have a “significantly higher occurrence” of OBEs if they suffer from dizziness and problems with the inner ear, known as peripheral vestibular disorders. Additionally, most of the patients only started to have OBE after they began suffering from dizziness for the first time.
People’s experience of OBEs vary, but it usually denotes a feeling of floating outside one's body in a state of lucid dreaming. Many people report having these experiences at the time of “near death experience” or an extreme physical trauma.
One of the patients in this study explains the sensation as feeling "like I'm outside of myself. I feel like I'm not in myself.” Another said it felt like “he was divided into two persons, one who had not changed posture and another new person on his right, looking somewhat outwardly. Then the two somatic individuals approached each other, merged, and the vertigo disappeared.”
Led by neuroscientist Christophe Lopez, the researchers compared 210 patients who suffer from dizziness with 210 aged and gender matched people with no history of dizziness. Out of those who experienced dizziness, 14 percent said they have had out-of-body experiences. Among the healthy participants, only 5 percent reported these experiences. Many of the patients who had both dizziness and a history of OBE had also been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, depersonalization, or migraines.
They believe it could be due to the vestibular system in the inner the ear, which helps control balance and eye movements. Problems with the vestibular system often cause symptoms such as dizziness, whirling sensations, lightheadedness, floating sensations, and difficulty focusing the eyes.
The reasons behind this link are not crystal clear, as researchers didn’t look for a direct causal relationship between OBE and vestibular disorders, they simply found a correlation between the two.
“Altogether, our data indicate that OBE in patients with dizziness may arise from a combination of perceptual incoherence evoked by the vestibular dysfunction with psychological factors (depersonalization-derealization, depression and anxiety) and neurological factors (migraine),” the study concludes.