The truth about experiences outside the body and why they could be a cure for pain

For millennia, out-of-body experiences have been harnessed as proof of an afterlife or as proof that humans have a soul that leaves their body after death.

But neuroscientists are increasingly unleashing the brain dysfunctions that trigger these mysterious and sometimes disturbing phenomena, with lab experiments showing they can be simulated using virtual reality, and can even offer an advanced solution to chronic pain.

Dr Jane Aspell, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience who will present the latest findings from her own research at the upcoming British Science Festival, said one of the first things to understand is that despite its common association with operating tables , the heart is almost fatal. attacks and “bright lights and tunnels” often have nothing to do with near-death events.

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“One of the most common causes of an OBE [out-of-body experience] it’s epilepsy, ”Dr. Aspell said.

“They can also be caused by migraines, tumors, brain injuries and can even happen in healthy people, particularly in traumatic situations, such as a traumatic birth or a road accident. It can also be caused by very strong fatigue.”

In 2004, a woman who was conscious with a part of her skull removed while surgeons were fixing electrodes on her brain in preparation for a procedure to treat her epilepsy spontaneously experienced an OBE, telling doctors she could see herself. and to them “from above.”

“She really wasn’t above herself,” Dr. Aspell said. “It’s a hallucination created by the brain and triggered by the stimulation of that particular brain area.”

The region in question is the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), a nexus that processes sensory information, such as sight and touch, to create a feeling that the “I” is within the body.

However, if its normal function is disrupted, for example by a seizure or a reduction in blood flow during a heart attack, the TPJ “generates an experience of the self that is very strange,” says Dr. Aspell.

“Then the self seems to be located outside the body.”

While most people associate OBEs with the feeling of “floating” and “looking down,” there are other ways.

In an automatic hallucination, a person who is standing or sitting when the TPJ starts to fail will see his double appear next to it.

A third, sometimes terrifying, form of the phenomenon is heautoscopy. In this, the patient also hallucinates a doppelganger self before a sudden “change” makes them feel as if their self is inside the body of their double. Some patients even experience a confusing feeling that they have two selves in two places simultaneously.

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“This is really distressing because people are wondering‘ who am I? “And he finds it really horrible,” Dr. Aspell said.

“There was a study of a case of a woman in her 40s in which she was caused by epilepsy. She found it horrible and intolerable and tried to commit suicide, but in this case, investigators asked her whenever he saw her bend over to raise her hand.

“What they found when they looked at their brain waves on the ECG was that they looked normal, but when a seizure happened, the brain activity went crazy, like an earthquake, and from the moment it started convulsion raised his hand.This shows the connection between convulsion and hallucination.

“I had her for years, luckily, after she was given different medications for epilepsy, she seemed to get rid of the symptoms.”

While fascinating in themselves, OBEs also shed light on how the brain constructs its sense of “I” and possible therapeutic uses.

An experiment Dr. Aspell has conducted in her laboratory at Anglia Ruskin University uses virtual reality to mimic heautoscopy.


In it, participants put on virtual reality headphones connected to a webcam located exactly two meters behind them, giving the illusion that they are behind themselves.

A researcher who is also in the room, hitting the participant in the back, leaving the participant’s brain disordered by contradictory senses of sight and touch.

“You feel those touches on yourself, but you see them in the body in front of you,” Dr. Aspell said.

“This is starting to induce an illusion – not in everyone, but some people experience it very strongly – that the virtual body in front of you is the real you and that your self is not located in your own body.”

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Although some people are “scared” by the experience, when the study is repeated in volunteers with autism, whose brains process the “I” differently, they do not experience excitement at all.

OBEs are also seen as a mechanism for dealing with trauma, which allows a person to mentally dissociate themselves from a traumatic situation.

This inspired Dr. Aspell to explore whether they could be useful in treating chronic pain, with fascinating results.

“We tested this illusion, which only lasts two minutes, in people with many chronic pain conditions, and we found a 40% reduction in the pain rate before and after, which is a good painkiller response.

“We are now conducting a funded study on patients with [nerve pain condition] fibromyalgia “.

The British Science Festival will take place from 7 to 11 September.

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