Researchers have identified a group of patients who are especially prone to out-of-body experiences

GettyImages-519685592.jpgBy Emma Young

People who’ve had an out-of-body experience (OBE) report that their conscious awareness shifted outside their physical body – often upwards, so they felt like they were floating above their own head. It’s thought that OBEs occur when the brain fails to properly integrate data from the different senses, including vision, touch, proprioception (the sense of where the limbs and other body parts are located in space) and from the vestibular system (organs in the inner ear that monitor head orientation, balance and motion). 

Previous research has mostly focused on the role of vision and touch – for example by triggering the illusion of viewing one’s own body – but the vestibular system has largely been neglected. If it does play an important role we should expect that problems with the vestibular system – which often present as feelings of dizziness – lead to OBEs, but do they?  

Historical case studies suggested that they might. And now, published in Cortex, the first systematic study of patients referred to a neurological specialist because of dizziness has found that they can. 

Christophe Lopez, a neuroscientist at Aix Marseille University, and Maya Elziere, a neurologist specialising in balance disorders at the Hôpital Européen, also in Marseille, France, compared 210 patients referred to them for dizziness and vertigo (having the feeling of spinning, swaying or tilting, being off balance, or that the room is spinning) with the same number of age and gender-matched controls. They found that the patients were much more likely to report having had an OBE – 14 per cent had had at least one, compared with 5 per cent of the healthy controls. And most of these patients reported having an OBE only after their dizziness had started. 

During their OBE, most of the patients reported vestibular sensations – of elevation and lightness, for example. (One reported a “sensation of entering my body, like in an envelope, from the top”). The vast majority of these patients also reported having had not just one but multiple OBEs, which usually lasted for a few seconds or a few minutes.

OBEs were linked mainly to dizziness caused by obvious problems with the vestibular system itself such as vestibular neuritis and Meniere’s disease (rather than being brain-based). Yet, most patients with these same vestibular problems did not develop OBEs so something else must be going on to contribute to the experience. Questionnaire results showed that scores for “depersonalisation-derealization”, depression and anxiety, were the main predictors of OBE in patients with dizziness, suggesting these psychological factors interact with the physical problem of atypical signals being sent from the vestibular system to generate OBEs. In healthy controls, there was also a relationship between depersonalisation-derealization scores and reported OBEs. This isn’t a surprise: depersonalisation-derealization involves feelings of observing yourself from outside your body, or having the sense that things around you aren’t real. 

As anxiety was also a significant predictor – and anxiety is known to be linked to vertigo – “we suggest that anxiety and depersonalisation-derealization may combine to precipitate OBE in patients with dizziness,” the researchers write. 

Out-of-body experience in vestibular disorders – A prospective study of 210 patients with dizziness

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

13 thoughts on “Researchers have identified a group of patients who are especially prone to out-of-body experiences”

  1. Curious if they can identify objects placed in an open box beside where they are sleeping – that is, objects that they cannot possibly view from where they are lying/sleeping; but which would be easy to see if they were, say, hovering above themselves in bed and looking down.

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    1. Had several OBE at about 7-8 years of age. They stopped, when after having left my room, and explored the attic the idea of leaving the house through the roof scared me. A couple of years later I went up to the “under roof” area of the house, and found it exactly as I had seen it during my OB experiences.

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  2. Over the years I’ve had many “flying dreams” and always enjoy them. For me, in my dreams, I understand that I am at a certain place, but many things about that place are different in the dream. Once I had a flying dream, but I can’t recall the take-off, which is usually a significant part of the dream. The “dream” consisted of my flying (in a diff’t way of my usual dream flight) through the downtown area of the town I was in. The strange thing is that the town was exactly as it is in reality and the part of town was in close proximity to where I was living (sleeping). It was extraordinarily vivid, I even recall watching a stoplight change, and light traffic moving. It didn’t occur to me until over a year later that this seemed more like an ONE than a dream. Any thoughts?

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  3. Well I don’t know we’re to start so much to say . I have had so far 4 episodes I guess guess you can call them . First one was July 2 2018 I sitting looking at my laptop and watching my tv when I started to feel very different I started taking in a different language and I knew what I was saying . I was freaking out on everything about everything around me the laptop tv everything I jumped up and I could not comprehend Ebert I was seeing. I knew my name my name was Louis .
    I had 3 more episodes but I was able to stop them . I stop them because the 1st one left me very weak and sick and I have not been right since then .
    I can assure this is very true .
    My email is l.flores.59@hotmail.com

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  4. I’ve had syncope, absence seizures, low blood pressure and bradycardia my entire life so passing out is a given, especially if I don’t follow my regimens to decrease the “episodes”. OOBE’s or Astral Projection is pretty normal for some of us. Could there be another correlation, besides passing out, like extreme traumatic life experiences for example? I rarely talk to people about my episodes for obvious reasons. People always fear what they don’t understand and I’m tired of being judged and crucified as a witch, like anyone else who’s different from the molded clones.

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  5. I am sure trauma plays a part, (I had plenty), and in my case, also the fact that as a child you are less likely to be dismissive of new experiences which don’t fit the norm.

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    1. I couldn’t agree more. Do you tend to be the first to speak regarding the “elephant in the room” and pointing out inconsistencies, hypocrisies or anything else being used by humans to blot out the truth? And were you scapegoated because of it? And did that pattern follow you into adulthood? Did either or both of your parents/caregivers and/or siblings ever exhibit symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
      Of course, you don’t have to answer as it’s pretty personal stuff. I’m just making a few personal realizations myself and I know there are others who share my experiences with OOBE’s which is what I always considered to be a place for me to go during traumatic experiences. You get darn good at going there, so much so you can will it at any time. I swear it kept me safe in a bad car accident I was the front seat passenger in. We hydroplaned off the highway in torrential downpours. My friend was doing 60 mph around a tight curve. I watched us take a sign down, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes and left the car. By the end, when I “came back”, my friend was bleeding from her head and left arm and it left her with permanent damage. Me, not a scratch, not a bruise, no mental or physical trauma at all. I was as calm and cool as a cucumber … well until I saw my friend bleeding and semi-conscious.
      Also, I don’t always stick around to watch the action. I’ve found I enjoy leaving the planet altogether. I think that is due to my childhood trauma, the place I learned to hone my skills so that I could will it when needed. And yes, I believe it has saved my life countless times. And like I said before, I don’t talk to people about it much, for obvious reasons.

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