Dreaming LifeDreaming Life

Have you ever had an out of body experience, when you felt like you were looking at the world from a vantage point outside of your body? If you have, you are not alone. In fact, it is estimated that between 5 and 35 percent of people have experienced an out of body experience at least once in their lives.

Why Do Out of Body Experiences Occur?

Scientists believe that an out of body experience, or OBE, happens when your senses stop providing you with information from the outside world, but you are still conscious. You still feel like you have a body, and that the world that you perceive around you is the world you've always known. However, you're not getting those feelings from your senses. You're getting them from your brain, which has created a mental model of your body and your environment.

This is most likely to happen when you pass directly from wakefulness to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the stage of sleep when most dreaming occurs. We know that most OBEs take place when the person who experiences them is in bed, resting or sleeping.

In an experiment that was performed in the first decade of the 21st century, neuroscientists found evidence that OBEs are caused by a disconnect in the brain circuits that process information from the senses. Researchers had volunteers put on virtual reality goggles, then stand in front of a camera so they could see images of their own backs through the goggles. The researchers then stroked the volunteers' real backs with pens. The volunteers saw their "virtual" backs being stroked with "virtual" pens, sometimes with a time lag after the real event. The volunteers said that the sensation of being stroked seemed to come from the pens on their virtual backs. They felt that their virtual backs were their real backs.

Out of Body Experiences and Lucid Dreams

People who tend to have OBEs are also likely to be lucid dreamers.

There are two types of lucid dreams. One type is called a "dream-initiated lucid dream" (DILD). In a DILD, you realize that you are dreaming while you are in the middle of the dream.

The other type is known as a "wake-initiated lucid dream" (WILD). In a WILD, you wake up from a dream, then go back to dreaming in the same state of awareness that you had when you were awake. You know that you have moved from your bed into a dream world.

About four fifths of lucid dreams are DILDs and about one fifth are WILDs. However, when someone experiences an out of body experience as part of a lucid dream, it is much more likely to take place during a WILD.

When a WILD takes place, you move directly from wakefulness to REM sleep. When you are awake, you are experiencing your body and your environment through your senses. Then, when you enter REM sleep, you enter a state in which you experience a different body and a different environment - your dream body and your dream world. This is what is thought to happen when you have an OBE.

Out of Body Experiences and Sleep Paralysis

OBEs are similar to sleep paralysis, a condition that sometimes occurs when a person is falling into or waking up from REM sleep. During REM sleep, the major voluntary muscles of the body become paralyzed. Sometimes, the body becomes or stays paralyzed while the mind is fully conscious, and sleep paralysis occurs.

It is common for people who have experienced OBEs also to have experienced sleep paralysis.

Sometimes when people experience sleep paralysis, they feel like they are separated from their bodies. They sometimes feel vibrations or hear strange noises, symptoms that people also experience when they are having OBEs.

What's Happening in Your Brain When You Have an Out of Body Experience?

OBEs seem to be related to the workings of the temporoparietal junction (the juncture of the temporal and parietal lobes of the brain). This area of the brain plays in an important role in providing you with a sense of self and the ability to distinguish yourself from others.

Neuroscientists have found that people who had OBEs after experiencing brain damage had injuries at the temporoparietal junction.

OBEs can be induced by stimulating the angular gyrus, which is located in this region. Early in the 21st century, two women who were being evaluated for epilepsy surgery by Dr. Olaf Blanke at University Hospital in Geneva were given electric shocks to the angular gyrus. One woman felt that she was on the ceiling, observing her body below. The other woman had the feeling that someone was behind her, shadowing all her actions. Because the actions of the shadow person exactly mirrored the woman's actions, Dr. Blanke concluded that she was perceiving her own body as though it belonged to someone else.

Dr. Blanke also performed an experiment in which healthy subjects were asked to imagine they were having an OBE. When they did this, their brains became active at the temporoparietal junction.

In another case, which was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, a man had electrodes planted over the right side of the temporoparietal junction to try to cure him of tinnitus. Whenever this area was stimulated, he experienced an OBE.