Many people have had out of body experiences. That strange experience where your mind seems to leave your body. Your spirit seems float above your physical state and for a moment, you can see your body from outside your body.
You don’t have to have a particular psychology to have an out of body experience. The most common experiences are during medical operations or massive physical trauma but other people can feel like they “leave” their body during sleep or even when awake! Of course excessive amounts of alcohol or hallucinogenic drugs can often make you feel a bit disconnected from your person and a bit more connected to the spiritual world (apparently 50% of marijuana users will have an out of body experience in their lifetime). However, often people that have these experiences are under physical or emotional stress and look for spiritual or paranormal explanations to fill the gaps. Having an experience like this is often life-changing so people are often able to remember the sequence of events quite clearly.
Scientists are not sure what these experiences actually are or even if they do exist. And while they have not been able to simulate a complete out of body experience, they have come pretty close. It is interesting that many scientists did not study out of body experiences in the 1900s because of its seemingly close relationship to other “paranormal phenomena” such as ghosts. But in 1982 a Gallup poll was conducted in the USA showing that 1 in 20 people had been in a situation where they had a near-death experience (not quite the same but I think we can say that these type of experiences needed investigation). To test the scientific basis of these experiences there have been some well designed tests and some quite comical studies.
In the early days, one approach that was taken to test the validity of out of body experiences was using concealed targets. One study used a series of numbers written on a card and placed on a shelf above the sleeping target. If the person had an out of body experience they would be able to see the numbers on the card and therefore prove that out of body experiences are real. That’s a bit of a jump to make regardless of the outcome of the study (which was inconclusive).
Now let’s fast forward to today. Although they have not been able to replicate an out of body experience, scientists in Switzerland have been able to do some pretty exciting neurological manipulation! ABC Catalyst recently examined the different experiments which aim to send confusing sensory information to the brain to try and uncover illusions of the mind. For example, one study attempts to confuse a subject’s vestibular system (involved in balance) by simulating an imbalance in the system by rotating the subject in circles like on a carnival ride or by injecting cold water into the subject’s ears. This causes the subject’s brain to register an imbalance and attempt to correct itself. Another experiment uses illusions to confuse the subject’s sight and consciousness. This involves the synchronized touching of the subject’s hand (out of sight from the subject) and a visible rubber hand. The subject slowly becomes familiar with the rubber hand and begins to believe it is their hand! (Also see ABC Science for more on this)
Most people will experience something more mundane than a full out of body experience. It’s likely you already have had a waking dream or a lucid dream sometime in your life. A waking dream is when you wake up from dreaming only to find that the imagery of the dream remains in your consciousness and you are seemingly paralyzed. This is quite normal – the body paralyzes itself during sleep so that people don’t act out their dreams. Sleep walking is the obvious exception to this phenomena. If you wake up suddenly (perhaps you are having a nightmare) the body hasn’t switched from paralysis to normal yet and so it is often quite a frightening experience.
Lucid dreaming is when you think you’re awake and acting out tasks, e.g. getting up and dressing, and then suddenly you become aware that you are still dreaming and haven’t woken up at all yet. The mind playing tricks again!
Whether science can confirm and replicate out of body experiences or similar extreme events remains to be seen. But if you’re interested in extreme out of body experiences there is always Hollywood to keep you entertained: