New findings tell us what may cause out-of-body experiences (OBEs).
An out-of-body experience has long been in the realm of spirituality as well as the paranormal. People tell stories of floating up in the air and looking down at their unconscious bodies. Several stories tell of this sensation happening right after a near-death experience. Many have concluded that this is the soul or consciousness rising up out of the body and looking down at it. Scientists, however, have more grounded idea of what may be causing this phenomenon.
Surprisingly—or perhaps unsurprisingly—the actual cause of this phenomenon may be something quite ordinary. Neuroscientist Christophe Lopez and doctor Maya Elzière teamed to find a more scientific cause for OBEs. They found that people who suffer from dizziness and inner ear problems are more likely to have an OBE. Thus, if you've experienced an OBE, you might want to go see your ear doctor.
Dr. Elzière handles patients who complain of inner ear problems, or conditions with the technical term “vestibular disorders”. Some of her patients experience dizziness due to things like infections near the inner ear or leaked fluids. She and Lopez included 210 of her patients in their study. These patients had issues related to dizziness due to damage in their inner ears. The researchers also had a control group of people of the same age and gender, but have never had issues with dizziness.
14% of Elzière's patients reported having had out-of-body experiences. 5% of the healthy participants in the study, however, had never had an OBE.
Let's consider what these patients go through when they think they're experiencing this strange phenomenon. They say that they feel like they're going through a tunnel, and that they're returning to their body the same way you put a letter in an envelope. According to Lopez, it's possible that the sensation of leaving one's body is due to a mismatch of information reaching the brain. After all, the inner ear is damaged, but the vision is still normal. Thus, the sensation may be due to the brain trying to make sense of the differing sensory information.
We can say, therefore, that inner ear problems may be what causes OBEs. However, it's worth noting that 5% of the healthy participants have had OBEs as well. It's possible that vestibular disorders may simply be one factor in experiencing out-of-body sensations. Lopez says that a person's mental state may be a factor as well.
The researchers also surveyed participants about their mental health, and found a correlation with the incidence of vestibular disorders. According to their findings, participants who have experienced dizziness as well as anxiety and depression were more likely to have an OBE. The healthy participants who reported having had an OBE also reported having experienced anxiety and depression.
Get weekly science updates in your inbox!