Scientists Spot Brain Center for 'Out-of-Body' Experience

By Alan Mozes
HealthDay Reporter
Wednesday, October 31, 2007; 12:00 AM

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 31 (HealthDay News) -- New research is taking a little of the mystery out of the phenomenon known as the "out-of-body" experience.

A team of Belgian scientists have linked the sense of disembodiment central to the experience -- the feeling of leaving one's body and then floating outside it -- to abnormal activity in a specific region of the brain.

This activity appears to short-circuit the processing of sensory information and the ability to locate oneself in time and space, the team said.

"Self-perception is nothing else but a creation of your brain," explained study lead author and neurosurgeon Dr. Dirk De Ridder, of the neurosurgical department at Antwerp University. "We found a key spot in the brain in which different areas are normally activated whenever stimulus comes in, so you can relate that stimulus to yourself, which helps create a unified perception of ourselves."

"The 'total perception of self,' " he added, "is built out of different parts. And one of these parts is that your consciousness belongs within your body."

"But when something goes wrong in that brain area so that the integration of all the incoming information -- sight, sound, smell, the senses -- is not happening as it should, then you can feel that you're not in your body," De Ridder said. "You can get an out-of-body experience. You're perfectly conscious. But you just feel as if you're not actually sitting in your body."

His team reported its finding in the Nov. 1 issue of theNew England Journal of Medicine.

De Ridder's team discovered what they believe is a hardwired connection between the out-of-body experience and specific abnormal brain activity. They did so while observing the unanticipated side-effects of a treatment offered to a 63-year-old Belgian patient suffering from tinnitus, more commonly known as "ringing in the ears."

To alleviate his condition, doctors had implanted electrodes in a region in the right side of the man's brain known as the temporoparietal junction.

Unfortunately, stimulation of the electrodes failed to halt the ear-ringing. However, in the process of doing so, the attending physicians found that the patient repeatedly experienced what he described as an out-of-body experience.

By monitoring the use of a patient-controlled button pressed at the start and end of each experience, researchers found that within one second following electrode stimulation to the brain, out-of-body experiences were provoked -- each lasting from 15 to 21 seconds an episode.

While at no time causing any alteration in his sense of consciousness, during each episode, the patient consistently reported feeling disembodied to a specific location -- namely about 20 inches behind his body and to the left. The perception remained the same, regardless of whether the patient was standing or lying down during electrode stimulation.

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