Why do people have out-of-body experiences?
Article by Izet Jusufbašic
One in ten people during their lifetime claim to have had an out-of-body experience. An experience during which a person feels their soul being separated and floating outside of its body, often looking at it from a height, and those who have experienced an out-of-body experience sometimes claim to have noticed details during the event that were previously unknown to them. Although scientists have little knowledge of this phenomenon, it is often associated with near-death experiences and can lead to astral projections.
In some cases, the out-of-body experience occurs spontaneously, while in others it is associated with physical or mental trauma, the use of psychedelic substances, or a sleep-like condition. However, this state can also be achieved intentionally, for example with the help of visualisation in a relaxed, meditative state. Research from 2007 showed that experiences similar to out-of-body can be achieved by direct brain stimulation.
Out-of-body experiences are often seen as a mystical phenomena, associated with the supernatural and proof of the existence of another life and soul. However, a recent study reveals the common features of all such phenomena. Details of what happens when you experience an out-of-body experience are common knowledge: the feeling that you are dead, the feeling that the "soul" has left the body, the journey towards a bright light, going to another reality where feelings of love and bliss simply overwhelm a person.
In a study of 339 individuals who experienced an out-of-body experience, the following description of an out-of-body experience was obtained:
- occurs in moments of physical relaxation and mental calm without any emotional stress
- is experienced as a very pleasant experience in which the individual feels peace and tranquility
- sometimes ecstatic experiences of joy can appear
- very often individuals experience the out-of-body experience as a spiritual experience and as a result they start believing in life after death
- individuals are fascinated by the experience, describing it as one of the most beautiful in their lives
- experiences of discomfort are very rare, including the experience of an individual being crazy.
55% of respondents experience a sense of joy, and 60% that their lives have changed after an out-of-body experience. 48% of responders see the out-of-body experience as ''the most beautiful thing that has happened to them'', while 86% believe they have developed a broader awareness of reality.
How does science explain described experiences?
Recently, the head of studies related to out-of-body experiences discovered potential elements that create the basis for such phenomena.
"Many of the phenomena associated with out-of-body experiences can be biologically explained", says neuroscientist Dean Mobbs of the University of Cambridge.
For example, the feeling that a person is dead is not necessarily related to out-of-body experiences – patients with Cotard's Syndrome, also known as "walking corpse" syndrome, have a delusional belief that they have died. This syndrome occurs due to trauma, during the advanced stages of various diseases as typhus and multiple sclerosis, and is associated with parts of the brain such as the parietal cortex and prefrontal cortex.
"Parietal cortex is usually involved in the processes of attention and observation, and the preprontal cortex is crucial for delusions treated in psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia", explains Mobbs. Although the mechanisms behind the syndrome remain unknown, one possible explanation is that patients try to experience and explain the experiences they are going through in their own way.
Out-of-body experiences are now also known to occur during an interrupted sleep rhythm, which precedes sleep or waking. For example, sleep paralysis, or a feeling of paralysis in which a person is still aware of the outside world, is associated in 40% of people with vivid dream-like hallucinations, which can result in a feeling of hovering above one's own body. A 2005 study showed that out-of-body experiences can be artificially triggered by stimulation of the right temporoparietal junction, suggesting that confusion associated with sensory information can change radically in the way a person observes their body.
Patients with Parkinson's Disease reported seeing ghosts and even monsters. Explanation? Parkinson's disease involves the abnormal functioning of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can cause hallucinations. When it comes to the shared experience of reliving moments in life (you've heard the expression that in the moment before death "your whole life flies before your eyes"). One culprit may be the locus keruleus, the central region of the brain that releases norepinephrine, the stress hormone that is expected to be released at high levels during the trauma experience. The locus keruleus is connected to parts of the brain that mediate emotions and memory, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus.
Finally, one of the most famous aspects of the out-of-body is experience of death and the famous story of traveling through a tunnel towards a bright light. The vision of a tunnel can occur when the supply and level of blood and oxygen in the eye is consumed, as can happen with extreme fear and loss of oxygen – which is common when dying.
How should we treat out-of-body experiences?
Overall, scientific evidence suggests that all out-of-body experiences and death experiences have some foundation in the brain, when normal brain functioning goes in the opposite direction. Moreover, knowing the stories of out-of-body experiences and episodes that occur when dying could play a key role in reliving them – a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Previous research has not shown that spontaneous out-of-body experiences have a negative impact on an individual's health. Therefore, an out-of-body experience is not considered a disease state, but a normal experience that usually doesn't acquire any specific clinical intervention. However, it is recommended that an individual seek professional medical help if in an out-of-body experience they experience frequent symptoms such as headaches, loss of consciousness, sudden mood swings, and suicidal thoughts.
Coaches and therapists should be aware of the transformative power of such experiences, and help the client integrate their own experiences with the goal of psychotherapeutic effects.
One way is to encourage clients to read literature relevant to their experience. After that, it is necessary to openly discuss with the therapist the possible impact of the experience on the client. Another way to integrate one's own experience is to encourage the client with techniques that enable self-reflection, such as meditation, martial arts, various creative movement techniques – including dance and connected breathwork.
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