Out-of-Body Experiences May Be Explained by Inner Ear Damage

You can always count on scientific explanations to suck the fun out of stuff (though we're not complaining). A 2017 study may have pooped the party for all those divine accounts of out-of-body experiences. Science strikes again!

Third Eye or Inner Ear?

An out-of-body experience (OBE) can be described as the sensation of floating above your own body and getting a bird's eye view of your surroundings. This makes for great movie sequences, but a 2017 study published in Cortex suggests the spiritually transcendent awakening thing doesn't hold much weight. It's not your third-eye opening, but it may be your inner ear kind of buggin' out. More specifically, it's the vestibular system, which is made up of canals in the inner ear that track your balance and location in space; it's the same system that makes you dizzy and gets you carsick.

The study, conducted by researchers from Aix-Marseille Université and the Centre des Vertiges, looked at 210 patients who have reported dizziness. Of that group, 14 percent said they've had OBEs. By contrast, only five percent of the control group of 210 healthy people said they've had an OBE. Add this significant difference to the previous anecdotal notion that the vestibular system plays a role in OBEs.

Here's an easy way to think about how the vestibular system may cause this effect, according to Jason Braithwaite, a psychologist at Lancaster University: Your inner ear works to give your brain an idea of where you're existing in a space. Are you in a small room? Huge room? Are you moving? Your brain always has a bird's eye understanding of your space, but you experience the world through your eyes' perspective. But then something glitches in how your brain is receiving sensory information, so your bird's eye view takes over as a default. How's that for spiritual enlightenment?

But Wait, There's More

As we mentioned, this OBE-inner ear connection isn't a new idea. In fact, Olaf Blanke, a neuroscientist at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, proved a fantastically wild connection in 2002: you can induce an OBE by electrically stimulating the part of the brain that integrates vestibular and visual information. Solving bits of the OBE mystery may take the fun out of it, but OBE induction would inarguably make an amazing Leonardo DiCaprio movie.

The story doesn't begin and end in the ear canal, however. Researchers believe other factors are at work in your brain to give you the sensation of leaving your body. And, no, we're not talking about drugs. Braithwaite has found that people who have other perceptual anomalies — like feeling the mysterious sensation of a body part changing shape — are more likely to report OBEs. The study's authors also found that patients with anxiety and depression in addition to dizziness were more likely to have OBEs.

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Learn more about the strange things bodies can do in "The Body: A Guide for Occupants" by bestselling author Bill Bryson. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto August 10, 2017

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