27 August 2007

Scientists create out of body experiences

A little late, maybe but better late than never, I suppose. It's utterly fascinating stuff (well fascinating to me anyway). Scientists have found a way to trigger an out-of-body experience (OBE) in volunteers. The experiments seem to offer a scientific explanation for a phenomenon that is experienced by one in 10 people.

Virtual reality goggles were used to con the brain into thinking the body was located elsewhere. The visual illusion plus the feel of their real bodies being touched made volunteers sense that they had moved outside of their physical bodies. Researchers say their findings could have practical applications, such as helping take video games to the next level of virtuality so the players feel as if they are actually inside the game. Clinically (and perhaps more importantly), surgeons may also be able to perform operations on patients thousands of miles away by controlling a robotic virtual self.

The teams, from University College London (UCL) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, believe there is a neurological explanation for OBEs. Their work suggests that a disconnection between the brain circuits that process visual and touch sensory information may be responsible.

In the Swiss experiments, the researchers asked volunteers to stand in front of a camera while wearing video-display goggles. Through the goggles, the volunteers could see a three-dimensional "virtual own body" that appeared to be standing in front of them. When the researchers stroked the back of the volunteer with a pen, the volunteer could see their virtual back being stroked either simultaneously or with a time lag. The volunteers reported that the sensation seemed to be caused by the pen on their virtual back, rather than their real back, making them feel as if the virtual body was their own rather than a hologram.

Dr Henrik Ehrsson, who led the UCL research, used a similar set-up in his tests and found volunteers had a physiological response - increased skin sweating - when they felt their virtual self was being threatened - appearing to be hit with a hammer. Dr Ehrsson said: "This experiment suggests that the first-person visual perspective is critically important for the in-body experience. In other words, we feel that our self is located where the eyes are."

Dr Susan Blackmore, psychologist and visiting lecturer at the University of the West of England, said: "This has at last brought OBEs into the lab and tested one of the main theories of how they occur. Scientists have long suspected that the clue to these extraordinary, and sometimes life-changing, experiences lies in disrupting our normal illusion of being a self behind our eyes, and replacing it with a new viewpoint from above or behind."

3 comments:

poons said...

now make them do it on acid!
That'll sort the men out from the boys!

Steve Bates said...

Hmm. I've had occasional out-of-MIND experiences...

jams o donnell said...

Ah why not go for heroic doses of mushrooms Poons? that will squeegee a few third eyes!

Conversely I have had the odd in-my-mind experience, Steve!