Did you see headlines like this over the last few days? “The Woman Who Can Will Herself Out Of Her Body” or “Scientists unlock mystery of out-of-body experiences (aka astral trips)”, or even “Out-of-body experiences are the result of unusual brain activity, study claims”?
If you just read the headline and not the linked articles, you might have gotten the wrong impression. Actually, even if you did read the article you may still have gotten it mixed up, but that’s not really your fault.
All three of those headlines, and a host of others, refer to a “study” published 10 February, 2014 in the science magazine Frontiers, titled Voluntary out-of-body-experience, an fMRI study. The story broke via a Popular Science Magazine article by Douglas Main, titled The Woman Who Can Will Herself Out Of Her Body.
It’s an interesting story. An unnamed Canadian woman, an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa, whom had attended a lecture on out-of-body-experiences, came forward claiming that she has the ability to leave her body at will. To qualify that, her claim is that she, since childhood, has been able to induce a state of being that to her feels like she has left her body, whenever she wants.
At face value, this claim is no different than any other claim that a person can somehow leave their physical form in a non-corporeal state, and exist as some form of energy or body-less soul in the environment of their physical location. Also known as astral projection or astral travel, this is a phenomenon that has been known to occult, metaphysical, and spiritual circles for many, many years. And while those who undertake the practice, whether voluntary or not, seem to have no doubt that the experience is real, there is relatively little evidence to support it as a real phenomenon, as opposed to an hallucination.
Anyway, after coming forward, this woman underwent an fMRI “study” in the hopes that researchers might be able to see what was happening in her brain during such an episode. What they found is impressive and interesting, but it doesn’t mean what the authors of those headlines mentioned above think it means.
There are a significant number of caveats that need to be put forward before anyone can really understand what happened here.
1) This wasn’t a study. It was an fMRI procedure that was described and discussed in a pseudo-research paper. The output of the procedure is a technical readout that required interpretation by experts, but the fact that it was a single participant, and not a group of people surveyed and assessed with controls and blinding, means it’s not a study.
2) The cited paper didn’t make any of the claims that the subsequent articles suggested, like the statement that science has “unlocked” out-of-body-experience, or that this woman can leave her body at will. It says only that, during periods of time when she feels like she has achieved this astral trip, the brain imaging revealed the quoted results. It does not confirm out-of-body-experience in any way.
3) The publication in which the paper appeared, is not a peer-reviewed journal. It is (self-described) as an “open source, community based academic publisher”. It is reputable and is a valuable resource, but much of what appears on its website is suppositional commentary on on-going research. It does have a community driven review forum, but this is not the same as peer-review publication.
4) The purpose of the “study” was not to confirm or deny out-of-body-experiences. It was to determine what goes on in the brain of a person who undergoes the experience, whatever that experience may actually be.
Now, to the result. It turns out that when this woman undertook her astral trip during the fMRI procedure, the results showed significant deviation in her neural activity in the parts of her brain related to both visual processing and motor control. And there was a significant activation in the area of her brain that is related to kinesthetic awareness (where your body parts are in relation to the rest of you).
This is fascinating, if you’re interested in neuroscience and psychology. It provides insights into the way in which our brains organize and process sensory information, and the physiology of altered states of consciousness.
As mentioned though, it does not prove the case for out-of-body-experience. The authors of the paper used the word hallucination several times throughout the paper as a label for what was happening, and it’s as good a word as any. The woman involved claims that her experience is real, but this hasn’t been tested, at least in scientific terms, as it could have been with little effort. The only evidence that she has this ability is her own claim that she does so.
The possibility does exist. Most certainly. But that’s really a separate issue from the “study” in question.
There is much better research that offers much better chances for finding answers in this regard. Dr. Sam Parnia and his AWARE Study (which actually is a study) through the Human Consciousness Project is a prime example of what’s being done. There’s also Dr. Dean Radin’s veritable mountain of research, experiments, and testable theories, among many other talented and brilliant scientists who focus on these subjects. So with that in mind, why would anyone choose to place so much emphasis on a non-study-study that doesn’t say what they want it to say?
I leave you with the following:
“The human mind is a delusion generator, not a window to truth.” — Scott Adams
As amazing as our highly evolved brains are – and even in spite of evidence to the contrary in our culture, it is an amazing organ – they are really not to be trusted. Outside of a discussion of existential psychology – which might suggest that what we think we know as reality, is nothing more than an elaborate dream – our brains primary function is to fool us into thinking that things are certain ways, when they really are not.
Astral travel may well be real, or at least no less real than any other form of reality, but how are we to differentiate between an hallucination and an unquantified experience confined to your head?
 Andra M. Smith & Claude Messier. Voluntary out-of-body-experience: an fMRI study. Frontiers in neuroscience. 10 February, 2014. http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00070/full