After attending a lecture on “out of body experiences,” a 24-year-old student from the University of Ottawa approached her professor saying, “I thought everybody could do that.” She can apparently do this at will — making her the first person with this condition to be studied.
The resulting paper, which now appears in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, describes the condition as something of an illusion, where a person’s ability to track their body’s position in space and time has somehow become externalized. In this extraordinary case, the university student claims she can do this whenever she wants — to induce the feeling that she can experience her body moving outside the boundaries of her physical body, while remaining aware of her unmoving physical body.
So, if you’re a neuroscientist studying this particular person, what do you do? You put her in a brain scanner, of course. Writing in ABC News, Gillian Mohney explains more:
[Claude] Messier and his co-author interviewed the student and had her undergo an MRI to see if her brain activity might shed light on her unusual ability.
Messier said the girl first noticed her ability when she was a child and had a hard time going to sleep during naps. To pass the time she would “float” above her body.
“I feel myself moving, or, more accurately, can make myself feel as if I am moving. I know perfectly well that I am not actually moving,” the student told the researchers. “In fact, I am hyper-sensitive to my body at that point, because I am concentrating so hard on the sensation of moving…For example, if I ‘spin’ for long enough, I get dizzy.”
Messier said at some point the student’s brain showed similar activity to that of a high-level athlete who can vividly imagine themselves winning a competition. One difference, however, was that her brain activity was focused on one side, and the athletes usually show activity on both brain hemispheres.
Messier said more study was needed, but he said that this discovery could mean many more people have this ability but find it “unremarkable.” The discovery could be similar to how synesthesia, a mix of multiple senses, was discovered in a wider population.
Alternately, the ability could be something that everyone is able to do as an infant or child, but lose as they get older.
Wild stuff. Typically, this condition happens as the result of an injury, psychological illness, lesions on the brain, or from a drug that induces the illusion. The researchers speculate that this ability might be present in infancy but that it’s lost without regular practice. They also hypothesize that it’s more prevalent in young people… and that it’s a skill that might be developed.