Can Science Shed Light On Film's 'Out-Of-Body' Plot?


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In the new movie "If I Stay," which opened over the weekend and is based on Gayle Forman’s young adult novel, the teenage character Mia (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) seemingly has it all: a great family, a cute boyfriend, and a promising future as a cellist. But tragedy strikes and poor Mia suffers a bewildering, angst-ridden (not to mention terrifying) out-of-body experience.

Regardless of what comes of Mia’s fate (you’ll have to see the film to find out) some moviegoers may get to wondering about out-of-body experiences. What are they? And, are they even real? Good questions!

While official statistics are hard to come by, anecdotal reports of out-of-body-experiences, also called astral projections, have existed for decades. The phenomenon is often associated with near-death experiences or when psychoactive-drugs are involved. In other cases, sensory deprivation (e.g., high-altitude mountain climbing), the loss of a limb, or a stroke (lack of blood flow to the brain) can each cause out-of-body-like sensations.

There are even people out there who claim they can induce out-of-body experiences at will, without drugs. “Simply put, an out-of-body experience is an experience in which you seem to be consciously apart from your physical body,” writes Robert Peterson, author of “Out Of Body Experiences: How to Have Them and What to Expect."

Peterson, who claims to have had many such episodes, has written extensively on the subject. In one chapter of his book, he shares step-by-step instructions on how to achieve an out-of-body-experience. Tips range from listening to certain songs ("Backwards Traveler" by Paul McCartney is one of the suggested tunes); attempting the experience in the morning after you've woken up without an alarm clock; and visualizing a small object, such as a small cube. “Of course, I can't guarantee positive results,” Peterson cautions in his book. “Your success depends on the amount of effort you put forth.”

Regardless of Peterson's abilities, skeptics may be unconvinced. So what does science have to say on the matter? Quite a lot, actually. Advances in technology within the field of neuroscience have helped researchers begin to make sense of what was once considered a freaky paranormal occurrence.  

Claude Messier of the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa in Canada studies how the brain works and has attempted to analyze an out-of-body experience in a 24-year-old graduate student who claimed that she could induce one at will.

Messier (along with colleague Andra Smith) published the findings, titled “Voluntary Out-of-Body Experience: An fMRI Study” in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience earlier this year.

According to the paper, the subject told the researchers “she was able to see herself rotating in the air above her body, lying flat, and rolling along with the horizontal plane. She reported sometimes watching herself move from above but remained aware of her unmoving ‘real’ body.”

Messier and Smith used a scanning technique known as fMRI to measure activity in different parts of the young woman’s brain during a self-induced out-of-body experience.

The findings appear to give some credence to her claims. Though she remained completely still during the test, the brain scans showed activity in areas of her brain that would typically be active only if she were moving, according to Messier.

But what was actually going on? Messier said that "out-of-body experiences are real ... but that it depends how you define it."

The impression of being outside your body or seeing your body from above “is an illusion – albeit for some people, a very lifelike one,” he told Yahoo Health.

Messier pointed out that people can fly and do other impossible things in their dreams, so the brain is definitely capable of creating strange visions and sensations. He said he believes that “the out-of-body experience is just a special illusion that happens when awake,” and “there is no implication of mental illness.”

And that's good news for many of the people who have written to him noting that they are not very happy with their abilities: Some reported that the experience was scary or that they worried that they were going mad. “They appeared reassured that the out-of-body experience could have a logical and benign explanation,” he said.

Messier emphasized that more research is needed, but he said that other researchers (Henrik Ehrsson and Olaf Blanke) have used virtual reality to induce mild versions of out-of-body experiences.