Controversial Theories Reveal What Actually Happens When You Have an Out-of-Body Experience

There’s much to learn about out-of-body experiences. The exact cause of the strange phenomenon is still unknown. However, we know more about out-of-body experiences thanks to studies. Ahead, learn what scientists really think happens when someone has an out-of-body experience.

What is an out-of-body experience

Great egrets and American avocets

Do you ever feel like you are watching yourself from above? | OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images

Out-of-body experiences “often involve the sense of floating above one’s actual body and looking down,” the Atlantic says. Imagine being a bird watching yourself below. That’s how people describe out-of-body experiences. What scientists know about out-of-body experiences could be concerning for those who experience the phenomenon. Scientific research suggests underlying health issues are the root cause of such an experience.

What the experience means for one’s health

Woman measuring her belly fat with her hands

Most people who have an out-of-body experience are considered unhealthy. | iStock.com/JaoNgoh

In a study conducted by Christophe Lopez, a neuroscientist, and Dr. Maya Elzière, findings point to inner ear problems. Elzière and Lopez find unhealthy participants experience more out-of-body experiences, according to the Atlantic. The unhealthy patients report having dizziness among other symptoms. “Of 210 patients who reported dizziness, 14 percent said they have had out-of-body experiences.”

The purpose of the vestibular system

Woman holds her hand near ear

Underlying ear issues may be the cause of your out-of-body experiences. | iStock.com

Neuroscientists believe the vestibular systems has to do with out-of-body experiences, the Atlantic says. The vestibular system is “made up of canals in the inner ear that track a person’s locations in space — and how that information gets integrated with other senses in the brain.” An unhealthy inner ear, where the vestibular system is located, may cause symptoms described by participants in Lopez and Elzière’s study.

What happens when the vestibular system is bad

Brain lobes in different colors

You don’t want to send mixed signals to your brain. | iStock.com/alex-mit

Here’s what happens with a bad vestibular system. In short, the human body is getting mixed signals. “If you are sending the wrong signals to your brain about your motion, it creates confusion — your brain has to make sense of conflicting information,” Lopez told Live Science. “We think the conflicting signals create a kind of central incoherence, and that creates distortions in the sense of your body and the environment around you,” Lopez added.

Inner ear problems and the vestibular system

Man taking in a deep breath

Your inner eat has a lot to do with how you see and view things. | iStock.com

Elzière and Lopez’s study connects the vestibular system to out-of-body experiences. Their findings suggest “that problems with the vestibular system were a factor in creating the odd sensations,” Lopez told Scientific American. Although others in the scientific community are unsure. “I don’t think it’s the only explanation for out-of-body experiences,” Terence Hines, a psychology professor at Pace University, told the publication. “But we know that this part of the inner ear plays a role in how we orient ourselves in our bodies, so if something is wrong there, things can go kind of haywire,” Hines added.

What MRI scans tell us about out-of-body experiences

MRI brain scan

An MRI can help explain out-of-body experiences. | iStock.com/Movus

In another experiment, Dr. Arvid Guterstam, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, uses an MRI scanner to assess a participant’s brain. Guterstam and fellow researchers simulate an out-of-body experience and study the participant’s reaction to the stimulus. Findings indicate the hippocampus area of the brain helps one to determine where their body is located.

This area of the brain plays a major role

3D image of a brain

Take special care of your noggin. | iStock.com

Another key finding in Dr. Guterstam’s study relates to the key posterior cingulate cortex area of the brain. This section of the brain “is what binds together the feeling of where the self is located with the feeling of owning a body,” Live Science says. “A very basic experience that most of us take for granted in everyday life,” is feeling ownership of one’s body, Dr. Guterstam writes in the journal, Current Biology.

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