How can I have an out-of-body experience?

By: Jacob Silverman  | 
A woman's consciousness floating above her body.
During an out-of-body experience, your consciousness seems far from your body. sdominick / Getty Images

You may be familiar with the concept of an out-of-body experience (OBE) from movies — or perhaps you've experienced one yourself. For centuries, these strange phenomena have fascinated doctors, scientists, religious scholars and amateur theorists. Generally, OBEs are associated with illness or traumatic incidents, but British and Swiss researchers published studies in the academic journal "Science" in 2007 describing how it may be possible to produce OBEs in healthy people.

The experiments depended on figuring out what makes a person's brain know that they're located within their physical body. Is it primarily the sense of sight or do several senses and other processes have to work together? If a person was able to step outside themself, look around a room and see their own body as an outsider, what would happen? Would they still feel located in their physical body or would their sense of self shift to where their point of view — their "eyes" — was positioned?


To answer these questions, the British researchers at the University College London Institute of Neurology conducted two tests. In the first test, volunteers sat in chairs and wore video displays over their eyes. The display projected images from two cameras located about six feet behind the test subject. Each camera served as an eye, with one projecting on the left side of the display and the other on the right. The effect resulted in the participant seeing one image from a point of view six feet behind their own back.

A researcher then stood in front of the cameras so that they appeared to be next to the participant's "virtual body." From that position, the researcher touched the chests of the subject's real and virtual bodies at the same time with two plastic rods. The result was that the participants felt like they were in their virtual bodies, even though they felt the touch of the rod. Many described the experience as funny or strange.

The second test used sweat sensors to gauge participants' emotional reactions. In view of the cameras, a researcher swung down a hammer at the participant's virtual body. The sensors showed that the participants were afraid they were actually going to be hit with the hammer.

Researchers from Switzerland conducted the third test at the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale. Volunteers were shown one of three 3-D projections: a blackboard, a dummy or the volunteer's own body. Someone then touched the volunteer's back while another person touched the back of the projection with a brush — simultaneously in some cases. The researchers then blindfolded the volunteers, moved them backward and removed the blindfold. When asked to return to where they stood before, people who had had their backs touched simultaneously with the image of their body moved to where the projection had been — not where they originally stood. Those who had observed the dummy or blackboard being touched returned to the proper position.­


The Role of the Physical Body

© Photographer: Sebastian Kaulitzki

In an out-of-body experience, a person sees their body from a vantage point outside their physical self. OBEs are frequently associated with serious illness, accidents, seizures, near-death experiences, traumatic events, and certain mental health conditions.

Several possible explanations exist for why OBEs occur during physical injury, illness, trauma, or in individuals with particular mental health conditions:


  • A lack of oxygen alters brain activity
  • The brain copes with trauma by "leaving" the body, helping a person to survive
  • Stress causes various physical senses, including one's sense of physical self, known as proprioception, to become confused

Some people believe in a spiritual cause or that OBEs can be achieved deliberately, such as through hypnosis. We'll get into the spiritual side of out-of-body experiences later.

So did the British and Swiss experiments produce genuine out-of-body experiences? Both experiments appeared to show that a sense of one's self depends on cooperation between the senses and that experimentation can radically disrupt this linkage. Past experiments have shown that the physical body plays an important role in how a person identifies their "self." Dr. Henrik Ehrsson, the lead researcher on the UCL study, once conducted a study in which the brains of participants were tricked into thinking that a rubber hand was the participant's real hand.

One of the researchers in the Swedish study, Dr. Olaf Blanke, said that their efforts produced something close to an out-of-body experience "but not the entire thing," adding that they were tricking people. Unlike in a genuine out-of-body experience where a person believes that he is actually outside of his body, these participants still recognized the projected image as something "other." Still, the study showed how the brain can be tricked and how sensing one's own body can have a powerful influence on sense of self and physical location.

Dr. Ehrsson believes his experiments produced authentic OBEs. He claimed that the study was the first of its kind to produce OBEs in healthy people. The study was also particularly important, he said, for its use of multisensory techniques and for establishing the physical self as a basis of consciousness. He added that "projecting" oneself onto a virtual body could have wide-ranging applications in producing more authentic virtual reality and video game simulations or in improving remotely performed surgeries.

Sleep paralysis occurs when a person is falling asleep or awakening, characterized by a temporary inability to move or speak. During this phenomenon, often linked to the REM sleep stage, individuals might experience hallucinations or pressure sensations. Some people report out-of-body experiences or lucid dreaming during sleep paralysis, where they are aware and can control their dreams or feel as though they're floating outside their bodies, observing from an external viewpoint.

The concept of astral bodies is often discussed in the context of out-of-body experiences. The astral body, according to some spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, is a non-physical counterpart to the physical human body, capable of traveling or projecting to distant locations. During astral projection, a person's consciousness is said to leave the physical body, allowing the individual to observe their physical form from a distance or visit distant locations unreachable by normal means. Understanding these concepts alongside scientific explanations of OBEs provides a broader perspective on the various experiences individuals report.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


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  • "Out-of-body experiences at UCL". UCL News. Aug. 24, 2007.
  • Coghlan, Andy. "Out-of-body experiences are 'all in the mind'". NewScientist. Aug. 23, 2007.
  • "That's not my hand! How the brain can be fooled into feeling a fake limb". UCL. July 2, 2004.
  • O'Brien, Dennis. "Out-of-body experiences simulated" Baltimore Sun. Aug. 24, 2007.
  • "Sleep Paralysis". Cleveland Clinic. Oct. 18, 2021.
  • Kaur Sarai, Harsimran. "The in-between: lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis". I, Science.