What do out of body experiences tell us about self-consciousness; Or, Disorders of Self-Consciousness Part 5

Another attempt at popularising my work from over at idontknowwhatiam

“I awoke at night – it must have been about 3am – and realized that I was completely unable to move. I was absolutely certain I was not dreaming, as I was enjoying full consciousness. Filled with fear about my condition I only had one goal, namely, being able to move my body again. I concentrated all my will power and tried to roll over to one side: something rolled, but not my body – something that was me, my whole consciousness, including all of its sensations. I rolled onto the floor beside the bed. While this happened, I did not feel bodiless, but as if my body consisted of a substance constituted of a mixture between gaseous and liquid states. To the present day I have never forgotten the combination of amazement and great surprise which gripped me while I felt myself falling onto the floor, but the expected hard bounce never took place. Actually had the movement unfolded in my normal body, my head would have had to collide with the edge of my bedside table. Lying on the floor, I was seized by terrible fear and panic. I knew that I possessed a body, and I only had one great desire – to be able to control it again. With a sudden jolt I regained control, without knowing how I managed to get back to it” (Metzinger, 2003, p. 491; translated from Waelti, E., 1983 by Thomas Metzinger).

“After running approximately 12-13 miles… I started to feel as if I wasn’t looking through my eyes but from somewhere else… I felt as if something was leaving my body, and although I was still running along looking at the scenery, I was looking at myself running as well. My “soul” or whatever, was floating somewhere above my body high enough up to see the tops of the trees and small hills” (Alvarado, 2000, p. 184).

These are out of body experiences (or OBE). They are short lived experiences which occur in a variety of contexts, most commonly when lying down (Zingrone, Alvarado, & Cardeña, 2010), especially during sleep paralysis (Cheyne & Girard, 2009; Girard & Cheyne, 2004) but also during epileptic seizures (Devinsky, Feldmann, Burrowes, & Bromfield, 1989), during physical trauma  and in plenty of other contexts, including use of some recreational drugs. Like all odd experiences, especially those which not all of us share, it’s very difficult to define such experiences — neither is it clear that defining experiences is a particularly productive. But, I’d like to give you some sense of the broader set of experiences which I’m going to be talking about; so let me point to a central feature that all OBEs share. An OBE is any experience in which the subject (i.e. the person having the experience) feels like they are spatially separate from their body. This can involve an experience of seeing their body, but this is not universally the case (Blackmore, 1984).

Apart from being intrinsically fascinating such experiences tell us something about consciousness in general, but also about self-consciousness in particular. It is this later implication which I wish to focus on today. Specifically the way in which the self is experienced during OBEs highlights some aspects of self-consciousness which are easily overlooked by merely reflecting on our own experiences, in particular it highlights that there are two particularly “selfy” ways in which we experience our own bodies.

The first striking thing about OBEs is that during the experience the subject’s “real” self seems to be external to their body. I find this really weird, when I experience myself I always experience myself as within my body – just behind my eyes, I’m just unlucky I suppose. What’s more, in those cases where the subject does see their body they know that it is their own body they see – even when it doesn’t particularly look like their body (Blanke, Ortigue, Landis, & Seeck, 2002).

Taken at face value then, we might think that OBEs tell us that there are two types of experience that need to be explained by a theory of self-consciousness. Simplistically i) the experience of one’s mind and point of view – the “real” or “essential” self and ii) the experience of the body as the thing which usually houses this “real” self.  Thus, quick reflection on OBEs suggests an experiential basis for a particularly Western notion of the self as a mental entity (temporarily) housed within a body. Indeed Cheyne and Girard (2009) have suggested that the distinction between these experiences gives rise to this view, which they call “common sense dualism”. Metzinger (2005) has even suggested that OBEs themselves are the origin of our concept of a “soul”.

It is a mistake, however, to think that these are the kinds of self-conscious experiences we should be aiming to explain. If we take a closer look at OBEs then it begins to look as though i and ii do not accurately describe experience of the self.

For one thing, the mind or point of view is not always experienced as the “real” self. Sometimes, it is the body which feels as though it is the “real” self. This occurs in related experiences called ‘heautoscopy’[1]. Here are some classic reports of heautoscopy:

“Quite suddenly every-thing seems strange, and people’s voices become very faint. I feel that my head is dividing into two. The second head seems to flow off my normal head, and to take up a position a little behind and to the right of it. This ‘astral’ head appears in the form of a vague, misty shape with a black outline. I feel that it is the detached head that contains my mind” (Todd, 1955, p. 702).


“I become aware of an invisible double stationed a yard away on my left. This shadowy double seems to contain my mind” (Todd, 1955, p. 703).

In these cases the subject is reporting an experience in which a second body seems to contain the mind, whilst the “real” self appears to remain with the real body. So it seems that i is wrong.

For another thing, during an OBE subjects do not always experience their point of view or mind as independent from a body. Quite often (Blackmore, 1984) they experience two distinct bodies, one of which is seen (prototypically around the place where the real body is) and the other which is felt to be spatially separate from the real body and to contain the subject’s point of view. Indeed the very first example quoted above seems like this.

So then, this is what I think OBEs suggest needs to be explained by a theory of self-consciousness. A) The experience of being a mental entity, with a point of view, this commonly seems to be the “real” self, but sometimes this will conflict with B) the experience of being a bodily entity and C) The experience of the body as one’s own body, which typically is identical with the body in B – although they dissociate in OBEs – and which typically contains the mind and point of view – although they dissociate in OBEs.

All in all then, the very complexity of these contents is making explaining how they get fixed a very challenging task.

For my argument that the complexity of self-consciousness in OBEs is often underappreciated plus some more on how to redescribe the OBEs in light of these complexities see:

(in press) “Who am I in Out of Body Experiences? Implications from OBEs for the explanandum of a theory of self-consciousness” in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

For how to explain what I’ve labelled above as experience B see:

(2013) “Toward a Cognitive Model of the Sense of Embodiment in a (Rubber) Hand” in Journal of Consciousness Studies 20(3-4) pp. 33-60

(2009) “Is the Body Schema Sufficient for the Sense of Embodiment? An Alternative to de Vignemont’s Model” in Philosophical Psychology 22(2) pp.123-142

(2008) “Reply to Tsakiris and Fotopoulou ‘Is my body the sum of online and offline body representations’” in Consciousness and Cognition 17 pp..1321-1323

(2008) “Types of Body Representation and the Sense of Embodiment” in Consciousness and Cognition 17 pp.1302-1316

With love, DrNPC


Alvarado, C. S. (2000). Out-of-body experiences. In E. Carde, S. J. Lynn, & S. Krippner (Eds.), Varieties of anomalous experience:  Examining the scientific evidence (pp. 183–218). Washington,  DC,  US: American Psychological Association.

Blackmore, S. J. (1984). A postal survey of OBEs and other experiences. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 52(796), 225–244.

Blanke, O., Ortigue, S., Landis, T., & Seeck, M. (2002). Stimulating illusory own-body perceptions. Nature, 419(6904), 269–270.

Cheyne, J. A., & Girard, T. A. (2009). The body unbound: Vestibular–motor hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. Cortex, 45(2), 201.

Devinsky, O., Feldmann, E., Burrowes, K., & Bromfield, E. (1989). Autoscopic phenomena with seizures. Archives of Neurology, 46(10), 1080.

Girard, T., & Cheyne, J. (2004). Spatial characteristics of hallucinations associated with sleep paralysis. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 9(4), 281–300.

Metzinger, T. (2003). Being No One: The Self Model Theory of Subjectivity. MIT Press.

Metzinger, T. (2005). Out-of-Body Experiences as the Origin of the Concept of a’Soul’. Mind and Matter, 3(1), 57–84.

Todd, J. (1955). The Syndrome of Alice in Wonderland. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 73(9), 701–704.

Waelti, E. (1983). Der dritte Kreis des Wissens. Interlaken: Ansata.

Zingrone, N. L., Alvarado, C. S., & Cardeña, E. (2010). Out-of-Body Experiences and Physical Body Activity and Posture. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 198(2), 163–165. doi:10.1097/NMD.0b013e3181cc0d6d




[1] Yes, plenty have people have complained about the word ‘heautoscopy’ – though to my mind it isn’t nearly as bad as ‘diaphanousness’.

One comment

  1. I would advocate thinking about these phenomena in a less mystical — or perhaps less philosophical — way. It seems to me that the data are telling us three things:

    1) Our brains contain a system for tracking our location, by combining information from sensory inputs, movement signals generated by the vestibular system, and intended-movement signals generated by the motor system. Studies in animals have established the existence of such a system and told us quite a bit about how it works.

    2) It is likely that the usual reference point for personal location lies midway between the ears. What is special about that point is that it lies midway between the two semicircular canals, so a rotation around it generates equal and opposite signals in the two canals, i.e., zero net motion.

    3) The brain contains a system that transforms the mental representation of the environment so that it appears from the perspective of the personal location reference point. When errors in integration cause the computed reference point to move outside the head, strange experiences result, including a perception of seeing one’s own body.

    It doesn’t seem to me that talking about the “real self” is helpful in understanding these phenomena.

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