The out-of body experience: precipitating factors and neural correlates
Out-of-body experiences (OBEs) are defined as experiences in which a person seems to be awake and sees his body and the world from a location outside his physical body. More precisely, they can be defined by the presence of the following three phenomenological characteristics: (i) disembodiment (location of the self outside one's body); (ii) the impression of seeing the world from an elevated and distanced visuo-spatial perspective (extracorporeal, but egocentric visuo-spatial perspective); and (iii) the impression of seeing one's own body (autoscopy) from this perspective. OBEs have fascinated mankind from time immemorial and are abundant in folklore, mythology, and spiritual experiences of most ancient and modern societies. Here, we review some of the classical precipitating factors of OBEs such as sleep, drug abuse, and general anesthesia as well as their neurobiology and compare them with recent findings on neurological and neurocognitive mechanisms of OBEs. The reviewed data suggest that OBEs are due to functional disintegration of lower-level multisensory processing and abnormal higher-level self-processing at the temporo-parietal junction. We argue that the experimental investigation of the interactions between these multisensory and cognitive mechanisms in OBEs and related illusions in combination with neuroimaging and behavioral techniques might further our understanding of the central mechanisms of corporal awareness and self-consciousness much as previous research about the neural bases of complex body part illusions such as phantom limbs has done.