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Out of Body Experience

Have you ever had the sensation that you were somehow outside of your physical body—that you could see yourself, or perhaps float or fly? If so, you’re not alone: a 2007 study investigating this phenomena—known as an “out-of-body experience”—found that about one in ten people report having them when surveyed. Further studies and research have determined that out-of-body experiences tend to be most common during two different occasions: when a person is near death, and when a person is just falling asleep. The Perception of Self When we initially fall asleep, we go from a waking state of consciousness into a light sleep known as Stage 1 NREM (“non-rapid eye movement”) sleep. During this stage, the brain’s activity level is fairly similar to both waking consciousness and REM sleep. While REM sleep is predominantly where the phenomenon known as “dreaming” occurs, it is also capable of occurring in NREM sleep as well—although at a much less frequent rate. The distinction between NREM and REM dreaming is an important one when looking at out-of-body experiences because how we perceive our physical self is different between sleep stages. In REM sleep, our representation of “self” is pretty similar to the one we have during waking consciousness. During NREM dreams, however, our sense of self is much less rigidly defined—making us more primed for an “out-of-self” experience. The Importance of the Arousal System In 2007, a team of researchers at the University of Kentucky found that out-of-body experiences statistically occurred as often during near-death experiences as they did during transitions between sleep and wake. To investigate why this might be, they conducted in-depth interviews with fifty-five people who had suffered a near-death experience. Of this group, they found that those who reported having an out-of-body experience as part of their near-death episode were more likely to suffer from REM intrusion in their sleep. REM intrusion is an arousal disorder which occurs when the brain fails to transition cleanly from REM sleep to wake, but rather transitions into a hybrid state of the two—meaning that a person can become consciously awake while still experiencing some aspects of a dream as well. Most notable among these is sleep paralysis, where a person is unable to move at all due to their muscles being paralyzed, which is typical during REM sleep. This paralysis is also often accompanied by visual or auditory hallucinations during rapid transitions between wake

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and REM sleep. The researchers theorized that some people’s brains may be “primed” for out-of-body experiences due to their arousals systems moving them between wake and sleep much more frequently than normal—or combining the two states into a hybrid state in which hallucinations that could be mistaken for out-of-body experiences were more common.

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