Can selves leave bodies? How science explains out-of-body experiences

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A conceptual image of a woman meditating in a mystical light.

Dr Jane Aspell, Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Anglia Ruskin University, will discuss fascinating case studies of neurological patients who experience profound changes to their sense of self, body and reality: out of body experiences (OBEs). Most people have heard of OBEs in the context of near-death experiences, but they can also be triggered by a range of different medical conditions and situations, including epilepsy, brain tumours, migraine and traumatic incidents. Someone having an OBE experiences their self to be separate from their own body – to be floating

above it, and they often describe seeing their body lying down beneath them. OBEs have fascinated people for millennia, and written accounts go back over two thousand years, but until recently there has been no scientific explanation for why this phenomenon occurs. Dr Aspell will present recent research on what happens in the brain during OBEs and in related conditions – autoscopic hallucinations and heautoscopy – in which people also see their own ‘body double’. There is now strong evidence that OBEs and related experiences are caused by abnormal functioning in parts of the brain that process and combine signals from our bodies. These studies on neurological patients shed light on how the healthy brain generates the experience of one’s self, and what happens when that construction temporarily goes ‘wrong’.

Dr Jane Aspell is a cognitive neuroscientist and is currently Associate Professor at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) where she is Head of the Self and Body Lab. Before joining ARU in 2011, Jane did postdoctoral research at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, at Goldsmiths College in London, and at the University of Oxford. She completed her PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Newcastle, and for her undergraduate studies, she read Biological Sciences at the University of Oxford.

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