Psychologists at The University of Manchester are investigating the idea that out-of-body experiences, commonly thought of as paranormal phenomena, may in fact have their roots in how people perceive and experience their own bodies.
Around 10% of the population have an out-of-body experience (OBE) at some time, typically involving a sensation of floating and seeing the physical body from the outside. It isn't uncommon for people to have more than one OBE, and they may also occur as part of the wider near-death experience some report experiencing in life-threatening circumstances.
Despite the high incidence of OBEs however, there is still a great deal scientists don't know about the phenomenon.
The University of Manchester study, funded by the Portuguese Bial Foundation which supports the scientific study of the physical and spiritual nature of Man, will use an online questionnaire on body perceptions and experience to examine differences between those who have and have not experienced OBEs. The survey will also gather details on the different kinds of OBEs people have, to categorise these experiences more precisely.
David Wilde, the researcher running the project, said, "There are several theories as to why people have OBEs. A common link between them is the idea that in certain circumstances the brain somehow loses touch with sensory information coming in from the body. This triggers a series of psychological mechanisms which can lead to someone having an OBE.
"In this study we aim to take the theory a stage further, by looking at the way people see and experience their bodies, and how - through perfectly ordinary psychological processes - these images and experiences may create the impression of seeing their bodies from the outside."
The research team hopes to capture data from at least 500 members of the public from anywhere in the world. Both people who have had an OBE and those who have not are encouraged to take part.
The survey can be seen at www.freeresponse.org/muobe2005/index.aspx and will be linked to from parapsychology websites across the world. It will be available for the next six weeks, and a summary of the results, which should contribute substantially to psychologists' understanding of the phenomenon, will be posted to the site in the autumn.
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