Man with schizophrenia has out-of-body experience in lab, gains knowledge, controls his psychosis

By Ed Yong | October 31, 2011 5:00 pm

RM had his first out-of-body experience at the age of 16. Now, at the age of 55, he has had more than he can count. They usually happen just before he falls asleep; for ten minutes, he feels like he is floating above his body, looking down on himself. If the same thing happens when he’s awake, it’s a far less tranquil story. The sense of displacement is stronger – his real body feels like a marionette, while he feels like a puppeteer. His feelings of elevation soon change into religious delusions, in which he imagines himself talking to angels and demons. Psychotic episodes follow. After four or five days, RM is hospitalised.

This has happened between 15 to 20 times, ever since RM was first diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 23. He hears voices, and he suffers from hallucinations and delusions. Despite these problems, he managed to hold down a job as a reporter until 2002 and more recently, he has been working in restaurants and volunteering as an archivist. Then, about a year ago, he took part in a study that seems to have changed his life.

For around a decade, RM has taken part in several studies designed by Sohee Park, a neuroscientist from Vanderbilt University who works on schizophrenia. “He’s a very interesting guy,” says Park. “He has very deep insight into his condition.”

Park’s student Katharine Thakkar was testing the idea that people experience psychotic experiences because they have a weak sense of self. It’s an idea that others have suggested before but it seems like something that would be hard to test with experiments.  But not so: over the last decade, psychologists have shown that our sense of self is far from the fixed, permanent feeling that we assume it is. Instead, it is disarmingly pliable. You can tweak it. You can study it. Our brain continuously constructs our sense of self using information from our eyes, skin and joints. By tweaking that information using simple illusions, scientists have warped and displaced our sense of self in the lab.

The most famous of these – the rubber-hand illusion – debuted as a party trick at a Halloween bash. Princeton scientists stroked a rubber hand in time with someone’s real hand, which was hidden out of sight. A few seconds later, the volunteer genuinely felt that they owned the rubber hand. Since then, scientists like Henrik Ehrsson have taken the illusion to new extremes, convincing people that they have gained a third arm, jumped into a mannequin or left their own bodies. But the rubber hand illusion is still proving useful.

Thakkar performed the trick on 24 people with schizophrenia, including RM, and asked them to describe their experiences on a questionnaire. Their answers revealed that they experienced the illusion more strongly that 21 people of a similar age and background, but who didn’t have schizophrenia.

Not taking their word for it, Thakkar tested for other signs that people had bought into the illusion: a feeling that their fingers had moved, and a drop in the temperature of their real hand. She found both, and to a stronger extent in people with schizophrenia than in those without. The results suggest that schizophrenia is accompanied by a weaker or more flexible sense of body ownership than usual. Indeed, Thakkar found that people who experienced the most severe hallucinations (and some delusions) also felt the rubber-hand illusion most strongly.

But even among the group with schizophrenia, RM stuck out. The synchronous stroking didn’t just convince him that he had a rubber hand – it brought about one of his full-on out-of-body experiences. He felt that he and Thakkar were both levitating a foot off the floor: back to the ceiling, turning in a circle, and watching themselves on their chairs. The effect lasted for a few minutes, before they landed again. Others have duplicated this effect in the lab, but with more complicated set-ups involving cameras and virtual reality headsets. The rubber hand illusion shouldn’t do anything quite that dramatic.

RM was worried that a psychotic episode was on the horizon, but Park’s team had no idea about his history and he didn’t mention it. “We were so excited when it happened the first time, and he’s very helpful,” says Park. When they asked him to come back and repeat the experiment, he agreed.  He wanted to know more too.

When he returned, Thakkar duplicated the same experience and this time, RM actually found the experience to be quite pleasant and wanted the feeling to come back. That was when he told the scientists about his history. “We got really worried, because we’d just induced these twice!” recalls Park. But she didn’t need to worry.

After the experiment, RM wanted to know more, so Thakkar plied him with information and journal articles about out-of-body experiences. He learned that the phenomenon had a name. He learned that scientists could willingly duplicate the effect in a lab. He learned that they had identified parts of the brain that are associated with the experiences. The information was revelatory. “He gained a psychological cause for this apparently supernatural phenomenon,” says Park, “and he has used this knowledge to control his symptoms.” Since then, RM hasn’t had a psychotic episode.

This approach almost certainly won’t work for everyone – bear in mind that RM is high-functioning and self-aware. He is very eloquent and has an IQ of 120. Park notes that similar explanations might also help other people with unusual experiences like out-of-body effects, since these could exacerbate the other symptoms of schizophrenia. “If it feels supernatural, that just feeds into the delusions,” she says.

The study has broader implications for helping people with schizophrenia. Activities that promote a stronger sense of body awareness, such as yoga, dance or playing a musical instrument, might help to alleviate some of the symptoms of schizophrenia.

But for RM, it seems that learning more about his condition was enough. A year on, his diagnosis is unchanged, he still gets out-of-body experiences, and he still hears voices. But gone are the days when his experiences would require a stay in a hospital. He is now hoping to establish himself as a freelance writer, and he’s even had a paper on religion accepted in a peer-reviewed academic journal. For him, knowledge has proven to be a potent treatment. “We check up with him regularly and he’s been doing really well,“ says Park.

Reference: Thakkar, Nichols, McIntosh & Park. 2011. Disturbances in body ownership in schizophrenia: evidence from the rubber hand illusion and case study of a spontaneous out-of-body experience.

Comments (21)

  1. This sounds like the plot of Insidious but with a happy ending. And none of the paranormal BS.

  2. Jeffrey M. Schwartz worked with patients with O.C.D., and talks about it in his book, “The Mind and the Brain”. It’s this mental detachment, this knowing that perhaps in RM’s case, it is not truly him…his true self, but his “broken brain” (my paraphrase) that is causing the illusion. Schwartz’s patients were able to move beyond their “feeling brain’ in which “broken wiring” caused feelings of unease unless the compulsions were satisfied to use their “rational brain” which told them that the feelling weren’t real.

    I’ve paraphrased and cut short considerably Schwartz’s ideas, but this was how I interpreted what he wrote. All of us have the ability to superimpose reality over broken (ie, mental illness) pathways in our brains by using our rational minds.

  3. John Weiss

    Well use, maybe some schizophrenics are able to superimpose reality over a ‘broken’ brain. My late brother in law? No. His condition was so profound that drugs were the only answer for him. He’d have brief times of lucidity but they never lasted very long. Poor guy.

  4. Luna_the_cat

    I’ve seen suggestions in the past that the more intelligent schizophrenia-sufferers can hold off a degree of behavioural “damage” from hallucinatory experiences by simply understanding (and consciously reinforcing the knowledge) that they ARE hallucinations. I’d never heard of anyone being able to go that far with an appropriate understanding. That’s fantastic.

  5. This is amazing–what a change just because of receiving information. It’s as amazing as if he really was able to float in the air. Imagine, not having to be hospitalized because he understands things differently.

  6. And to add to what John Weiss said, I should note that RM is still using drugs to treat his condition. In Park’s words, if he stopped taking them, “it would NOT be good”. The extra knowledge is helping him to avoid a psychotic episode but he still largely bears the burden of the condition.

    Also, I want to highlight Park’s quote about the unusual nature of the experience feeding the delusions. That’s important. If he has an out-of-body experience, which *feels* supernatural, and he’s also hearing the voices of angels and demons… you can see how those two things would feed off one another.

  7. Thanks. A fascinating article. I’m a fan of Thomas Metzinger a philosopher who works on theories of self-consciousness that include these kinds of studies (I think he’s worked with Olaf Blanke as well).

    One of the spinoffs from having an OBE is a belief in the possibility of disembodied consciousness – ontological dualism. Metzinger has suggested that this has contributed to the idea of a soul which is distinct from the body. What this research shows however is that these experiences are intimately connected with the brain. We can also note that the OBE is entirely subjective – the observers notice nothing.

  8. I actually interviewed Metzinger for a feature I’m writing and he made very similar points.

  9. Interesting. Speaking of the sense of self in schizophrenia, I think it was Sandor Rado who first came up with the idea that the condition is linked to disordered proprioception.

  10. Denise

    Some of these consciousness studies need to be careful that they are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. During brain surgery, doctors can send an electric impulse into the auditory part of the brain and cause the patient to hear Beethoven’s Fifth. Does this mean that Beethoven’s Fifth does not really exist? You can have a hallucination of smelling roses, but that doesn’t mean roses are imaginary. Just because you can induce a hallucination or an out-of-body experience or the feeling of a deity’s presence does NOT ipso facto prove that those things are never real.

  11. Geack

    @ Denise,

    There is independent evidence that classical music and roses exist outside the study subject’s brain. It’s the sensations which the subjects’ brains interpret as real experiences, but which don’t correspond to any observable physical reality, which are being tested and discussed here.

  12. vel

    Denise, showing that such things can be simply products of the brain sure shows that there’s a very very good chance that a deity doesn’t exist since there is nothing else to support that they do.

  13. Alright, enough now. There are few discussions more tedious than “Is there a deity or not?” and plenty of other places in the Internet to have it.

  14. JonDoe

    This is such an interesting discovery, thank you for sharing this article. A few questions:
    -Did the researchers ask explicit questions regarding the mental health history/background of the participants (specific questions re: schizophrenia) in the recruitment stage for this study; and,
    -could this discovery be useful for those who are diagnosed with schizo-effective disorder and have OBEs; and,
    -how can this discovery be “harnessed” and useful for those who are not high-functioning schizophrenics, though highly intelligent, like those within the homeless population?

  15. Flávio Lima

    I didn’t get it… is this man considered to be schizophrenic for having out of body experiences (and the attending allucinations), or has he a more serious condition that makes his social life difficult? I have out of body experiences all the time, with the attending “allucinations”, but I never considered myself to be schizophrenic… all I’ve done since they have began was to practice meditation and consider that mind and body are probably, after all, separate entities. And I’m doing just fine this way. Sorry if that might hurt some sensibilities, but that seems to me a much more healthier way of understanding those things.

  16. Cmdr. Awesome

    @15:
    If I read this article correctly, the OOBE that RM experiences are a symptom of his particular schizophrenia. That does not at all imply that everyone who has OOBEs is schizophrenic; i.e. if A then B does not imply if B then A.

    As for meditation and altering your view of your existence being healthier – if they work for you, fantastic. That does not, however, mean that they are the best way of handling this particular issue for everyone. RM, for instance, may find that to be unsatisfactory in comparison to learning what, exactly, was going on in his brain.

    In other words, if the shoe fits – wear it and be happy about it, but don’t try to shove that shoe onto someone else.

  17. Cmdr. Awesome is aptly named.

  18. http://incorrectpleasures.blogspot.com/2010/04/jani-schofield-im-sorry-that-ill-have.html

    A woman, a synthete, wonders whether schizophrenia is a form of synthenesia which she lives with, enjoys, and finds relatively benign. In this link, she discusses whether a child who is being drugged into oblivion for schizophrenia might be a synthete.

    If you actually enjoy your mental difference, should you be considered mentally ill?

    If those around you freak out when you tell them “what’s on your mind” you probably would begin to see it as an evil entity.

    (My name isn’t religious. It’s just what my father used to tell me all the time.)

  19. Bastet

    I enjoyed the discussion of the rational self and the mental illness feeling like a separate entity. I am a highly intelligent and functional individual who suffered from mild depression for many years, until my own coping methods failed and it turned severe. The medication was a revelation and after a year I went off it and was essentially cured. During adolescence and my 20′s it was a constant mental battle to stave off this other creature who was not me, I was always at war with myself and hated the fact that there was never any actual reason for feeling the way I did.
    I too, read extensively about my condition and tried all the other suggested non-medical treatments, but in the end, being able to accept it as a real disease myself gave me the courage to seek medication. I only wish I’d done it sooner.

    I’ve often imagined that that is why many other people give in to alcohol and narcotics.

  20. Dan

    I had a few short-lived OObs every second month now since beginning of this year and have even managed to induce some at will. A facinating experience indeed: no drugs, no trauma, simply sinking into trance and staying there between your conscious and unconscious state. In the longest episode I experienced physical sensations; could hear very well the ambient sounds and my voice coming from these “mental” 3D projections and witnessed astounding scenery, galaxies, met other people, all this with vivid colors and flight journeys through whatever mental environment I wanted to project.

    I have described in writing my most vivid episode right after awakening from it and will create a Youtube video of what I actually “saw” in that episode, with full description of sensations and events for those interested and/or researching the matter.

    My interest is tapping the brain through technology in order to share virtual environments, so OOBs have definitely confirmed to me that triggering body sensory reaction (without ever lifting a limb) during virtual-world immersions is not only possible, but if misused could be life-threatening. The only missing link now is developing the tech to join brains together. Youtube channel is Media4TheMind. – Dan (Canada)

  21. Steve

    The first paragraph of the article very closely describes a DMT experience. Except the DMT experience only lasts 15 minutes.

    I guess to a hammer, everything is a nail.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Not Exactly Rocket Science

Dive into the awe-inspiring, beautiful and quirky world of science news with award-winning writer Ed Yong. No previous experience required.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »