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Sure, I Can Leave My Body; Can’t Everyone?

March 14, 2014
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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I can give myself an out-of-body experience whenever I want. Just like anyone else, right?

That’s basically what a 24-year-old graduate student told University of Ottawa psychology Professor Claude Messier, PhD, after class in 2012. Dr. Messier responded that, um, perhaps her ability wasn’t quite so universal as she thought, and would she mind demonstrating it while receiving a functional MRI brain scan?

Dr. Messier and co-author Andra M. Smith, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the university, last month published a paper about what those scans showed. It has become an Internet sensation, much to Dr. Messier’s surprise:

I knew this would raise some interest, but I’ve been taken aback by how much the Web can raise havoc on these things. This is not really what I expected.

Dr. Messier was quoted earlier this week in by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. The research paper appeared in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

The student reported that she could “experience” floating up from her body and looking down on her unmoving “real” body.  She could undulate as she floated, as if bobbing in ocean waves, or spin on a horizontal axis, like a rotisserie. She developed the ability, she said, at age 4 or 5 when she was bored during nap time at preschool.

“I know perfectly well that I am not actually moving,” she told the researchers. “There is no duality of body and mind when this happens, not really. In fact, I am hypersensitive to my body at that point, because I am concentrating so hard on the sensation of moving.”

The MRI results show activation mostly on the left side of the brain, Dr. Messier said. Usually, he said, both sides of the brain light up when people are imagining something. “The other thing was,” he said, “that the visual cortex, which would normally be activated when you have an image of something that is happening in your head, was deactivated in her case.”

In both the newspaper article and the research paper, Dr. Messier (and his colleague) seemed both fascinated and baffled by the woman’s ability and the brain functions associated with it.

“We’re certainly thinking of a number of things we could do to follow up on that study, if the person is ready to subject herself to more experiments,” he said. “I hope she won’t be too scared by all the attention that her phenomenon has got.”

* * *

Frustration with federal bureaucracy boils over as the director of the U.S. government office that monitors biomedical research misconduct resigns. To learn why he called it “the best and worst job I’ve ever had,” see our Facebook page.

Related CME seminar (up to 21 AMA PRA Category 1 credits™): UCSF Neuro and Musculoskeletal Imaging

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